Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist (6) in practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (USA Today)
INDIANAPOLIS — It is hard to be an introvert among the bodacious characters of Arrow McLaren Racing.
But Felix Rosenqvist, who readily admits he “was closed as a shell” when he joined McLaren for the start of the 2021 season, is having a blast with firecracker teammate Pato O’Ward and wild-card boss Zak Brown as they rebuild the team’s brand in IndyCar after an absence of nearly four decades.
“He’s really blossomed,” O’Ward said. “By default, the environment will force you to get along and work together.”
In the three-plus seasons since Brown brought McLaren back to IndyCar on a full-time basis, Arrow McLaren is now the hottest team in the series. It has rapidly grown to three full-time cars, added Tony Kanaan for what he says will be his final Indianapolis 500, and has built a chemistry within the organization envied across the paddock.
Simply put, the McLaren drivers are having the most fun headed into the 107th running of the Indy 500 and put all four of its cars in the top-12 for Sunday’s race. Rosenqvist at third was the highest qualifying McLaren driver; the Swede finished fourth in last year’s race, two spots behind teammate O’Ward.
The on-track success comes from the atmosphere built within the team. O’Ward starts fifth on Sunday, 2015 winner and team newcomer Alexander Rossi will start seventh and Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner, will start ninth.
“When you’re around a group bringing the best out of each other, (success) becomes a given,” Rosenqvist said. “When I came here I was closed as a shell. The team has really opened me up and it’s been a blast.”
Teammates Tony Kanaan, left, of Brazil, talks with Felix Rosenqvist, of Sweden, during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500. (AP)
With Brown based in Europe overseeing the day-to-day operations of McLaren’s Formula One team, the leader of the IndyCar team is a newcomer with less than a year on the job.
Gavin Ward, a Canadian engineer who launched his career first as an intern with Red Bull
Ward had a no-compete period that sidelined him until July of last season, and when team president Taylor Kiel left at the end of the year to join Chip Ganassi Racing, Brown decided to put Ward in charge.
What he and the drivers discovered is that Ward places a huge emphasis on the human element of racing; if an employee isn’t flourishing in their role at McLaren, Ward doesn’t believe in firing them. Instead, he tries to find the best fit for them inside the organization.
He very much enjoyed qualifying day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he stood with many of the McLaren mechanics watching their cars make their runs on a video screen. His hat was askew, his headphones hanging half off his ears, and after each qualifying run, Ward high-fived everyone he could find wearing papaya.
‘I’m not sure if it’s that they are all dressed in orange but, man, they have a lot of people here. It’s like Minions running around.’
Ward took slight pleasure in watching Team Penske team president Tim Cindric nervously pace pit lane as his former boss only landed one of three cars inside the top 12. Racing is supposed to be fun, and he’s found it at McLaren.
“I owe Team Penske a lot. They gave me my opening shot … and we had some great success, championships, two 500 wins, but as time went on there, I started to look at what Arrow McLaren was building and that was exciting,” Ward said. “That little bit of crossover back to the F1 world was also a real appeal.
“But really, the ability, the opportunity, to build something, to be part of building something, that just seemed like just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
The version of Ward who arrived at McLaren has matured through years of working with the top teams in motorsports. His drivers praise how well he treats the employees and how aligned everyone is inside the organization, but Ward said it took him most of his 38 years to learn how to manage this way.
“I think when I first started racing, I wouldn’t have said my people skills were my strong suit,” Ward said. “I think that as time has gone on, I have come to appreciate that this is a people game. I’ve kind of had to work on things — early in my career was stress management. When I first started working with Red Bull, I remember thinking ‘I’m too stressed out. I’m not going to be able to do this,’ and I had to learn how to manage that.
Arrow McLaren racing director Gavin Ward. (Getty Images)
“And then later, there was a time when I had a bit of a temper, was a bit of a hothead that thought he knew it all. I had to learn that that wasn’t a productive way. And also, you can have the best ideas in this sport, but if you can’t convince people to buy-in, it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen teams in this sport work as dictatorships, and as more collaborative, and I’m just really trying to find that right mix and make us feel like a complete team.”
McLaren does not yet have any wins this season to show for its rapid rise, but the entire paddock knows they’ve arrived. Remember, McLaren showed up in 2019 as a one-off team that was humiliated when it failed to qualify Fernando Alonso for the Indy 500.
The McLaren effort that year was a laughingstock — so bad that many worried Brown would forego plans to return as a full-time IndyCar team. But he did bring the brand back in 2020, initially as a marketing partner with the existing Sam Schmidt Peterson team.
He made roster changes — dumping popular veteran James Hinchcliffe and reigning Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson — pumped some money into the program and feverishly worked at what he does best: selling sponsorship. O’Ward, who has three runner-up finishes this season, has been their championship contender each year and the team goes into Sunday’s race with four legitimate chances to win the Indy 500.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, a former Andretti Autosport driver back at Indy for a one-off with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, has noticed the rapid expansion of the McLaren organization based on all the papaya he’s seen around the speedway. But he thinks what the team has done since missing the race with Alonso four years ago is impressive.
“I’m not sure if it’s that they are all dressed in orange but, man, they have a lot of people here. It’s like Minions running around,” Hunter-Reay said. “They’re doing things that upset the status quo and that’s a good thing.”