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The inside view: Theo Pourchaire’s Arrow McLaren IndyCar move

Written by Archie O’Reilly

It is mere minutes on from Arrow McLaren’s big announcement and a smile is etched across Theo Pourchaire’s face as he sits in front of the mic in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) media centre. 

It has just gone public that the 20-year-old French driver will be competing in papaya again on the IMS road course before going full-time with the team in the NTT IndyCar Series following the Indianapolis 500. The grin by no means fades as the questions commence.

“I’m so happy to be able to drive more in IndyCar,” Pourchaire says. “I developed a good relationship with the team since I arrived in Indianapolis, and right now I have this opportunity to finish the season with them. It’s unbelievable. I’m part of the Sauber Academy, and I’m still a reserve driver for them, so they made this possible as well. I’m super happy.”

Pourchaire is living a childhood dream driving for the “legendary” McLaren brand. He knows it will not be an easy rookie year in IndyCar but is ready to embrace the process.

“It’s crazy when I think about it,” he added. “A few weeks ago I just received a call from Arrow McLaren to replace an injured driver for one race in Long Beach. So I just took my suitcase with not so many things inside, just told my parents I will come back soon. But apparently not. It’s good. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Here is the story of how the reigning FIA Formula 2 champion, facing a now-abandoned year in Super Formula alongside his commitments as Sauber’s Formula 1 Reserve Driver, has ended up with a surprise shot at IndyCar…

How the move came about

In racing, the element of ‘chance’ is always a factor. And Pourchaire’s entry into IndyCar does not deviate from this path.

His route into the picture came as he found himself a beneficiary of the unfortunate wrist injury sustained by new signing David Malukas in a pre-season mountain biking accident. This meant Arrow McLaren had to turn to using deputies to commence their 2024 campaign, rather than fielding their newly-acquired driver in the No.6 Chevy.

They called upon Callum Ilott for the opening two events in St. Petersburg and in the Thermal Club exhibition event. There was supposed prior interest in Ilott but he was locked in at Juncos Hollinger Racing until a separation in October - once Arrow McLaren’s 2024 plans were decided. 

Ilott’s full-time commitments this year lie in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), which allowed an opening for Pourchaire to make his IndyCar debut on the streets of Long Beach with no scheduled Super Formula event until mid-May. 

With Pourchaire also Sauber’s F1 Reserve Driver, the relationship between Sauber CEO Andreas Seidl and McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown from their time together at McLaren in F1 helped to get the ball rolling. At the time, he described it as “an amazing opportunity” and “an amazing surprise” - speaking with the same beaming smile.

There was enough time for Pourchaire to watch April’s solar eclipse in Indianapolis. But in terms of achieving ample preparation, the move was at late notice and allowed for only a few hours’ of simulator time, along with the watching of onboards and assessment of data, as well as assistance from now-Sporting Director Tony Kanaan and the remainder of the team. 

“Tony is a very nice person.” Pourchaire said. “He’s like a friend now. It’s super important for me to have him and speak to him, to laugh with him. We are always together. It’s good to be with him.”

Pourchaire was also hosted by some drivers, including former F2 teammate Christian Lundgaard, for the F1 Japanese Grand Prix, where he was able to pick their brains about the car and more.

Most drivers make their debut with a test under their belt but this was not possible for Pourchaire. So a “difficult” weekend of learning inevitably awaited him. But despite being thrown in the deep end, he relished the challenge.

An 11th-place finish in Long Beach - up 11 positions as the race’s biggest mover - was enough to earn him another shot at Barber Motorsports Park. Given the quick turnaround from Ilott’s WEC weekend at Imola, it was not particularly feasible to put the Briton back in the car, especially after Pourchaire’s impressive debut.

Long Beach was a street track bumpier than those Pourchaire has experience of success on in Europe. And the car was always bound to be a physical challenge too. That considered, Pourchaire’s description of an impressively error-free weekend as “incredible” was justified.

It was a rough Barber weekend for Arrow McLaren but Pourchaire was the team’s best finisher in 22nd after teammate Pato O’Ward hit him late on and was penalised by being dropped behind. This was evidently enough to prove to Arrow McLaren that they would like to complete the season with Pourchaire.

One day later, the crushing news came for Malukas that he would be released by the team amid continued uncertainty relating to his recovery from his wrist surgery after missing the first four events of the season.

The Indy 500 - a race that Pourchaire has watched since he was a kid - will come too soon and the expectation is that Ilott will again be in the No.6 Chevy for Arrow McLaren. But there is no doubting the Frenchman’s future ambition to emulate the achievement of countryman Simon Pagenaud, who won the Indy 500 in 2019 with Pourchaire watching from afar.

“I will have the time in the future to do this race hopefully,” he said.

An oval test did ensue for Pourchaire on the shorter 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway (WWTR) after Barber - another solid indication as to the credit he has already built in the eyes of Brown, Kanaan and Team Principal Gavin Ward.

Pourchaire’s maiden oval experience

Pourchaire’s outing at WWTR, formerly known as Gateway, started with understandable nerves as he embarked on a track type often synonymous with its perceived danger. But as has been the case in his early IndyCar career, his adaptation was impressive.

“I was really nervous,” he said. “But then after a few sessions, I was more and more confident, and by the end I think I was doing good. The team was happy with my performance, and I was also happy to discover the oval. It was good.”

Naturally, he said “it was a bit difficult” to start with. It is a discipline unlike anything Pourchaire has run in at any point during his young career to date and the commitment required and confidence needed in the car took some getting used to. 

But he already seems sold after the first rodeo.

“It was amazing,” he said. “It’s really impressive. Ovals are crazy, super fast, and at the end I was so tired because I was a bit stressed and I didn’t want to do any mistakes. At that speed, if you do a small mistake it can be really bad. But I enjoyed it, driving close to the walls and trying to feel the car.”

Pourchaire already understands that the European notion of oval racing being “we just have to turn left and be full throttle” is “completely false” after one outing. And it goes beyond what he experienced in the test, with acknowledgement of the strategy element in races.

Ultimately, the presence of experienced oval racer Kanaan, along with fellow Indy 500 victor Alexander Rossi, was very helpful to allow a swift adaptation.

“They have a lot of experience,” Pourchaire said. “I had Alex helping me to shake down the car, so that gave me a lot of confidence. I also had Tony there helping me, giving me advice to feel confident in the car.”

Abandoning Super Formula plans

By making the full-time switch to IndyCar from Detroit onwards, Pourchaire had to take the difficult decision to abandon his Super Formula campaign with Team Impul amid three clashes with IndyCar events. He had competed in one race weekend.

He confirmed that his manager had been in conversation with Team President Kazuyoshi Hoshino to discuss how the situation had “unfortunately” become for his participation with Impul in Japan.

“McLaren gave me the opportunity to become a professional racing driver, an opportunity that everybody dreams of one day,” Pourchaire said. “I have to give them credit for that. It’s unbelievable. They trust me and of course I cannot continue in Super Formula. But I enjoyed driving there and the Hoshino family helped me quite a lot.”

Despite there still being an agreement with Sauber for his Reserve Driver duty in F1, Pourchaire’s “main focus” is now on IndyCar with a McLaren organisation that is a competitor of his F1 team.

“A few months ago, I didn’t have anything before going to Japan and doing my first Super Formula race,” he said. “I was a reserve driver in F1, which is great, but I was not doing anything, just simulator and working in the gym and looking at the other drivers racing. 

“Right now I’m a full-time IndyCar driver for Arrow McLaren. It’s crazy and I would love to spend more time here.”

What could 2025 and beyond look like?

As of now, Pourchaire is only a full-time IndyCar driver for the remainder of 2024. But his options are still open for 2025 and he does not know what the long-term future could hold. There is the bulk of an IndyCar season ahead before a decision has to be reached.

“A few days ago I didn’t know I was going to finish the season here,” he said. “At the moment, I know I’m going to finish the season in IndyCar so I'm going to do my best and try to give my best. It’s a great championship. I would love to race there again in the future. But we will see.”

At only 20 years old, and a three-time top-five championship finisher in F2, Pourchaire has remained keen to reiterate that his best years remain ahead as he bids for an F1 opportunity to chase his dream of being F1 world champion. But he has also confirmed that IndyCar was on his list ahead of 2024 before a Super Formula move materialised. 

“I feel like I still have at least two, three years maybe to get another opportunity in F1,” Pourchaire said. “But right now I think [IndyCar] is for sure the biggest opportunity I got in my life. Right now I’m not thinking too much about F1… I’m thinking a lot about IndyCar because it’s an amazing opportunity.”

Pourchaire admitted he was “waiting on an F1 driver with Sauber” for a while during the off-season following his F2 success. But the pathway to F1 appears more difficult than ever.

“It’s very, very difficult because I feel like there are not a lot of new drivers in F1 nowadays,” Pourchaire said. “I’m still really young - I know I can probably have a few more opportunities to go to F1 if I’m a really good driver. I think a place like IndyCar can be the best championship for me to show myself. 

“I hope I can drive more there in the future if I don’t have the opportunity in F1.”

“What we want to do is race”

In recent years, there has been a proliferation in drivers moving over from the F1 ladder system to race in IndyCar; Callum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard, Marcus Armstrong and Luca Ghiotto are all recent examples. 

“I think everybody knows that it is very complicated nowadays to have an F1 seat for some reason,” Pourchaire said. “A lot of very talented young drivers want to drive - they don’t want only to be a reserve driver in F1. Sometimes it’s tough when you win a championship, stay on the sidelines, you do simulator, you just wait. What we want to do is race.”

Pourchaire is not pretending it does not hurt a little to have not made it to F1. But he also realises the magnitude of the achievement of simply becoming a professional racing driver - and in the papaya of McLaren. And IndyCar is not a bad landing spot. 

“I love it,” Pourchaire said. “It’s a great championship.”

He is already an admirer of the racing product in IndyCar, which can be elbows-out and aggressive but provides plenty of overtaking opportunities. After two races, he is already enjoying the part-spec element to the series.

“The racing product is really good,” he said. “The good thing in IndyCar is that everybody has the same chassis. You can develop the cars a little bit - the dampers… It’s quite a simple category. You have two engine [manufacturers], which makes it also close. 

“The level of drivers is amazing. You have really experienced drivers like [Scott] Dixon and also rookies. Everybody’s good. It makes the racing really tough. I like it.”

Pourchaire is mature in his understanding that “F1 is good” and may be the childhood dream of many young racing drivers. “But IndyCar is really good as well,” he said.

Getting used to the Indy car

Without any prior test time, Pourchaire has hinted that he was understandably “completely lost” when he drove the Indy car for the first time. But soon enough he was “super happy” to be driving the car on the tight streets of Long Beach.

“It’s very powerful, which is really, really good,” he said. “When you’re in the car, you accelerate, it’s like: ‘Wow, there’s a lot of power.’ I was surprised. I was smiling. In Long Beach, the first lap, I was like: ‘It’s very bumpy and powerful, I have to be careful.’ I like it to drive. It’s close to F2, so it’s something I’m used to a little bit. It’s very fun.”

Pourchaire has experience of driving “amazing” F1 cars in his Sauber Reserve Driver role. But it is F2 that he likens IndyCar, which does not have power steering, to from the array of cars he has driven in his young career.

“The downforce level, the weight of the car is a little bit different,” he said. “The Super Formula is completely different - it’s super light, not so powerful, doesn’t go too fast in a straight line. It’s super fast in the high-speed corners. A track like Suzuka, for example, it's almost as quick as a Formula 1 car in sector one.”

Adapting to new tracks Stateside

Another part of Pourchaire’s adaptation is getting used to new tracks - some of which are similar to those he has experienced and others that are not. The bumpiness of Long Beach certainly put it in the latter category.

“It’s a little bit different,” Pourchaire said. “There’s a lot of bumps… It’s crazy. Everybody told me that it’s one of the street courses with less bumps on the calendar. I was like: ‘Okay, already very bumpy for me coming from street course tracks like Monaco or Jeddah in Formula 1… they are really flat.’”

But to his credit, Pourchaire very quickly got up to speed and successfully tested the limits as some more experienced drivers fell by the wayside. Even across practice in Long Beach, he was testing the Dallara DW12’s robustness with taps of the walls.

Pourchaire knows he “will almost start from zero” and will have to “rediscover the car” as he continues to visit unfamiliar tracks. Some of his only experience of the tracks has come from video games, including Laguna Seca, which he is looking forward to the most.

“That’s a legendary track in the United States, especially the Corkscrew,” he said. “I know this track very well from the video games. This one and many other tracks, especially the ovals [I’m looking forward to]. My first oval race, I really can’t wait to do it because there is a lot of strategy, a lot of work to do with the engineers to set up the car very well.”

The second track that Pourchaire drove on at Barber was entirely different to Long Beach. It offered a first IndyCar road course experience and the first taste of some very high-speed corners, which Pourchaire is accustomed to driving high downforce cars in. 

Most of his learning ahead of future races will have to come via the Chevrolet simulator in Charlotte, which teams are required to book to use. Pourchaire is very familiar with simulators from his stint as Reserve Driver at Sauber.

“You just jump in the simulator, do a lot of laps, a lot of laps, a lot of laps, try setups, try different grip levels to be as close as possible for when you will be jumping in the car in practice one,” he explained. “You can try a lot of things. We can start from 8am in the morning and finish around 6pm, 7pm in the afternoon. 

“Of course, we do some little breaks. We can watch the data, try to watch onboard cameras for the racing lines if we want to try different racing lines. It can be a very long day… It’s super important because we don’t have a lot of track time. We need to be prepared when we jump in.”

One thing that it does not prepare drivers fully for is the physical experience out on track, which is something that has been difficult for Pourchaire - as with the majority of drivers that move over to IndyCar - early on.

“It was a challenge,” he said after Long Beach. “But I don’t think it was an issue for the performance in Long Beach. I think I was feeling good in the car. I had a good rhythm during the race. I could manage myself, rest myself in the straight lines. It was okay.”

Pourchaire now has 13 more races, including the IMS road course event, on top of the two he has already run to convince Arrow McLaren that he is a viable long-term option amid possible vacancies at the team at the end of the year. He is certainly keen if an F1 opportunity does not arise.

He joins a crop of full-season rookies containing Linus Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson for Chip Ganassi Racing, along with Meyer Shank Racing’s Tom Blomqvist in the bid for Rookie of the Year. 

Pourchaire is already five points ahead of Ed Carpenter Racing rookie Christian Rasmussen, who is running a non-oval schedule aside from the Indy 500, despite running a race less. He is 35 points adrift of Barber podium-sitter Lundqvist atop the rookie standings.

“Not participating in the Indy 500, it’s going to be difficult because you can score a lot of points,” he said. “But the most important thing for me is to perform well, do some great results during the season and the team will be proud and happy about myself. 

“There are lots of races remaining, so we probably can still win this rookie championship, though there are some really good rookies.” 

And it is fair to say the reigning F2 champion fits right in the category of high calibre rookies as he looks to become the latest export from F1’s premier ladder series to thrive Stateside.

1 Comment

May 12

Its a very tough break for Malukas but a great opportunity for Pourchaire. IndyCar or Super Formula is a no brainer. Next year (if he performs the balance of the season) he'll have a chance to win the oldest, biggest race in the world.

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