Track Time

Above, Pato O’Ward’s Indy car that will compete in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca.

Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist can say for certain they are outside of Portland, but that’s about all.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon before the NTT IndyCar Series’ penultimate contest at Portland International Raceway and the pair decided to check out some Oregon countryside. The name of the particular hiking trail they happened upon eludes them – Angel’s Rest, perhaps.

“It looks like a good place,” Rosenqvist observes over the phone.

Angel’s Rest snakes through woods and crags to a spot overlooking the Hood River, with clear views of nearby mountains. It’s not a spot one would expect to find two of the top young drivers more commonly found on winding stretches of asphalt. But an afternoon off gives the two Arrow McLaren SP drivers an opportunity to get away from the track and enjoy nature. However, the respite is loaded with a schedule of interviews and online meetings. There are few real breaks during the race season.

Racing is unique among team sports in that public laurels fall on an individual, the driver. Success is marked in pole positions, wins and championships. Bonding between drivers generally applies to the track or team facilities.

O’Ward and Rosenqvist, however, have become friends as well as teammates. While on the road, the two seek out trails, pickleball courts or miniature golf courses. Both declare themselves foodies and travel during the season allows them to try out restaurants across the country. They even vacationed together with their girlfriends in Mexico.

“The relationship between Pato and Felix is pretty unique and special,” says Taylor Kiel, president of Arrow McLaren SP. “They’re great teammates and like to have fun – while also really pushing it on the track.”

O’Ward enters the season finale seventh in the drivers championship, with Rosenqvist just three spots behind. The 23-year-old driver from Monterrey, Mexico, won races at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and on the Iowa Speedway oval this year, along with a pole at Mid-Ohio. Rosenqvist – a 30-year-old from Sweden – claimed the poles at Texas and on the Indianapolis road course. The team put in a strong showing at this year’s Indianapolis 500, with O’Ward running second and Rosenqvist fourth.

The goal is to improve, and to do that requires a team effort. As O’Ward points out, there is little gained if one car consistently outperforms the other.

“We work together,” he adds. “Having a relationship with Felix makes the experience better.”

There are dings that occur during a season. Last weekend at Portland both started well. But in the late stages of the race, O’Ward dove the car into Turn 1 in a bid to take second from series leader Will Power. The cars came together and O’Ward took the brunt, losing momentum and suffering some damage. He finished fourth. Meanwhile Rosenqvist was on a different tire strategy that did not play out, but he guided the car to a top 10.

“It’s not that we haven’t performed,” O’Ward says. In racing there are “A factors” – those you can control – and “B factors,” which the whims of racing throw at you. “The B factors have gone against us.”

Despite ups and downs, it has been a solid performance. That and the off-track bond between drivers suits Arrow McLaren SP, a relatively new organization.

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“Relatively” requires an explanation. McLaren Racing is an international brand based in Woking, England, running cars in Formula 1 and other series. The race team as an entity was founded by Sam Schmidt, a former driver, in 2001. Looking to expand to IndyCar, McLaren purchased a minority stake in the team in 2019. Last year the organization became the majority owner.

“The roots are deep,” Rosenqvist says. “You get the feeling of a group that’s been there a long time.”

McLaren is also expanding operations, adding a third car for the 2023 campaign, completing a state-of-the-art facility in Indianapolis and looking to compete with established teams like Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing for Indianapolis 500 wins and series titles. To that end, Rosenqvist notes, “the McLaren name comes with different expectations.”

Pressure to improve, to disrupt the racing establishment, would suggest a serious tone in the garage. But O’Ward says it is inviting – “I think it’s the best in the paddock.”

According to Kiel, the friendship between his two drivers suits the environment Arrow McLaren is trying to achieve.

“Whoever joins our team realizes it’s an open atmosphere – you can be yourself,” Rosenqvist notes. “People will stay after working hours and have a beer. I’ve never seen that before.”

Still, it’s a long season coming to an end, where free time comes at a premium. From the end of February, when the cars took to the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida until the middle of September, when the season concludes at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – the finale takes place on Sunday, Sept. 11 – days are devoted to preparation time in race simulators, team meetings, sponsor-related events, interviews, travel and so on.

Tuesday’s hike in Oregon, interrupted as it was by the demands of work, followed a Friday test session at Laguna Seca that was delayed by several hours because the truck hauling Firestone tires arrived late. Organizers extended the session into the evening.

The drivers are looking forward to some time off. Rosenqvist is making no plans for the few weeks he will have away from the routine. He will head back to Europe and “just catch up with my life.”

For some drivers, work continues even after the last checkered flag falls.

On Sunday evening, after the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey wraps up, O’Ward is scheduled to catch a flight to England. Monday he will be in a Formula 1 simulator at the team’s Woking headquarters. He will then travel to Barcelona to test with McLaren’s Formula 1 team – something he also did a year ago.

“Last year I never had an off season,” O’Ward says. “I’ve asked everybody to not reach out for six weeks this winter. I will have that time for myself.”

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF MONTEREY practice rounds Friday-Saturday, Sept. 9-10. Qualifying begins 2:05pm Saturday, Sept. 10. Race takes place at 12:30pm Sunday, Sept. 11. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, 1021 Highway 68, Salinas. $20/Friday practice; $100/Saturday; $125/Sunday. 242-8200, bit.ly/IndyCarLagunaSeca.

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