McLaren is set to enter IndyCar again, full time, for the first time since 1979 in a partnership with the Arrow Schmidt Peterson team. And naturally, once that was confirmed speculation quickly turned to who its full-time drivers for 2020 were going to be.
Schmidt Peterson already had James Hinchcliffe under contract for the following year, although his close ties to Honda threw that into doubt.
This was down to the new McLaren SPM team taking Chevrolet engines, and Hinchcliffe is the face of a lot of Honda commercials.
The one open seat
But all the chat from Hinchcliffe and the team are that he will be there for next season, so let’s assume that it is the case. That leaves one vacant seat at the current moment.
Hinchcliffe’s teammate for 2019 was Marcus Ericsson, and he has now signed for Chip Ganassi Racing, so he is out of the picture.
Conor Daly was one of the contenders for the seat as well, but he was recently told by Zak Brown that that was no longer the case. Daly was looking like one of the leading contenders, but his most likely home, full time at least, is Carlin.
Askew rises to the fore
So, who is the strongest choice for the McLaren role? Well, one name that has been bounded around a lot is Oliver Askew, the new Indy Lights champion.
For those that don’t know, Indy Lights is effectively the feeder series for IndyCar, much like F2 is for Formula 1.
Askew had an incredible season and won the plaudits of many in the paddock. So it is perhaps no surprise that many see him as a shoo-in for that seat, some even think it is already a done deal.
But, the one thing that might count against him is if McLaren wants a couple of experienced drivers in their cars. Hinchcliffe, of course, has a lot of experience, and they may want a driver with at least a seasons worth under their belt.
Equally, taking on fresh talent could allow the team a chance to nurture them and make that driver their own. So that would certainly count in Askew’s favor.
Something else that would count in his favor is that there are not many other drivers being linked to the seat. Santino Ferucci was also considered, but he is probably going to stay where he is at Dale Coyne Racing.
Patricio O’Ward has also emerged as a contender in recent days. Picked up by Red Bull after his funding for 2018 dried up in IndyCar, the impressive Mexican has been dropped already from Red Bull’s program. However, he was released early from them so he could pursue his IndyCar options.
This is an unusually generous gesture from Red Bull, and it could well play into McLaren’s hands. O’Ward was incredibly quick and showed well for the Carlin team before his Indy Lights funding dried up.
He has some experience in IndyCar and drove at many of the tracks in Indy Lights too. He’s a young talent without the lack of IndyCar experience.
So if McLaren and SPM do get cold feet over Askew, then O’Ward could be a perfect choice. They will have to act fast too, because O’Ward, like the others, won’t wait around forever.