RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Arrow McLaren.
2022 Entrants’ Championship Positions (1-25):
7th, No. 5 Chevrolet with Pato O’Ward
8th, No. 7 Chevrolet with Felix Rosenqvist
No. 5 Chevrolet with Pato O’Ward
No. 6 Chevrolet with Felix Rosenqvist
No. 7 Chevrolet with Alexander Rossi
It’s a change of name, change of team management and structure, and change in size.
Frustrated with getting close but not close enough to the main title contenders in recent seasons, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown pulled the pin on foundational changes to the team formerly known as Arrow McLaren SP in an effort to do more than draft a fair distance behind Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing in the annual championship standings.
The veteran IndyCar organization’s best season-long performance was recorded in 2013, well before McLaren’s arrival, when Simon Pagenaud took the Schmidt Peterson Hamilton HP Motorsports team as it was then known to third in the standings, and in 2020, Pato O’Ward came close by earning fourth in the championship. He improved his output in 2021 to match Pagenaud with third, but last season got off to a rocky start for the Mexican, who admitted to being distracted and dissatisfied with his contract.
He soon rallied, but slipped to seventh in the championship and Rosenqvist had a quality run that netted eighth, which wasn’t the end of the world. But with the top six packed with Penske and Ganassi drivers, it was hard to ignore the distance to P1 in the standings.
When Arrow McLaren was fast, O’Ward and Rosenqvist were a blur, but those days were either infrequent or elusive. Across 17 races, O’Ward won twice, which was huge for the team, but there were only two other podium appearances. Said another way, it was a surprise to see a monster like O’Ward miss out on podiums 13 times from 17 opportunities. Rosenqvist, despite having a generally positive year, made a lone visit to the podium.
In a nutshell, that’s why Brown took a page from McLaren’s F1 organizational chart and turned Arrow McLaren into an engineering-first program with championship-winning race engineer and technical director Gavin Ward being moved to the top of the pyramid. New arrival Brian Barnhart is tasked with the traditional duties of managing the team, but in the revised Arrow McLaren layout, everyone reports to Ward and the competition side of the team — independent from the multi-layered administrative and operational sides — has become the primary focus of the team’s existence.
Lacking speed at times, and lacking consistent speed across the entire championship, the huge internal changes with Ward pulling the engineering and R&D strings — now with greater assistance from the McLaren side in the U.K. – are designed to turn O’Ward, Rosenqvist, and newcomer Alexander Rossi into every-race threats.
The combination of O’Ward and race engineer Will Anderson is among the most underrated in the paddock. O’Ward receives all the flowers when he wins, and understandably so, but Anderson, whose race engineering career started out not so many years ago as the engineer attached to Meyer Shank Racing during the formative years of MSR’s technical alliance with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, has become a genuine badass in his role. Together, they have the experience to take the next step in the championship.
Rosenqvist’s moved to the new No. 6 entry, but with the exception of losing race engineer Craig Hampson, the crew running the car is mostly the same that ran him last season in the No. 7. He has a new race engineer in Chris Lawrence, who served as his assistant race engineer in 2022 under Hampson. Known for his deep skills with simulation and a close relationship with Rosenqvist, Lawrence is expected to excel in his elevated role.
It’s the No. 7 car for Rossi that, despite carrying the familiar number, is almost entirely new. But that’s a bit of a misnomer. While the people assigned to Rossi’s car are working together for the first time at Arrow McLaren, an incredible reunion has been assembled with a pair of four-time Champ Car champions in race engineer Hampson and crew chief Todd Phillips. The duo who ushered Sebastien Bourdais to those four titles and reconnected years later to run him in race-winning fashion at Dale Coyne Racing are back together with an almighty budget and a new driver who is determined to show the world that he’s got more victories and a couple of titles in his future.
It will take time for Rosenqvist and Lawrence and Rossi’s No. 7 entry as a whole to hit their strides, and the same can be said for Arrow McLaren as it works out the kinks in its new operational structure. They also have to figure out the best ways to function and perform for the first time as a three-car team.
Its pre-season testing runs weren’t the smoothest things in the world, so it would be premature to place expectations for them to go 1-2-3 this weekend in Florida. But if we’re talking about teams with upside, this is the one to watch.
WHAT THEY NEED
For O’Ward, it’s to apply the championship formula to his season. If he’s going to become a champ, he’ll need to increase his annual win tally from two to at least three, and four or five would be a nice cushion. But O’Ward won’t win by racking up a bunch of victories; he must work that championship formula to add a massive number of seconds, thirds, fourths, and fifths to the bank.
This is where Arrow McLaren will need to step up its game and support the Mexican in ways it has never achieved; eight of O’Ward’s finishes last season were outside the top 10 — three were outside the top 20 – and that’s how titles are lost in a 17-race season. Some of those poor results were on the driver and not the team, but the people keeping tabs on the points don’t care. There were also a few too many race days where O’Ward and the No. 5 Chevy wasn’t a factor. This is the biggest fix to make.
O’Ward’s either been causing hell up front or out of the conversation, so for the No. 5 team, it needs more days in the sun and fewer in the shadows if it’s going to realize its full potential. High-caliber consistency is the target.
For Rosenqvist, who is expected to be replaced by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou next year, 2023 is an opportunity to continue showcasing his talents to prospective employers. I can’t think of a scenario where he’s retained for 2024, and that’s not meant as a slight: if Palou was available this season, he’d already be in the No. 6 Chevy, and Rosenqvist is well aware of the situation. So with potential openings at a few teams, the Swede needs to continue staying close to O’Ward and – if possible – pick up his second career IndyCar win.
It’s one thing to be a great second option to a mercurial talent like O’Ward, and it’s another to be viewed as a second-tier driver. Rosenqvist’s mission is to show and prove he can be a No. 1 option for an Andretti Autosport, or Juncos Hollinger Racing, or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing or similar next season.
For Rossi, the aim is to ride the early bumps as the No. 7 entry jells while preparing to author his greatest revenge tour to date. At full strength, the reimagined Arrow McLaren team has the ability to challenge for a championship, and of its three cars, O’Ward and the No. 5 are the readiest to start that fight this weekend.
Will the team’s grand new plans come to fruition by the time we reach Laguna Seca in September, or will 2023 go down as another season of close but not close enough? Nothing’s ever boring with Arrow McLaren; buckle in and enjoy the show.