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Fearless or Foolish? Unpicking Arrow McLaren's latest driver saga

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Joe Skibinski

For the fourth time in six months, and the fifth time in a year, Arrow McLaren have found themselves a different driver to pilot the #6 Chevrolet in the constant rotating door of individuals who had seemingly locked down the seat. McLaren's latest victim, Théo Pourchaire, who's planned 15 race season, ends after a measly five, replaced by a supposed hotshot in 19-year-old, Nolan Siegel.

But where does this saga even start at this point? Tony Kanaan states: "It started back in last year with that driver that decided not to come over and breached his contract." Gavin Ward on the other hand, "The disruption we’ve had off one little accident on a mountain bike is pretty phenomenal and I’m looking forward to moving past that."

It can be traced back until 2022 in many ways, with the bombshell that Álex Palou would make the switch to McLaren for 2023, just hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced that he had renewed his contract with the team. That was a mess in itself, but the inevitability was that Palou would settle the dust by racing for the team in 2024. As we know full well, the IndyCar Champion did not fulfil his contract, and stayed put at Ganassi.

And then David Malukas comes into the picture. A young, enthusiastic, rising star of the series, to replace Felix Rosenqvist, who had been fed up of McLaren seemingly desperate attitude in trying to get him out the door. We also know full well of the break-down in Malukas' mountain bike accident. A longer recovery time forced them to go their own ways.

A pre-season mountain bike injury ended Malukas' McLaren hopes. Credit: Chris Owens

It was a shame that we didn't get to see one of the series' biggest prospects in the top machinery but that was understandable from both parties: "The relationship is still very strong. From both sides, I think we both wanted me to be in the car. It was just unfortunate the way things turned out. At the end of the day business is business. They had obligations to hit. Obviously with the injury, I couldn't do it."

A huge disruption, one they could work around. In comes Callum Ilott, a driver with his own unfortunate contract saga, but one who could temporarily fill Malukas' shoes, alongside his own commitments in the World Endurance Championship. Ilott was never a real option for 2024 as an individual, but did a good job on the Streets of St. Petersburg and the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

With Ilott soon unavailable due to his other commitments, in steps reigning Formula 2 Champion, Théo Pourchaire, currently racing in the Japanese Super Formula series. The young and excitable Frenchman puts in a good showing on debut, before his services are retained for the Grand Prix of Alabama the following weekend.

And after Malukas' release is officially confirmed post-Alabama, the news comes on May 9th that Pourchaire will compete in all remaining 2024 events outside of the Indianapolis 500, as McLaren buy him out of his Super Formula contract to commit to his new racing career in the States. An oval test at World Wide Technology Raceway to skill Pourchaire up for the plethora of ovals at the end of 2024 only suggests their investment in the Frenchman.

40 days after Pourchaire's IndyCar future had seemingly been secured, it's over. Credit: Joe Skibinski

40 days later, Pourchaire is out the door, and with little explanation to that.

It's difficult where to exactly pinpoint where this has gone wrong, because there's very little avenues to head down to give any sort of conclusive or reasonable explanation on why the decision to drop Pourchaire has been made.

Siegel isn't a proven driver, particularly on Pourchaire's level by any stretch of the imagination. He's had an impressive rise up the junior ranks, finishing third in his first full Indy NXT season last year, claiming three wins in IndyCar's junior series. A split IndyCar-Indy NXT program with Dale Coyne Racing in 2024 made sense to give the Californian the foundations to step up full-time in 2024.

It started off with an impressive maiden showing at the Thermal Club, before an anonymous outing on the Streets of Long Beach - albeit, it was in the only car with more disarray then the one he's about to step into. Siegel was the only individual who failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, ending his month with two crashes, before stepping in for Agustín Canapino last-minute at Road America, finishing 23rd, but it's hard to review that weekend with any fair conclusions.

A class win in Le Mans for Zak Brown's United Autosports outfit only added to his resume, but the McLaren move was pre-arranged before then. A harsh outlook on Pourchaire, who tweeted on Monday his excitement at racing at the legendary Laguna Seca.

Siegel is very highly rated amongst IndyCar personnel. Credit: Joe Skibinski

Siegel's junior career is clearly impressive, but it's still incomparable to what Pourchaire has done in Europe. And if any team held European racing in a higher regard, it would be McLaren. The true reality is that Pourchaire is probably unfortunate he isn't in Formula One, considering he's had links with the sport since he was 16 years old. He's always been held in a high regard of one of motorsport's brightest prospects, with six F2 wins to his name, a title, and runner-up spot.

And it's not like his IndyCar career has been underwhelming to date by any stretch of the imagination. Don't get me wrong, he hasn't set the world alight, but by no means as he been underperforming. An 11th on debut was highly impressive, he looked the best of all the Arrow McLaren drivers on the Streets of Detroit, and has been making progress race-by-race.

Kanaan has stated that “It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t because of his performance. I think he’s done whatever he could do," which was only backed up by Ward: “This has got nothing to do with how he was driving or working with the team, we all really like Theo and his attitude coming into the team."

It's Ward's next statement which is most confusing: “But we need to set ourselves up for long-term competitiveness, although this is yet another change, the real goal with this change is seeking the stability that the team needs."

Kanaan was one pushing to bring Pourchaire over to IndyCar. Credit: Paul Hurley

Was Pourchaire not seen as this stability? Was Pourchaire not seen as a long-term, competitive option? If it's not for performance, dropping him for longer-term stability is simply ludicrous. Siegel is young, and mature for his age, but as is Pourchaire, only a year Siegel's elder.

It's simply baffling that McLaren put so much time and investment into Pourchaire just 40 days ago in organising him oval tests, integrating him into the part of the team for the open test, and for the entire 'Month of May.' He was secured for the rest of the season, not to be a seat-filler, like the angle that Ward and co seem to insist that he is.

Pourchaire also now finds himself in a rotten situation. Formula One wasn't a possibility short-term, so committed himself to Japan for a year. McLaren have provided him with an opportunity, which he took with both hands, but had to sacrifice his season in Japan. What's he left with now? The reigning F2 champion has seemingly had two contacts just seized out of his grasp by McLaren.

It's also a bit bemusing why Pourchaire wasn't seen as a long-term competitive option, particularly when directly compared to Siegel. By no means is Siegel a poor driver, and his time for IndyCar is probably now, but when you put the two head-to-head, Pourchaire trumps it comfortably. Do McLaren have a fear that an F1 team are going to pick him up? It's one of very few plausible explanations into why he's been dropped for reasons which aren't performance-based.

Siegel has committed to a multi-year contract with McLaren, which makes complete sense in his camp, but does it make sense from McLaren's side, for someone who's less proven then Pourchaire from a direct IndyCar standpoint?

Siegel is on a multi-year deal. Credit: McLaren Racing

Ward explains: "[Siegel] is one of the hottest prospects on the up and coming side of IndyCar and the North American racing scene, it was logical to fast forward and get him in the car as soon as possible.”

“At the time we put Theo in the car, Nolan was committed to his Indy NXT season so with the clashes there and with his limited programme with Coyne, a full season didn’t look like it was on the cards, with the developments and making the choice to step away from NXT at Road America, that brought this forward in a hurry. This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. This has been an ongoing strategic thing.”

Kanaan re-iterated Ward's comments: “If we didn’t jump, somebody else would.”

But, what's the issue to McLaren if somebody else did jump? With Penske locked-down, and Andretti likely secured for 2025, unless Chip Ganassi made another bold driver call, there would be no team that would be a realistic threat to McLaren directly. Let's say Siegel opted for an RLL, or ECR, or Juncos - does that really pose as much of a threat to McLaren as Ward and Kanaan are making it out to be?

If McLaren did see him as a longer-term option, surely him signing for a team in the mid-pack is almost better? It does give him a year to establish himself, it would be lower risk for McLaren to sign him in that case. What happens 12 months down the line from now if Siegel doesn't perform at the level expected? Yes, he's very highly rated, but he's still got to prove himself against some of the best in the world.

Siegel would hardly be a threat to McLaren in an RLL, ECR or Juncos car. You can all but feel Pourchaire potentially is for a driver of his calibre. It's been stated that three prominent teams have enquired about his availability already. It would be a tough pill to swallow for McLaren if Pourchaire were to do so, after this seeming vote-of-no-confidence.

Arrow remain committed to McLaren. Credit: Joe Skibinski

There's always the financial argument, but it's quite incomprehensible to really believe that's the avenue McLaren have taken. Rumours of Arrow leaving at the end of 2024 have quickly been quashed, and for a team loaning out sponsors to their ill-fated alliance with Juncos, it's not like that's in short-supply. Yes, it's no secret that Siegel's family comes from a wealthy background, but when McLaren have the series' most popular and marketable driver in Pato O'Ward in their stable it feels almost impossible that they're going to have financial issues.

This places an absolute mountain of pressure on Siegel. The criticism isn't around him, the criticism is around the situation that he's been the benefactor of. Kanaan stated: “We have to just move on, we’re here trying to win races. Once we win a race, nobody’s going to remember.” If Siegel had gone to an RLL or Juncos, pressure is almost non-existent. Siegel has got to get up to speed, and up to speed quickly.

But with McLaren seeking stability, they've pushed that program back 40 days from the initial stability they had seemed to find in Pourchaire. Siegel has never raced on an oval in IndyCar, he has never driven a McLaren car. Pourchaire, in comparison, had several weeks to prepare, Siegel's been thrown in at the deep end. Maybe you can excuse a steady start to Siegel's life at McLaren, but critics will be quick to comment if he does not patch the levels Pourchaire showed early on.

It's been a rotten start to life for Pourchaire in IndyCar, this only adding to the disgusting online abuse he recieved after colliding with Agustín Canapino on the Streets of Detroit. This only compounds to the misery, and maybe puts IndyCar as a less attractive career option than it once was.

Ward has placed well-being as a central role in Arrow McLaren. Credit: Joe Skibinski

When Gavin Ward took the helm at McLaren's IndyCar operations in 2022, he placed mental health and well-being at the forefront of the teams philosophy. This is not a good reflection of that. The Malukas situation was criticised for that, but that, at least, had some feasible explanation, in Pourchaire's case, this doesn't.

And this isn't the first time, or the second time that this has happened at Arrow McLaren. It's only adding to a concerningly increasing list of driver mis-management at the team. James Hinchcliffe has re-assured he had done enough to keep his seat, preventing him from negotiating with other teams, in order to keep his seat. He was dropped at the 11th hour.

Oliver Askew had concussion-type symptoms after a major crash in the 2020 Indianapolis 500. His performance dropped, and he came forward to the team with this issues. The decision to drop him had seemingly already been made.

Askew would also suffer the McLaren short-straw. Credit: James Black

Felix Rosenqvist seemed shunned out of McLaren's IndyCar door with Palou's impending arrival in 2023. He was awkwardly kept on after Palou delayed his signing in papaya. He performed respectably in 2023, before McLaren tried to shun up for Palou again, before Rosenqvist left as he seeked to have his own certainty in the series.

Then came Malukas, and now this. It's not a good look for this team, especially with their standing in international motorsport.

The Pourchaire situation isn't made any better by the fact he was told on Tuesday. Just one day after the tweet expressing his excitement to race at Laguna Seca. It only adds insult to injury that he's being replaced by someone with vast disparity in their standpoint in the sport.

But what now? McLaren have once again found themselves in a bit of a PR disaster. The only way to shirk from yet another disaster, is for Siegel to exceed expectations and justify why McLaren, Kanaan and Ward have put their reputations on the line to make this call.

This isn't the first shock driver replacement this year. Credit: James Black

Motorsport is cut-throat, we saw this with Tom Blomqvist just weeks ago, but we again saw the explanation from the victim's side, in Meyer Shank's necessity to get into the leaders circle. What's most ironic, is this weekend signifies Malukas' return to the series, replacing Blomqvist. This whole saga could have almost been a non-incident had Malukas come back at this point.

Pourchaire's next moves are critical. He seems to have enjoyed racing in the states so far, he's holds an undeniable feel-good factor for the series, and it's very easy to see the competition chase down his signature. But it places him in an unwanted situation, after Zak Brown stated weeks ago that McLaren were happy with their line-up.

If Pourchaire does return in some capacity, and out-performs Siegel, some further awkward questions will have to be asked.


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