In motorsport you’re often seen as only being as good as your last race, and nowhere is that more obvious than the Red Bull Junior Team. It stuck with a driver who had a 1015 day losing streak in the form of Pierre Gasly, who is now underwhelming in Formula 1 to the point he’s being lapped by his team-mate.
That so far has proven not to be a grounds for dismissal, and it was the Frenchman’s redeeming year in Super Formula between his GP2 title and F1 debut that convinced Red Bull junior boss Dr Helmut Marko he was ready for F1.
Gasly wasn’t the most talked about under-pressure Red Bull driver during the Austrian Grand Prix weekend though, as his own poor performance came in the wake of two-time Macau Grand Prix winner Dan Ticktum being dropped from the Red Bull Junior Team for practically the same offence.
In the third Super Formula race of the season at Sugo last weekend, Ticktum finished a lapped 15th as Red Bull stablemate Lucas Auer took to the podium with the inexperienced Motopark team. Within three days Ticktum had lost his Team Mugen drive and junior role.
This coincided with fellow junior and IndyCar racer Patricio O’Ward being drafted in to replace the banned Mahaveer Raghunathan at MP Motorsport for the Formula 2 round at the Red Bull Ring. As timing went, it made the momentum look very much in O’Ward’s favour.
Being thrown into F1’s primary support category in a car you’ve never driven and at your employer’s home track is a big ask though, so how did O’Ward end up in his unexpected position?
After winning the Indy Lights title last year, O’Ward and Andretti Autosport team-mate Colton Herta were handed IndyCar debuts with Harding Racing in the season finale at Sonoma. O’Ward qualified a remarkable fifth, and after a eye-opening first stint in tyre management, he held his own to finish ninth.
“That was really big [for me]. Especially to the IndyCar owners’ market,” O’Ward says to Formula Scout in Austria.
“Obviously I?ve found out now, there is quite a bit of differences between the teams. There are some that are just way stronger because of the knowledge that they have, and I had a very strong car [at Sonoma]. I?m not trying to taking away from what I got to achieve, but I had a very strong car and I performed.”
Days after his starring cameo, O’Ward and Herta were signed up by Harding for the full 2019 season. In February this year, O’Ward left the team when it emerged it did not have an engine lease to cover a full season for O’Ward, and neither had the budget to run him.
“I started smelling it around Christmas time. And then in January I made the decision: you know what, just drop me, because you?re going to hurt me more than you?re going to help me by doing just three races.”
The three races, including the Indianapolis 500, were covered by the $1 million scholarship O’Ward received as Indy Lights champion. Beyond that scholarship, he had little else in funding for the year.
“It took a while to get the release, unlucky, but I was lucky enough to get a chance with Carlin Racing. Trevor Carlin has helped massively and really has opened doors for me so that?s been fantastic.”
O’Ward’s part-time deal with Carlin has come with its own complications, including missing the season opener and a free practice crash that cost valuable track time and led to him failing to qualify for the Indy 500.
“I think Carlin’s a fantastic team, a great group of people, and they have really welcomed me into their family and made me feel very welcome. I?d love to work with them again in the future.
“I?ve done everything I could do [this season], with what we have. We?re all still learning, including me. But we?ve done a massive job, especially in qualifying where we?ve shown a lot of speed. But in the races – they?re long and everything has to go perfectly to get a strong result. That?s where we?re lacking a little bit and we just have to work a bit harder.
“If Trevor [Carlin] thinks you?re good, I think it speaks very highly because he?s seen a lot of talent. To be talked about or qualified highly by him, it definitely means a lot.”
As well as saving O’Ward’s IndyCar ambitions, team boss Carlin was also instrumental in the deal that ultimately led to the 20-year-old Mexican being in Austria last weekend. No less than eight of Red Bull’s 14 F1 graduates have driven for the British team.
“It was a surprise call [from Dr Marko]. Everything honestly this year has been a rollercoaster,” recounts O’Ward.
“I?ve been almost everywhere – it?s just been very emotional. It?s been a hectic year for sure, and hopefully soon I get some clearer things in play and I can settle down a bit more.”
Red Bull’s marketing budget means O’Ward’s IndyCar deal is not in its interests, which means zero financial support, and the F2 cameo is part of its plan to get him racing in Europe and Japan. In another example of good timing, it looks like O’Ward’s IndyCar deal may be scaled back entirely due to budgetary concerns.
O’Ward is a gracious character though, and he’s glad that Red Bull has already sourced him a fully funded seat for the rest of 2019: replacing Ticktum in Super Formula. Another example of O’Ward’s gratitude is the happiness he feels for former team-mate Herta, who did keep his Harding season and became the youngest ever IndyCar winner and pole-setter.
He’s aware he could’ve been in the same winning position, but victories in IndyCar means little when sat in a Dallara F2 2018.
“The hardest thing for me has been – obviously adapting to a new circuit, new car, new tyres – but I think the most difficult thing for me was really finding out, or figuring out the peak of the tyre in a new set,” O’Ward tells Formula Scout after F2 qualifying.
“I maybe had 10 flying laps to get to know everything. It?s not a lot of time to get the hang of things and really adapt to something that’s totally different to what I?m used to. The biggest thing is finding how the tyres likes to be loaded.”
One benefit O’Ward had for his debut, which was as unprepared as it could have been, was having fellow IndyCar racer Jordan King as team-mate.
“Jordan has been around for quite a bit, so he knows the series pretty well. I ended up a tenth off him [in qualifying]. I feel like I did a pretty good job just to get up to speed with the amount of time that I actually had.”
The hope of a stronger race debut, from 17th on the grid, didn’t quite go to plan. MP picked an alternative strategy that left him running long on his first set of tyres. Before even pitting he had sank down the order, and finished a lap down to King. Of the three times in a week that had occurred for a Red Bull driver, this one was at least excusable.
“I just destroyed the tyres. I?ve honestly never driven slower in my life,” O’Ward admitted to Formula Scout.
“It?s a very different approach to what I?m used to. I see it like a game of chess. You kind of have to have the experience with the tyre and know how to take care of it to do well.
“The [feature] race was miserable, it was a proper struggle. I know it?s going to take time to adjust to it because it?s so different. You can see everybody in the series besides one or two more have been in F2 for three plus years. The experience comes in handy especially with this kind of tyre, so the only thing that?s going to help is seat time with this actual tyre.”
That may well be a possibility with further F2 appearance on the horizon later in the year, especially after a far more encouraging sprint race where he finished 14th. He could have finished a few places higher had he not been caught out on the race’s safety car restart.
“I had a much better idea of how to balance the thermal heat of the tyres and could look after them.
“We passed guys today and would have done even better but for a couple of guys who went in for new tyres and later got ahead of us.”
For now, O’Ward’s priority is Super Formula, a sentence that few would have expected a week ago.
“It will be a big opportunity for me just to get some more seat time in a different car in a very quick car, to be ready in case they want to put me in Formula 1.
“I?m very much looking forward to it. I know it?s a very competitive series, I know it?s a quick car. But I hear that it is a proper tyre, proper racecar, proper racing. So I?m very much looking forward to the challenge.
“I don?t know any tracks, I don?t know the car, I don?t know anything but I think it?s going to be an awesome experience for me. I think if I get the hang of it, if it?s a little bit closer to what I?m used to, just tyre-wise, I know I?m going to be fighting at the front.
“I understand why Dr Marko likes Super Formula, I understand a lot, and I?m very excited to go.”
Additional reporting by Peter Allen
What next for Dan Ticktum?
Like O’Ward, who spent a year out of single-seaters for budgetary reasons, Ticktum’s junior career has been full of ups and downs and the opportunity to deliver on the highest stages with his blatant talent has come through Red Bull.
Both of Ticktum’s Macau GP wins have gone down in history, as have the British Formula 4 antics that still haunt his career.
He fits the Red Bull character perfectly, making it no surprise that his Junior Team dismissal was more performance related. It’s still unclear why Ticktum’s struggled to shine in Super Formula this year, and his claim that it could be lasting chassis damage from a crash at Autopolis may hold merit.
What stands against that claim is his errors prior to that in testing and the Suzuka season opener, and how thoroughly he’s been outperformed by less highly-rated rookies while in the car of the reigning title-winner.
Formula Scout has reached out to Ticktum for comment, for which there has currently been no response, although the Briton has been active on social media defending himself from unsourced rumours regarding his unlikely Red Bull exit.
Patricio O?Ward: The next Indy 500 & Le Mans winner? (August 2018)
What made Dan Ticktum? (July 2018)
Why it?s not just Red Bull with eyes on Japan (April 2019)