To be one point behind perennial championship dominator Scott Dixon after six races including a double-points round is nothing short of a brilliant start to an IndyCar season.
So why is Pato O’Ward talking about being “destroyed” in 2021?
The Mexican starlet won his first IndyCar race at Texas last month, and started the season that was supposed to be a breakthrough one for his team Arrow McLaren SP with pole position at the first race.
AMSP is entering its second season in its tie-up with McLaren – which provides a small team at its Woking headquarters as well as technical support – and it was supposed to be the point where the team created an IndyCar ‘big four’, a play on the commonly referred to ‘big three’ of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.
Sitting third in the championship with O’Ward, it looks like AMSP has done that, but the journey is very, very far from complete.
That pole at Barber preceded a botched three-stop strategy that led to a fourth-place in the race, while both cars were out of the top 11 in St Petersburg on the street course – which is not a good omen for this weekend’s return to street racing for the Detroit double-header.
O’Ward delivered a pair of top threes at Texas with his win included, and fourth at the Indianapolis 500 which should have been third without a small mistake on the last lap having to lift at Turn 2, which cost six points. That sandwiched the Indy road course where he and team-mate Felix Rosenqvist were 15th and 17th respectively.
O’Ward told The Race earlier in the season that he believes that the team has the hardest car to drive in IndyCar, while Rosenqvist has acknowledged O’Ward is just better at driving around the unpredictable, tail-happy car they’re battling with.
Juan Pablo Montoya joined the team for a pre-season road course test – preparing for his Indy 500 outing – and spoke of his disbelief at O’Ward’s steering data trace in terms of what he was having to do with the car.
St Pete was arguably the lowest point for O’Ward and Rosenqvist. Strategy and on track happenings were irrelevant there as they just didn’t have pace, suffering from understeer.
It was a world away from Barber a week earlier where O’Ward was easily the fastest car.
“Our car, it’s tended to be very quick in certain places,” says O’Ward ahead of Detroit.
“In other places we got destroyed, not just the No. 5 car but I think we were all just very slow in certain tracks.
“There’s definitely been just a lot of analysis to try and really see what went wrong because we’ve been strong some places but we’ve been very out of consistency in others, and we need to fix that.
“It’s such a competitive series where you just can’t have any more of those very tough weekends.
“We know what we were missing in St Pete, which is a street course, so hopefully we have made improvements to be stronger here.
“I’m going into it knowing that we can make some really good stuff happen.”
Perhaps one piece of short-term good news is Marcus Ericsson took second in IndyCar’s last Detroit visit in 2019 for the previous incarnation of this team – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports being the SP in the name – although if understeer was the problem at St Pete it’s likely to be worse on the Detroit bumps. It’s also a vital double-header where consistent underperformance could be punished twice.
It’s not just O’Ward in this boat with the car. Rosenqvist – who’s made some driver errors and generally had some really bad luck too – feels the same. O’Ward’s style is spectacular, but he’s being forced into that and actually wants a more neutral car similar to Rosenqvist. The difference is, O’Ward’s had a year of driving and in-turn understanding this car over Rosenqvist.
“I think we had similar feedback,” Rosenqvist says when asked by The Race if he and O’Ward had a shared understanding after St Pete.
“Pato was able to get some more speed out of the car in qualifying, and I got a little bit more out of it than the race [Rosenqvist was 12th, O’Ward 17th], but we both struggled with the same stuff.
“We had a lot of [tyre] deg, we had a lot of understeer in the race. It just wasn’t really fast to be honest. There wasn’t really any point in that race [where we were fast], even in the [Indy] GP, it was kind of a different story at Indy GP, but it was the same, we weren’t really having super bad races but we still ended up nowhere because we didn’t have the pace.
“Pato, he’s able to drive around a loose car very well, but what we actually feel in the car and what we want from the car is kind of similar.”
You might think Rosenqvist is the perfect person to help solve this problem.
Not because of his multitude of experience in various series at an extremely high level, but because he spent two years in a Ganassi car alongside chief IndyCar exponent Dixon.
So, surely, Rosenqvist can tell AMSP what Ganassi is doing right, spill some secrets, and that solves all the problems?
“Obviously when I came over there were a lot of questions about what they [Ganassi] were doing technically and things like that,” Rosenqvist adds.
“I think it’s a dangerous route, though.
“Obviously we looked at things, and we always tried to improve, and anything you can get from a competitor, it’s obviously a good thing.
“But the problem is if you copy what someone else is doing, the problem then is that they are going to take a leap.
“Every year people are getting better and better, so if we would do the same that Ganassi did last year on Detroit or St Pete or whatever, you’re never going to beat them because they’re going to be better.
“I think we have very different philosophies, but I truly believe that our team is super capable. It’s a very good organisation, a lot of smart people.
“IndyCar is tough because you don’t really have any testing. That’s the big thing. In a whole season, we have like two, three days of testing, and it’s very hard to actually try anything without guessing.
“So pretty much every time you show up to a race weekend you pretty much have to guess and try something, and if it works, you stay with it, and then maybe you have time for one more change and then you’re going into qualifying or the race and then the weekend is over, and then you have to do it the next year.”
It’s a typically insightful and interesting perspective from Rosenqvist, and it’s hard to disagree. Perhaps persevering with its current philosophy is a long-term gamble worth taking for AMSP.
The other thing to point out in this quest for a better handling car, is that the teams have been at this almost 10 years with this chassis. There’s no golden bullet, and as Rosenqvist explained, testing is so infrequent you can’t just bolt, say, a new damper package on randomly when the weekends are condensed and testing is so infrequent.
The problem is, AMSP faces the current championship slipping through its fingers if it’s not able to give the drivers a more consistent package to work with on road and street courses. Especially when it’s coming up against “the master of consistency”, as O’Ward calls Dixon, and that nine of the 10 races remaining are road or street circuits.
The Race asked O’Ward how he reflects on the first half of the season, whether it’s positive to have blips and still be third, or he’s upset at the missed opportunities that could come back to haunt them.
“I feel like we missed an opportunity in Barber,” replies O’Ward.
“I actually feel that we should have won that race. We had all the pace. I don’t think anybody was faster than us. We just were on the wrong strategy.
“I think we saved what we could in terms of what we went with strategy-wise and tyre and everything.
“But man, we had two road course races where we absolutely got destroyed, and we’ve honestly already used up our kind of get-out-of-jail-free cards of the season of having a bad weekend, and we can’t afford to have any more of those because that really takes a toll in the championship.
“If we would have had like solid top seven, top six finishes in St Pete and the Indy road course, we should have been in the lead in the championship, but we haven’t capitalised on that.
“I don’t want to look back at the end of the year and look at those two races and say, ‘this cost us a championship’.
“We just need to work a little bit harder to be extra consistent from now on.
“But we’ve had some great races. We had great superspeedway races at both Texas and Indy. We’ve been strong.
“But we have been weak at road courses, specifically street courses, and we need to find a way to maximise what we have there because that will really hurt us in the end.”
It’s been both a brilliant and an awful start to the season for AMSP. But it has the driving and technical talent to turn things around. Whether that’s possible in the short term, or we’re just watching the groundwork for future success, is a question that is about to be answered very, very soon.