Race Weekend Central

Alexander Rossi Headlines Ambitious Changes at Arrow McLaren

“Alex [Rossi] kind of has that bad guy role in IndyCar …”

It’s a bit unusual to start off a teammate relationship by calling your new coworker a “bad guy,” but Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist didn’t mean it that way. 

“It’s cool … we need those guys. But, actually having got to know him he’s been super nice, super kind … he fits like a glove. Pato [O’Ward] is like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, Alex is the engineering guy. A guy who knows what he wants.”

Rosenqvist pulled out “bad guy” and “crazy guy” first thing in the morning. Good thing the new McLaren trio have a sense of humor. 

Alexander Rossi departing his longtime team Andretti Autosport for the upstart McLaren for 2023 would have been the biggest story of Silly Season, had it not been for a certain Alex Palou’s ill-fated attempt to follow him. 

But with Palou obligated to see out his contract at Chip Ganassi Racing, the 2016 Indy 500 winner starts the season perhaps the biggest face in a new place, trading in his traditional blue-and-yellow NAPA firesuit for McLaren papaya orange.

“We all bring something different to the table, which I think is really unique,” Rossi told media, including Frontstretch, from IndyCar content day, “not only in personalities but in driving styles and experience levels … I’m very excited to get out on track and stop talking about it and…drive.” 

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The 8-time IndyCar race winner admitted he’s still using nametags at McLaren HQ, but maybe he’s not alone.

“Everyone is. There’s [been] close to 40 hires across the organization in the past couple months. So it’s been kind of a good time to come in …”

Says “crazy guy” Pato O’Ward, “It’s a lot, a lot of new faces. I’m still in the process of learning the names. It’s cool to see, we’re all growing… the team is growing, it’s great to see everybody’s enthusiasm.”

While the man behind the wheel of the new third full-time car (No. 7, as Rosenqvist’s team follows him to the No. 6 Chevy for 2023) will certainly grab the most headlines, there’s change at every level of the fourth-year organization, starting from the top.

Ex-Team Penske and Red Bull Formula 1 engineer Gavin Ward joined McLaren at the start of 2022, and after Taylor Kiel stepped down in September was promoted to racing director for 2023, a role Rossi describes as, “sort of all-encompassing… has that technical director standpoint but also team manager and team principal….”

All three drivers spoke positively about Ward’s promotion, Rosenqvist summarizing: “He’s a good leader, he’s a funny guy to be around, brings good energy to the team, and I think he has that ability to be funny and then switch it on in serious mode when he needs to, which kind of goes along with the vibe of our team in general.” 

O’Ward, self-described “huge believer” in the new boss, added: “More than trying to extract everything that our group can do … he really looks into how to get that performance. How can we make it easier on ourselves to find it… preparation that’s not racecar related. Mental, physical, diet.”

“Encouraging people to bring ideas to the table and kind of have that diversity that exists and is so often overlooked in motorsports,” makes the difference for Rossi. “I think that really encourages people to come [to McLaren]. I think Zak [Brown] also leads the charge on that.”

And it’s even more change at the racetrack, as all three drivers will be paired with new race engineers for 2023. 

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Taking over for Taylor Kiel in O’Ward’s ear will be Will Anderson, which is “just fine” according to the 23-year-old. “I’ve been working with Will since I joined the team. He’s in the same sort of neighborhood as Taylor was… in terms of voice volume, and minimal speaking, which I enjoy.

“It would drive me crazy if it was– hey bud, there’s five cars coming… mate, just tell me how many cars are coming, I don’t want to have a chat.”

In the new No. 6, Rosenqvist will be partnered with Chris Lawrence, former race strategist and simulation engineer on the old No. 7. While the Swede saved the nicknames for his fellow drivers, he called Lawrence “a good friend of mine [who’s] been on the car for many years.”

Meanwhile, Craig Hampson stays with No. 7 and its new driver. “A critical thing for me in terms of making the switch… was being able to work with Craig,” said Rossi. “I have a huge amount of respect for what Craig has accomplished in his career, I think he’s a brilliant engineer and just a great guy.”

In only its fourth year as an IndyCar team, and its first without Schmidt-Peterson branding, Arrow McLaren might have made the biggest offseason changes in its history. But for a team with the might of an F1 program behind it, and a target aimed squarely at the dominant trio of Andretti, Ganassi, and Penske, ambitious expansion may be exactly what is needed. 

While all three drivers emphasized Gavin Ward’s “maximizing people” philosophy, the theme of all of their comments was clear. McLaren’s rapid growth is evidence of its ambition to become one of IndyCar’s top teams, and expanding to a third car, installing Ward as racing director, and chasing down Rossi (successfully) and Palou (yet to be seen) is the type of move it can’t back down from. Despite how commonly they may claim it, racing teams cannot be in the building phase forever. We’ll see soon enough if McLaren’s on-track results back up its ambition. 

Or as Rossi said, it’s time to “stop talking about it… and drive.”

The 2023 NTT IndyCar Series begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Feb. 27, airing at noon ET on NBC. IndyCar’s preseason open test, Feb. 2-3 at the Thermal Club, will not be broadcast.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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