Pato O’Ward’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES offseason has gone from lazy to busy in a hurry, but in between he has reflected on his successful year and come to peace with his third-place finish in the 2021 championship standings.
O’Ward won twice this season, at Texas-2 and Belle Isle-2, and was locked in a stirring battle for the title with Alex Palou all the way down to the season finale at Long Beach in September. Unfortunately for O’Ward, he was involved in an accident with Ed Jones on Lap 1 of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, ending any hope he had for his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
Since that race Sunday, Sept. 26, O’Ward has relished in his lazy Sundays. There are no workouts, no race prep and no racing. Mexican O’Ward said the most he has done in his time off is lie on the couch and watch the fishing show “River Monsters.”
In that down time, he has also reflected on what he concluded was an extremely positive season for his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP team despite its unpleasant ending. O’Ward said he has yet to hear from Jones, who clipped O’Ward with his No. 18 SealMaster Honda in Turn 11 on the first lap of the race, and doesn’t expect to hear from him anytime soon.
“I’ve thought of it, and honestly, I came to a conclusion that we did a great job,” O’Ward said. “I think we should be very proud. We got our breakthrough win, we put another one on top of that, and we got three poles.”
While O’Ward was frustrated with Jones for the incident in Long Beach, he said he came to terms that his championship was lost earlier in the season, specifically on road courses where he and the team didn’t score the points they needed. He believes his Chevrolet-powered team was strong on ovals, and he hopes they can build their road course program over the offseason.
In all, O’Ward said if they can grow from their shortfalls in 2021, he and Arrow McLaren SP will be set for another run at the championship in 2022 and hopefully hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup at the end of the season.
“We just need to make our car better,” he said. “I think doing that is going to put us in a position next year to fight for the title again. But in general, it should allow us to get to the end of the season in a stronger position.
“In my eyes, you always want to leave room for someone to do something like what was done to me in Long Beach, which was honestly completely out of our control. In my eyes, we lost the championship during the year. We didn’t really lose it in Long Beach.”
O’Ward said the team’s strength in 2020 made the third-place championship finish this season even more frustrating. O’Ward finished fourth in the championship in 2020 and was a fringe title contender near the end of the season.
Such a strong first season with Arrow McLaren SP in 2020 elevated their goals for 2021, which may have led to a letdown when only gaining one spot in the championship.
“I feel like 2020 set the bar for the near future,” he said. “Fourth in the championship is really high for a fairly new team. The series is getting so competitive, so we started off our journey really strong, and you continuously want to get better. We did get better this year, but I feel like we keep raising the bar for ourselves, which is really good, and I love it.”
Now that he has taken in a few “lazy Sundays” and relaxed at home, O’Ward is ramping up his activity during the offseason. This week, he was at the McLaren Racing headquarters in Woking, England, getting ready for a Formula One test in December at Abu Dhabi.
The test is a reward from McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown for scoring his first career win in May at Texas Motor Speedway. This week, O’Ward did some test runs in the simulator and was fitted for his seat.
He also dined with McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris and placed the two trophies from his NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins this year in the trophy case at the McLaren Racing headquarters.
“That’s going to be cool. I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “What I think is really cool about it is I get to drive a winning car this year (Daniel Ricciardo won in Italy in September). I’m looking forward to seeing how those cars feel. It’s completely different to the Indy car.
“I, for sure, expect it to be more physical for the neck. I expect it to be not near as physical for the upper body. I’ve driven a Formula One car before, not this year’s, but I’ve driven a past year’s Formula One car, and it’s, for sure, a lot easier to drive. I’m looking forward to feeling the grip and the downforce.”
O’Ward has one more trip to England planned in early December for another day in the simulator, and then he’ll head to Abu Dhabi for the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Dec. 10-12, where he will go all-out in a different style of open-wheel car.
Then, he will have roughly two months to relax again before the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins Sunday, Feb. 27 on the Streets of St. Petersburg, where O’Ward thinks his team will be ready to move up one or maybe two positions in the championship standings by year’s end.