July of 2022 was a heady time for IndyCar drivers who harbored Formula One dreams.
The long-broken bridge that once sent Michael Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais from IndyCar's mountaintop to F1's taller peak was being rebuilt, or so we thought, as no fewer than three Indy aces began testing with McLaren. Less than two years later, only one of the F1 aspirants remains standing, Arrow McLaren star Pato O'Ward.
The engaging Mexican, who finished fourth in the IndyCar standings in 2023, continues to find himself in the warm embrace of motor racing's most popular series while two of his closest IndyCar rivals have been cast aside.
Following an extended period of inactivity, when drivers in the American open-wheel series held no interest to the F1 paddock, the first step to correct the issue was made by McLaren. The Woking, England-based team signed Andretti Autosport's Colton Herta to test for its F1 outfit at the same time his team owner, 1991 CART IndyCar Series champion and 1993 McLaren F1 driver Michael Andretti, was actively seeking to buy the Alfa Romeo team and join the world of grand prix competition as an entrant.
Herta's July 2022 run in Portugal under the TPC regulations -- Testing of Previous Car -- allowed the Californian to show his natural speed and rapid computing capabilities while affirming his readiness to race in F1 if Andretti could find a way into the exclusive field.
Despite being a routine winner in IndyCar, Herta's pathway to F1 was anything but straightforward as he lacked the requisite number of super license points to race in F1. Through the McLaren testing arrangements, though, there was hope for a favorable resolution that would land the young star on the grid with Andretti or another team in the interim.
Amid F1 teams' heavy and sustained resistance to the efforts of Cadillac Andretti Global to join the grid, any immediacy to continue testing with Herta has been lost. Rumored to have signed a lucrative long-term contract with Andretti, Herta will be ready to resume the getting-ready-for-F1 process if Andretti Global somehow gains approval from the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes and the rest to become F1's 11th entrant, but the odds aren't in Andretti's or Herta's favor.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Álex Palou, IndyCar's reigning champion, conducted his first F1 test for McLaren last year in September and impressed during his Free Practice 1 debut at Circuit of The Americas in October. McLaren CEO Zak Brown had big plans for Palou in IndyCar and potentially in F1 after Palou was able to negotiate a new contract with Ganassi last year that would allow him to leave for McLaren after the 2023 IndyCar season was complete.
With eyes fixed on the future, McLaren handed Palou his most recent F1 test run in June at the Hungaroring. Just as he engineered an exit from Ganassi to eventually join McLaren, Palou had a change of heart this past summer and informed Brown and McLaren of his intent to stay with Ganassi in 2024 and beyond. Alleged to have signed a contract and received advance monies from McLaren, Palou's access to F1 met its end with McLaren, who is pursuing an eight-figure judgement in its favor through a lawsuit filed in the U.K.
That leaves O'Ward, the 24-year-old rocket from Monterrey, who spent last week in Palou's native country of Spain conducting another TPC outing for McLaren at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, as IndyCar's lone hope for representation in F1. From all the promising news of multiple IndyCar drivers being on the verge of F1 roles to McLaren focusing all its testing energies on its lead IndyCar driver, O'Ward has become an important part of Brown's crossover plans for the full-time driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevy.
"From day one, Pato has been part of our potential Formula One plans, and always needs to be very focused on IndyCar first, but you never know what happens in motor racing," Brown told ESPN. "Only up until recently has Pato been in a position to secure his super license.
"All we could do last year was test, which is what we did, with hopes of him being able to get a super license. So in the event the stars aligned, we've always felt Pato had the pace, excitement and skill to be a Formula One driver. And so once he has his super license, we will continue down that path."
Former McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull Driver Academy talent Liam Lawson are the latest examples of pilots who found themselves in unexpected race seats due to in-season turbulence and injury. Brown sees O'Ward -- once he receives a super license -- as a perfect fit to step in if McLaren F1 drivers Lando Norris or Oscar Piastri are unable to race at any point next season. The reserve driver role is one that was earmarked for Palou until his split with McLaren.
"Obviously, we're very happy with what's going on with Lando and Oscar, but we also know the world of Formula One can turn on a dime," Brown continued. "So we want to make sure one of the benefits of having multiple teams inside McLaren Racing is to have opportunities for sponsors, for mechanics, engineers and also racing drivers to crosspollinate if it makes sense.
"So as I look at our stable of drivers, I consider our drivers to be McLaren drivers, who happened to be racing in a Formula One car or an Indy car or Formula E car. And I've always been very open minded just as we took Fernando [Alonso] from Formula One to IndyCar, that should have a seat open up, we've got Pato, who is very capable of being a Formula One driver.
"We want to make sure he's prepared in the event that that happens. The tricky part for us is our IndyCar team is every bit as important to us, so you also need to therefore have plans in place that if you start moving drivers around, you don't want to ever compromise any of your racing programs."
As much as O'Ward would love to give F1 a proper go, he isn't willing to let the test runs and the upcoming FP1 outing at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix distract from his preparation for IndyCar's 2024 season, when the series will debut its hybrid powertrains.
"Other than getting to drive these rockets, it doesn't matter if I've driven it four times, five times, six times ... first time, they're just awesome machines," O'Ward said to ESPN. "Nothing comes close to them in terms of just what it feels like to take one to the limit. It's very exciting every single time that I get to jump back into it, but at the end of this, whether it does materialize into a Formula One drive or just ends up being something where I become a better racing driver, it's a win-win."
Although the chances of seeing O'Ward as more than a brief F1 stand-in for McLaren are slim, Brown cautions against painting the ongoing test program for IndyCar's most popular driver as a publicity stunt.
"First of all, it's cost us millions of dollars to go testing," he retorted. "I'm less concerned about what the paddock thinks and would never want my own racing team and board thinking we were doing this anything for other than the right reasons. If we wanted to do a PR stunt, we'd go do donuts down Broadway in New York with Kyle Larson."
For his part, O'Ward will continue accepting the invitations from Brown to drive McLaren F1 cars while doing his best to keep his childhood desires of representing the Mexican flag in grand prix racing in check. IndyCar fans don't want to lose O'Ward to F1, but he's among the best candidates the series has to offer.
"Everybody in the team is well aware of what my aspirations have been ever since I was a kid," he said moments before returning to the track in Spain. "So it really is just about taking advantage of the opportunity and my job is to show them that I'm ready if they need me, if a seat does open up. And that's as much as I can do.
"Other than that, it's just helping the team in the best way that I can with my abilities, and then just enjoy it. Because if you're not enjoying it, then there's really no point in doing this. But I can assure you that that I have a massive smile on my face every time I go out."