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Inside IndyCar: Pato O’Ward’s Time Is Now

The 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season should be remembered as the Year of Pato.

That’s right, this year is all Pato O’Ward’s. He will be the man to beat, challenging for poles, podiums and wins at every circuit he visits, putting two-time champion Alex Palou on notice that this series isn’t his and his alone.

Or at least, that’s what could happen if things work O’Ward’s way, which would be of great benefit to both his team and IndyCar.

That said, making a bold prediction like this before a single competitive lap is run is exactly the type of thing this writer does, and this writer’s record on predictions isn’t stellar. But if O’Ward can pull this off, he will be stepping up onto the stage of IndyCar glory he has chased since getting his full-time ride with Arrow McLaren in 2020. It’s about time that this happens.

The young and aggressive driver from Mexico is part of the mix of young talent that has jumped up into IndyCar over the last five years. Besides himself and Palou, others like Colton Herta, Kyle Kirkwood and Rinus Veekay have battled for wins after being in the series a combined 19 seasons amongst the five of them, with Palou having claimed his rightful spot in history with his titles.

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O’Ward isn’t the type to be overshadowed by his peer’s dominance any longer. That’s why heading into this season, there’s going to be that accession for him that has been teased but not become permanent.

Last year, if bad luck wasn’t O’Ward’s co-pilot, he’d have been the talk of the season instead of Palou. As things worked though, the chatter was aimed at how close he was to winning, without winning. St. Petersburg almost fell into O’Ward’s hands as it seemed he was on verge of stealing victory after the leaders wrecked but a momentary fire in the engine plenum cost him – wait for it – a surefire win. At his home track in Texas, Romain Grosjean crashed just as he was setting up leader Josef Newgarden heading to the white flag. The yellow ended the race. A runner-up result at the GMR Grand Prix of Indy continued his near misses.

Then there was the big kick to the groin. At the Indianapolis 500, O’Ward was clearly one of the best cars, and after contenders Palou and Veekay tangoed their way to contact in the pits that sent them to the rear, it felt like this was the year. All that had to be handled was the savvy Swede Marcus Ericsson, who knew a thing or two about defending his position on Indianapolis’s long straightaways. After losing the lead on a lap 192 restart, O’Ward tried to overtake Ericsson in turn 3, who rightfully chose to not give up the position so easily. Opinions will vary on who was responsible in giving up room or lifting, but the result was O’Ward was in the wall and out of the race.

The rest of the summer was decent, but he wasn’t a front-runner like the winning competition. He earned four more podiums results, but after Indy was out front only 24 laps and ended the season with a big fat egg in the wins column.

That can’t repeat itself this year.

O’Ward is entering the season as the clear number one guy at McLaren. The proof is in the contract that The Indianapolis Star reported pays him over $5 million a year, which was extended on March 1. That’s a significant amount of pesos for an IndyCar driver in this era and now he has to earn every bit of that paycheck in 2024. That money isn’t deposited into a guy’s bank account just to get runner-ups.

Arrow McLaren needs him to get to the front, and do it as much as possible. They have been in a lively battle over the last couple seasons with Andretti Global for the position of third best team on the grid. Ahead of them both are Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, winners of every championship since 2013 and clearly in a tier all of their own. Both Andretti and McLaren lack the same thing that is holding them back from beating their rivals – consistency. While team principals Michael Andretti and Zak Brown have a long, friendly relationship, their organizations are intertwined in a struggle to get out of second-tier competitor status. McLaren can’t capture the Astor Cup if they’re not challenging for wins every week. That’s where the faith in O’Ward is placed.

He’s entering his fifth full-season of running IndyCar, with four wins and two third-place finishes in points. However, on his shoulders is a winless drought back to the second Iowa race in 2022, which ironically was a day in which the racing gods touched him with a magic scepter and said ‘We grant you thy win’ as he took advantage of Josef Newgarden’s dominant car wrecking in turn four. This season he has to make his own luck by leading more laps, improving his driving craft to make fuel saving work in his favor, and put himself in position to win.

The series wants to see him do this too because he has the potential to be their most marketable driver. He has one of the best social media followings outside of former Formula 1 drivers in the paddock, with his 600,000 followers on Instagram and 200,000 on X better than Palou (97,000 and 57,000), 2023 Indy 500 winner Newgarden (134,000 and 100,000) and paddock superstar Scott Dixon (160,000 and 139,000). Efforts at Texas last year to fill the stands with his fans through a merchandise promotion in which one item bought at his store got a customer a free ticket to Texas turned the race into an O’Ward fan fest. It worked so well that he turned to social media to determine at which race to do that again this year after Texas fell off.

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It’s clear he is a star in the making and has the personality to carry the series to new heights, like four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves before him. During television interviews he’s honest, creative and downright talkative while some of his fellow drivers are less engaging, some of that to keep their hand close to their vest in the tightly competitive field. The fact that he comes off so conversational shows how comfortable he is in front of the camera, a trait that, once again, he shares with Castroneves.

However, none of that will matter if he doesn’t rise to overtake the current crop of elite talent winning championships. But it’s not just him that has to do it, his whole team has to take that next step. That has to happen in 2024.

It’s time to make this season the Year of Pato.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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Jeremy

Pato is great for the series – I know he dreams of F1, but he is so good for Indycar. He’s a hard racer, stands his ground and is unapologetic for decisions he makes in the heat of battle (like it or not). To Tom’s point, he has the talent, he has the cars and team, and now he has a few seasons of experience under his belt. The only thing keeping him from running away with wins and Championships are two monumental hurdles: Team Penske, and Team Ganassi. With a combined roster of Dixon, Newgarden, Palou, Power, and McLaughlin to contend with on a weekly basis, it’s not an easy challenge. Dare I say, this is probably the toughest competition in racing to deal with week in and week out. All 6 of these guys are just that good, and the next tier (Ericsson, Rossi, Rosenqvist, Herta, Lundgaard) all have the ability to take wins on almost any given week as well.

Speaking of McLaughlin, he’s another who could have a breakout year. Would be cool to see the series title go down to the last race between O’ward and McLaughlin, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens.

Man, the season can’t start soon enough!!

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