Insider: Zak Brown's raised questions but McLaren-ization of his IndyCar team is nearly done
Following Robert Wickens’ gruesome crash at Pocono that left him with a thoracic spinal fracture (among more than a dozen serious injuries), his IndyCar team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson made it clear the Canadian rookie would not -- could not -- be replaced.
They left Wickens' No. 6 car vacant for the next race, ran it for the final two races of the 2018 campaign then retired it indefinitely until that season’s Rookie of the Year could man it again.
“While Robert continues his recovery, we want to make it clear that the No. 6 entry is for Robert Wickens and him only,” the co-owners of what was then Schmidt Peterson Motorsports said in a statement at the time. “No matter the amount of time it takes for his full recovery, we will hold that seat for him.”
Wickens has progressed over the past four years to walking with assistance, pedaling a stationary bike and dancing with his wife, Karly, at their wedding then won back-to-back sportscar races this summer. Whether he’s ever able to make his way back to IndyCar competition is unclear but you’d be foolish to count him out.
But the No. 6 no longer hangs in the proverbial rafters of Arrow McLaren SP’s Indianapolis race shop. With McLaren Racing’s purchase of a 75% majority ownership stake in the IndyCar team, those calls are made by a largely-faceless five-person board headed by McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown.
AMSP announces new management plan:Gavin Ward named racing director, Brian Barnhart new general manager
When pushed specifically on why Rosenqvist was given Wickens’ No. 6 (newcomer Alexander Rossi takes over No. 7), Brown characterized it as a branding choice. In Formula 1, the team runs Nos. 3 and 4. Combined with Nos. 5, 6 and 7 in IndyCar, it all makes for a seamless picture that any marketing and communications professional can’t help but appreciate.
Perhaps less so, however, when you consider the promise Schmidt and Peterson made four years ago – one you could argue Brown and McLaren inherited with their takeover.
“With the No. 6 and Wickens and Sam, that was before our time,” Brown said. “We like the sequence of the numbers, and Robert’s still with the team and plays an important role, and we hope to have him continue with that.
“But that’s what drove that decision. What was discussed was before our time.”
Brown embraces Ward's promotion at the expense of Kiel's legacy
Brown’s known to be a master of words when he speaks publicly. Whereas other team officials might stretch the truth or even, in rare cases, mislead with the hope of fending off headaches for the short term, Brown’s an expert of knowing exactly what he’s saying – and more importantly, what he isn’t.
Take the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi-Felix Rosenqvist-McLaren Racing saga that last month came to an (albeit likely temporary) conclusion last month. When asked for an update about Palou’s 2023 contract with McLaren, Brown responded, “It’s still a work-in-progress, but what I would say is I’m very happy with Felix. He’s done an excellent job this year and been strong all year. I would be very happy to have Felix in our car again.”
McLaren Racing announced just that less than 72 hours later.
It’s why Brown’s comments Wednesday and the team’s official statements around its organizational shuffle have been intriguing. After a tenure that started with sweeping floors and doing odd jobs for Schmidt’s Indy Lights team in 2008 and reached the team presidency in early-2021, Taylor Kiel was given a two-sentence press release Sept. 20 to announce his departure from AMSP:
“Effective Tuesday, September 20, Taylor Kiel is stepping down as Arrow McLaren SP president after two seasons. As the team grows to three cars for the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, announcements on team management will be made in due course.”
Kiel leaving AMSP after 15 years:Team president joined in 2008 sweeping floors
Some teams might see that as a chance to issue a glowing thank you and tout the program’s ability to grow its own. McLaren boiled down Kiel’s 15 years of dedication to a statement that could fit in a tweet – with room to spare.
Wednesday, Brown said Kiel's departure was an “opportunity,” rather than loss. After losing one of the team’s most tenured veterans, Brown was excited about the chance to promote the team’s new engineering asset in Ward. Before the Canadian joined Penske in late-2018 and helped Josef Newgarden earn his second IndyCar title, Ward spent more than a decade in various roles on the Red Bull F1 team.
Brown’s attempted to infuse McLaren’s F1 technology, people and infrastructure into his new IndyCar team, so there’s little better than a resume with a title with Penske and four more with the F1 team that’s now on top of the sport.
“I think Gavin has a broader, more experienced skillset for what we’re looking for and how we think we’re going to take another step forward," Brown said. "What you start to see is, people step up and be natural leaders within the racing team, and I think we have a lot of energy and excitement at the race shop.
“To have F1 experience, because we draw on our F1 (team), Gavin will understand our capabilities and resources an F1 team has, and to most recently have been a Penske, he has a background that’s exactly what we’re looking for. At the end of the day, we want to beat Penske and all the others, and he knows what that organization looks like. He’s very performance focused, and I’ve come to see he’s very people focused and he’ll be a good leader.”
Brown: 'Excitement,' 'opportunity' abound amidst change, turmoil
Ward brought that combination of knowledge and potential with him to AMSP as its new director of trackside engineering in July, starting at Mid-Ohio after a six-month non-compete clause from his exit from Team Penske. At the time, Pato O’Ward was still in the championship picture.
Ward’s first weekend on the job was the epitome of what he’d been brought on to fix. Having taken pole at Mid-Ohio, O’Ward bowed out just past the halfway point with yet another mechanical gremlin. That same race, Rosenqvist blew an engine after starting on the second row. Together, the drivers who finished 7th (O’Ward) and 8th (Rosenqvist) in the championship in 2022 combined for six DNFs. Though it was far lower that O’Ward’s 4th (2020) and 3rd-place (2021) finishes the previous two seasons, Brown and Ward contend that the team’s overall performance, when excluding DNFs across the entire grid, had improved.
“You can run the data that shows if nobody had DNFs, where you would’ve been, and that picture shows we were definitely more competitive,” Brown said. “IndyCar’s all about consistency, and I think we’re getting faster race cars, and equally – if not more – important, we’re getting more consistent race cars, and that’s what in IndyCar racing wins you championships.”
And despite that up-and-down year on-track, combined with the various public contract spectacles and a handful of personnel exits, Brown characterized AMSP’s internal atmosphere as one full of great “excitement” as he and McLaren’s vision has begun to take shape in earnest.
“When we acquired the team, we wanted to lower ourselves in gently because we felt it was already a very strong racing team, and we’d be able to plus it up in time,” Brown said. “I think you find in these situations that, when you take the lid off things, people bring forward ideas that maybe didn’t get advanced in the past that could have or should have. This is an opportunity to get more involved more quickly. There’s a lot of energy and excitement, and everyone’s happy we have clarity around what our racing team looks like moving forward.”
Will Kyle Busch run the 500 with AMSP?'We want someone that's experienced'
For the time being, that’s a newly three-car team that’s seriously considering adding a fourth for the 2023 Indy 500 – whether that be Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya or another unnamed IndyCar veteran. It’s new 97,000 square-foot shop in Whitestown set to be fully-operational in 2024 may also house a future sportscar venture or a fourth full-time IndyCar entry that may or may not include Palou. Brown declined to delve into specifics with the Spaniard outside his F1 testing role – “I spent the last three or four months (making driver comments), but things will become clearer in due course.”
The way Ward sees it – and much of the reason why he willingly left a racing organization few do – boils down to Brown and McLaren’s vision – one that has no time to look backwards and is supremely focused on itself and its future.
“To me, this isn’t about a ‘copy-paste’ of Penske, or Red Bull, for that matter. I came here with the vision of building a dominant racing team that’s good to its people, builds its people, takes care of its people and has a lot of fun doing that,” AMSP’s new racing director said. “Penske did a lot right, and you can’t fault their results for sure, and we can learn from them, but we’re going to do our own thing here.
“We’re going to do what we think is the best way to build the best consistently performing racing team.”