LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Zak Brown, decked out in the papaya colors of McLaren Racing, made his first appearance at an IndyCar race this season and began Friday by unveiling a series of special liveries for the Indianapolis 500.
Then the head of McLaren’s global multi-series motorsports program dashed through the Long Beach Grand Prix paddock – the Los Angeles native’s home track – to drive a 1980 Williams FW07 in preparation for the Historic F1 Challenge race this weekend.
Back and forth all weekend – car to car, meeting to meeting – as Brown took advantage of a free weekend in Formula 1 to check on his IndyCar schedule. He was with the McLaren F1 team in the first two IndyCar races of the season, both nearly won by Pato O’Ward.
Instead, O’Ward settled for second place in both the season opener on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Texas Motor Oval. Speedway. Even without the trophies, the strong opener sent O’Ward to Long Beach as the IndyCar points leader headed into Sunday’s race.
It’s a beacon of hope for Brown when he needs the inspiration for the motorsport program the most. The F1 team has been uncompetitive in the first three races: Lando Norris is eighth in the standings and rookie Oscar Piastri is 13th.
But in IndyCar, where Brown expanded the program to three full-time starters this year with the addition of 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, the team is off to a terrific start. Rossi finished fourth in the season opener and is ranked ninth in the standings, while Felix Rosenqvist showed good pace and took pole at Texas but failed to finish the first two races of the season. .
Either way, Brown said the performance in the United States was a boost for the whole company.
“The whole McLaren organization likes the way we race in different series, so it’s really great for morale,” Brown said. “Although we had a slow start in Formula 1, we were competitive in Formula E, and here we were very competitive.
“McLaren is made up of a bunch of racers, so like me, every time they can turn on the TV and see a McLaren up front, they get excited.”
Things are going so well in IndyCar that Brown is now considering adding a fourth full-time entry for 2024. He has scheduled Tony Kanaan to drive a fourth car for McLaren in the Indy 500, and NASCAR star Kyle Larson will do Indy next year for the team under a two-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
But he’s also looking at whether there’s a way to immediately expand and even retain Rosenqvist. The team have already signed Alex Palou for next season, so Rosenqvist knows he is at McLaren unless the team expands.
But even with a fourth car, Brown needs to be consistent to keep Rosenqvist on the roster.
“He has to hang out with Pato and Alex (up front),” Brown said.
Rosenqvist has made it clear he wants to keep his seat at McLaren.
“Results are going to be a key part of what my situation will be,” Rosenqvist said. “Obviously I want to stay with the team. I love the team and I’ve made that clear many times and we’ll see.
When asked what would happen if another team called while McLaren was still deciding if it could expand for next year, Rosenqvist ignored the hypothetical scenario: “Anything can happen. Elephants can start raining from the sky.
As for O’Ward, his fast start to the season was a breakthrough for the young Mexican driver. He started last year angry with Brown over his contract and he was mentally distracted in the first two races of the season. He was still struggling when he arrived in Long Beach and hit the wall in practice, then qualified 11th.
During a conversation with one of his cousins in his hotel room later that night, O’Ward decided to drop the contract situation before throwing away his entire season. That led to a fifth-place finish the following day and then a victory at Barber in the next IndyCar outing.
“I was just pissed off and when you’re in there, it’s never going to go well,” O’Ward said. “Whenever you’re on the edge, the smallest thing is going to push you over the edge, right? You always need that leeway to relax.
“And I guess I was kind of like, ‘What am I doing to myself? I knew how much I was worth and that was a time when I felt like they weren’t on the same page, so that’s when you doubt yourself- even.
O’Ward eventually secured a new contract – with a McLaren to add to his personal vehicle inventory – and won two races. He also finished second in the Indianapolis 500.
Brown says O’Ward’s upward trajectory began on race day in Long Beach a year ago and helped lift the team to a new level. O’Ward lost to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden – IndyCar’s top two teams. McLaren is trying to squeeze through this mix of weekly contenders.
“I think everyone is in a big space. The team is in a big space,” Brown said. “The team is training, we have put the emphasis on the whole team focusing on fitness. We have changed the diet of the team, changed the training regime of the team and tried to let everyone know that whatever you do you have to be an athlete and that’s just the beginning but it pays dividends.
AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing And https://twitter.com/AP_Sports