The annual pageant had a twist: McLaren this year included its IndyCar, Extreme E and Esports teams in the show. For the IndyCar program, it was the recognition of offseason restructuring that made McLaren the majority owner of the team.
McLaren ended its 40-year absence from IndyCar in 2020 when it returned to competition as a commercial partner with Sam Schmidt’s team sponsored by Arrow Electronics. The IndyCar program was rebranded Arrow McLaren SP — and the name isn’t changing — but McLaren is now officially in charge.
“There’s always growing pains when you’re scaling up in the way that we are, but it’s been awesome and I think we’ve been embraced,” said Taylor Kiel, who just completed his first year as president of the IndyCar program. “We’ve been brought in with open arms and in all the internal communications, they talk about Formula One, and they talk about IndyCar and they talk about Extreme E and it’s all very balanced.”
McLaren’s unveil showed the 2022 design of the Indy cars, which adds a splash of blue to the No. 5 driven by Pato O’Ward, and a lighter shade of blue than last year to the No. 7 driven by Felix Rosenqvist. More important was their inclusion in the overall McLaren presentation.
Kiel, who started with Sam Schmidt Motorsports straight out of college when a job with its Indy Lights team was the only position he could land, has risen through the organization and now finds himself running the day-to-day operations of the team. In an interview with The Associated Press, Kiel said the McLaren takeover allows Schmidt and partner Ric Peterson “to take a step back, what they were looking for” and cede control to McLaren Racing head Zak Brown.
Brown’s expectations have been made perfectly clear. O’Ward won two races and was part of the championship hunt all the way to the season finale, but the title went to Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing. Team Penske and Ganassi combined for nine wins through 16 races, and both Palou and Josef Newgarden of Penske finished ahead of O’Ward in the championship standings.
“Zak has come in and he’s very bullish and aggressive and got with me right away, sort of ‘Hey, what’s it going to take to get this thing to the Ganassi and Penske level? Let’s figure it out. Let’s get on it,’” Kiel said. “You are always concerned about the dynamics when something like this happens, but it’s been great and we talk weekly and we’re aligned and all on the same page.”
The team has taken a considerable leap since McLaren bolstered Schmidt’s program two seasons ago. It began with an overhauled driver lineup that landed O’Ward, who Brown snagged when Red Bull Racing released the Mexican from its development program because O’Ward has been unable to gain the super license required to compete in F1.
Brown believes O’Ward is a future superstar and the 22-year-old is quite open about his F1 aspirations. He’s spent the entire offseason strengthening his neck muscles in anticipation of being used as McLaren’s test and reserve driver at select races this season.
Kiel is confident O’Ward’s dreams won’t be a distraction.
“Once he gets locked into the race season, he’s all about the race season, and you take that with a grain of salt because he’s still a 22-year-old kid, right?” Kiel said. “So there’s some times you’ve got to be like ‘Hey dude, let’s refocus ourselves a little bit.’ But he’s wise beyond his years, he knows what it takes, he’s got incredible work ethic and he’s obviously very talented.”
The team needs O’Ward to also exert his energy on the unpleasant parts of the job such as data analysis and deep engineering debriefs. And if O’Ward really wants to move to F1, he’s got to score enough points in IndyCar for the FIA to grant him that super license.
“His job and his pathway there, should it open, is through IndyCar,” Kiel said. “He needs to perform, and he needs to perform at a high level and frankly, it’s not a race win or two that will put you in that position.”
McLaren also needs to make a dramatic improvement with Rosenqvist, who returns for his second season with the team. Rosenqvist struggled initially to get comfortable driving McLaren’s car after two seasons racing with Ganassi. And when McLaren started making gains with the Swede, Rosenqvist was injured in a crash at Detroit and missed two races.
Kiel said Rosenqvist was still able to be a balance to the effusive O’Ward by remaining calm and thoughtful.
“To his everlasting credit, and I will sing praises on this man, he carried himself like a professional through what probably was his worst year in his motorsports career,” Kiel said. “And at the same time he was watching his teammate compete for the championship. That’s got to be hard for any competitive professional, but he was the consummate teammate and did an excellent job to help not only himself, but Pato and the team in total.”
McLaren plans to bring two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya back in May for a second consecutive year to run both the road course at Indy and the Indy 500. Montoya drove for McLaren in F1 and finished ninth in the Indy 500 last year for the team.
McLaren liked the cohesion between the three drivers at Indy and found the trio worked exceedingly well together — once Kiel stopped Montoya and O’Ward from speaking Spanish in engineering debriefs.
With McLaren now in charge, a team once known for contending for a win or so a season is now a championship contender.
“We’ve been a team over the years that have had an underdog mentality, we’ve been able to punch above our weight,” Kiel said. “We just need to go out and do it now.”