After hiring a new team principal over the winter and restructuring their senior technical personnel earlier this year in an effort to propel themselves towards the front of the Formula 1 grid, the Woking-based squad this week announced a revamped driver development programme designed to unearth and hone the next generation of talent in motorsport.
Led by former F1 racer and Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro, the team says the scheme will “will support young drivers in their development from karting to professional racing driver with the aim of facilitating the progression of emerging talent into F1.”
The focus on new youth may seem strange given that, in Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, McLaren already possesses two of the most highly rated drivers in F1. With the Briton aged 23 and the Australian only 22, the duo are also by far the youngest driver pairing on the grid.
Furthermore, Norris is contracted until the end of 2025, with Piastri believed to be on a deal until the culmination of the 2024 campaign with a further renewal option.
There has been some speculation that Norris could make an early departure from McLaren given their regression further back down the field in recent seasons, but CEO Zak Brown has insisted there are no early break clauses in the team’s agreement with the six-time podium finisher, and they would be loath to lose a talent who could potentially challenge for a championship in the right machinery.
The new academy is overseeing the careers of just three drivers as things stand, who were all signed to the team prior to this week’s announcement. The first is Ugo Ugochukwu, the 15-year-old who Brown signed up two years ago after very impressive results in karting.
The two others are current IndyCar stars Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward, the former driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in the US-based series while the latter competes for McLaren’s own outfit. The likelihood of either being given an F1 race seat by McLaren anytime soon is low, though.
IndyCar may provide closer racing than F1 and higher top speeds on oval circuits, but the FIA rates it relatively poorly when it comes to Super Licence points, meaning neither would currently qualify to race in F1. That problem also put an end to AlphaTauri’s attempt to sign Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta at the end of 2022.
What’s more, at 26 and 23 respectively, Palou and O’Ward are both older than the current McLaren F1 drivers, rendering the idea that they are being developed as the next generation to one day take the places of Norris and/or Piastri incongruous.
So, why are McLaren investing time, energy, and finances into developing their careers?
Palou is an extremely talented, consistently fast driver who won the IndyCar championship in 2021 after a stellar second season in the championship, scoring three wins. He also finished an impressive third in his sole season acing in Super Formula in Japan in 2019, demonstrating his range of strong experience across the single-seater categories.
The Spaniard currently serves as McLaren’s F1 reserve driver, and travels with the team to some events which don’t clash with his Stateside race weekends.
In O’Ward’s case, the last two IndyCar events have highlighted both why is held in such high regard in the wider motorsport community, and why he still has a long way to go before he can be considered the complete package.
The 23-year-old’s performance at the Texas oval threw weeks ago was spellbinding. Running an alternative strategy, he delivered consistent speed which his rivals at the front of the field simply couldn’t match, cutting through the competition seemingly at will at over 220 miles-per-hour. With the field bunched together in the final stages, it was only former Lotus and Haas driver Romain Grosjean’s crash and the subsequent yellow flag which meant O’Ward finished second behind winner Josef Newgarden.
In the most recent round at Long Beach, however, the Mexican toiled. He caused two incidents, firstly sending veteran Scott Dixon into the barriers after a late lunge down the inside, before sending himself into a spin as he desperately tried to pass Marcus Ericsson and tumbled down the order.
It makes sense that McLaren is still investing heavily in the futures of two racers who have proven their outright speed and ability to go wheel-to-wheel at the front of the field in open-wheel series. After all, the worst case scenario for the team is that both men’s skills improve and the squad eventually possesses a better IndyCar racer and F1 reserve driver than they would otherwise have done.
And if Norris were to kick up a fuss and force a move out of the team in the next few years, there are two obvious candidates to step in to fill the unexpected void.
For Palou and O’Ward themselves, though, the announcement doesn’t change an awful lot. They are likely to be given fleeting opportunities to test F1 machinery, as they have done before, but if their already distinguished IndyCar results aren’t enough to put them on track to a race seat, then it’s likely nothing ever will.
Ugochukwu’s age and the influence McLaren have over his junior career makes him the most likely candidate of the three development programme inductees to eventually lead the team in F1.
That possibility is a long way away, though, meaning we’re unlikely to see the next Norris come along any team soon.
For the foreseeable future, then, the most important part of McLaren’s early season revamp is the change to trackside personnel rather than those behind the wheel. If those switches have been made smartly, the future could look a lot brighter by the time somebody like Ugochukwu is ready for the spotlight.
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