Mc Laren star’s new attitude towards his F1 dream

In little more than a year, Pato O’Ward went from Red Bull F1 junior programme reject – in ridiculous fashion – to IndyCar star and future F1 tester with McLaren.

The fact he’s being trusted with $10 million Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 cars reflects the regard he is held in at McLaren, but his approach to driving that car perhaps reflects a new or modified attitude O’Ward has towards his chances of making it to F1.

When he won the Texas IndyCar race in 2021, as part of a bet with Zak Brown he would get to test McLaren machinery in Abu Dhabi at the end of the year. It completed a whirlwind turnaround in fortune for the driver who was promised so much in the past, but dare he dream this time it would be a reality?

Complications around the end of last year and the beginning of this one surrounding O’Ward’s future contract put a damper on a test where he probably wasn’t physically prepared enough for F1 – see comments about his neck being destroyed – and he’d probably admit now he allowed himself to get caught up in the narrative that an F1 future was possible before it was realistic.

Asked by The Race about how he’s balancing his IndyCar career with keeping his foot in the door with F1, O’Ward says: “Step by step, I guess! Yeah, step by step.

“And it’s important not to get too ahead of yourself. And it’s hard not to – very hard not to.

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“But it’s also very important to enjoy where you’re at, enjoy the moment, enjoy the present, and maximise it.

“And I feel like with doing so, doors will open and things will align. If I keep doing my job properly and keep performing.”

O’Ward’s contract dispute with McLaren turned messy and clouded the first part of the year until things began to turn around in April, and at the Long Beach race in IndyCar O’Ward used a hotel room discussion with his cousin to establish a new attitude which can be over simplified for explanation purposes as ‘you can only focus on what you can control, everything else is out of your hands and will fall into place’.

Targeting a proper off-season and spending time with his family is a top priority for O’Ward as he felt like the business of last year’s post IndyCar season activities left him jaded by the time the season came around in February alongside his contract dispute that dragged on.

With a new contract in May, he found a new level and only reliability issues halted a title campaign that featured him qualifying in IndyCar’s Fast Six on every single road course this year.

Sorting his contract, focusing on things he could control and ensuring time for himself away from the track all helped construct this new mentality, or at least, approach.

Now O’Ward faces the complication of 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou coming into the fold and testing at McLaren as the pair shared F1 tests in Barcelona and Austria last month, with Palou taking the first FP1 opportunity and running less than three tenths off Lando Norris on comparable tyres at COTA.

But O’Ward’s revised attitude – plus what appears to be the inherent belief he can take on and beat Palou on a level playing field – means F1 opportunities are a bonus as opposed to a key part of his immediate goals.

“After I’m done with the FP1 I’ll be able to relate a little bit more what it feels like but I’m just so grateful for the opportunity,” adds O’Ward.

“And I want to be a sponge, just absorb everything that I’m learning and continue to learn. And just keep improving – help the team and just never forget to enjoy it because that’s the most important thing.”

‘Enjoying it’ is a phrase that can certainly be used to describe O’Ward’s opinion of driving the Senna McLaren MP4/5B at Laguna Seca last month.

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Even if that came with pressure – Brown made sure O”Ward knew the car’s $10 million value just as he was getting in the car to take it for a spin – the enjoyment and care-free attitude O’Ward approached the historic test in is the perfect metaphor for the new mental space he’s approaching his contemporary F1 opportunities with.

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