Arrow McLaren SP

Arrow McLaren SP

Promoted: Why Oliver Askew can be IndyCar’s next star rookie

Arrow McLaren SP has signed Oliver Askew as one half of its 2020 youth movement, and the team’s belief is not misplaced, writes David Malsher.

Promoted: Why Oliver Askew can be IndyCar’s next star rookie

When Arrow McLaren SP confirmed its 2020 driver line-up in October, many veteran experts cocked an eyebrow at the thought of two rookies being paired together. Tradition has it that a team that hires either a graduate from a lower league or a driver transferring from a different series should pair him with a veteran – preferably one who has already competed for said team. The vet will serve both as a known quantity for the engineers and a benchmark for his newly arrived teammate.

However, for 2020 Arrow McLaren SP has said, ‘We want the best and hungriest drivers available’, and have managed to land the 2018 Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward and reigning Indy Lights champ Oliver Askew. It should provide a shake-up for the team and an exciting point of interest for all objective observers of the series.

Actually, O’Ward isn’t an absolute rookie, for he now has eight IndyCar starts to his name – one in the 2018 finale, and seven over the first half of last season. Still, as per the confirmed 2020 IndyCar entrant line-up, Arrow McLaren SP will enter next season with the youngest driver pairing on the grid. Heck, there are a couple of drivers in the series who are older than Askew and O’Ward’s combined ages of 42!

O’Ward and Askew have much experience to gain, but should overcome their deficit with open-mindedness, hunger and talent.

O’Ward and Askew have much experience to gain, but should overcome their deficit with open-mindedness, hunger and talent.

Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP

However, team co-owner Sam Schmidt and McLaren’s sporting director, Gil de Ferran believe the experience that racecar drivers gather in the junior ranks on the Road To Indy – USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights – is ample preparation for the top U.S. open-wheel series. When the new recruits have also performed exceptionally well in those formulas, then they become must-haves, and their potential outweighs their dearth of knowledge at this level.

“I think it's a different time,” says Schmidt. “When Gil and myself were coming through the ranks there was no sort of clear path. What we're seeing recently with the Road to Indy is nothing short of amazing. If you win, you advance…

“And these kids aren't coming in with three and four and five years of experience. We're talking 13, 14 years of racing experience and so they're a lot more advanced than rookies in days of old…

“What Colton Herta did this year was nothing short of amazing and [Oliver and Pato] come from exactly the same background, so we're hoping we'll have the same type of results. A lot of people have said that it's really risky, it's a gamble, but we really don't think it is.”

Adds de Ferran: “These are guys that have been winning throughout their careers. I know Oliver a little bit better than I know Pato, but I know Pato's history as well and I recall like it was yesterday watching qualifying for the last round at Sonoma [in 2018] and then he puts it in the top-6. That to me was an extremely impressive feat, particularly as it was the last race of the year and everybody’s all tuned in and been racing the whole season, and you got a guy that comes in the first race and has such an amazing performance.

“With Oliver, I remember going to West Palm Beach as a guest judge for the Team USA Scholarship when he was just coming out on the car scene. Watching his performance driving small single-seater cars for the first time was nothing short of impressive, and I've seen his career develop since then.

“So you come to these observations not just because of one thing: you build a picture over time and I think you get to the point where you say, ‘Well, what else do they need to do to prove they are the best prospects out there?’ And I guess that's the conclusion that we all came to together.

“We embark on this journey, certainly with a lot of promise, but at the end of the day we have to focus on our preparation, execution, review, preparation, execution, review. And [then we must] work hard, keep our heads down and go through every twist and turn of this journey with a lot of focus and determination, but with our arms tied together.”

In our previous Arrow McLaren SP column, O’Ward provided insight into his first test with the team, which was also the squad’s first with the new aeroscreen. Now it’s time to introduce Oliver Askew, the man who also succeeded O’Ward as Indy Lights champion. The quiet and reserved Floridian scored seven wins on his way to the 2019 title, which included victory at the Indy 500 support race, the Freedom 100.

Askew was only a spectator for O’Ward's initial Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet test, but you can bet he still learned from the day.

Askew was only a spectator for O’Ward's initial Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet test, but you can bet he still learned from the day.

Photo by: Arrow SPM

One of Askew’s defining characteristics is his outwardly unruffled demeanor, similar to what we often saw from former multiple Indy car champions Dario Franchitti and Al Unser. Describing the experience of his first IndyCar test last August or, more recently, tackling the driving simulator, Askew tells “At the end of the day, an IndyCar is just another racecar – it’s just that it’s the fastest one I’ve ever driven. But you have to go through the same process of learning how it likes to be driven.

“To get the best from it requires driving it a certain way, so to find the lap times it’s best to adapt my driving style to the car rather than have the car built around my style. I’m not going to tell the guys what to do to change it for me: I have to learn what I’ve been given to drive. And it’s been going well so far. On the sim we’ve been on ovals, permanent road courses and street tracks, and seeing the overlays with what past drivers have done on the sim and on track, the sim is spot on.”

That said, however good simulators may be, they’re not yet able to accurately represent all the nuances of, say, gradually degrading tires. Given IndyCar’s restrictive testing rules – and despite rookies being granted an extra couple of test days per year – you might expect a newbie to be daunted by the prospect of facing former series champion drivers from rival teams of the quality of, say, Ganassi, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. But the Floridian, who turns 23 next week, is again impressively sanguine.

“Honestly, it’s not a worry,” he replies. “I’m going to get five test days before the first round in St. Petersburg, which I think is just enough time to get ready. And anyway, I’ve been thrown in the deep end several times before in my career and I’ve come up swimming. Don’t get me wrong, it will be my biggest challenge to date, but it’s not something I can’t handle. I have Pato alongside me and he isn’t a pure rookie, and I have Robert Wickens to help advise me, too. He’s been a good friend of mine who is also a super resource. And the team of course will be doing everything they can to help.”

Regarding how his driving style might compare and contrast with that of O’Ward, Askew observes, “From what I’ve seen, Pato drives a little harder than I do, and I think that goes back to what I’m used to. These Firestones can take more lateral load than the Coopers we ran in junior formulas – more like the soft tires I ran in karts, actually – so I need to trust them and find their limits. But through next season I think there will be some places one of us is stronger, some places where the other is stronger, and that’s the beauty of it: we can each learn from the other. And having different styles will allow us to cover more ground in practice so that we come together with the best compromise for qualifying and the race.”

Polite and mild-mannered though he seems, Askew’s determination should never be underestimated; combining his talent with hard work has ensured he’s a fast learner, able to generate opportunities and then make the most of them. That, in turn, has allowed him to excel in one-make series where driving talent and slick team personnel can take precedence over funding, of which Askew has had little besides what he’s won on the Road To Indy. His budgetary constraints have given him a real appreciation for the U.S. open-wheel junior ladder system.

He says: “Racing is difficult because there are outside factors that can determine what you’ll be doing next in your career, and I see that happening a lot more in Europe than here. It seems there are still so many drivers buying rides there, and that’s hurt the structure because it governs what the top teams expects their drivers to bring. I see that a lot less here; we’re making less money but we’re also spending a lot less, too, so from about 2014 it’s been my ambition to make my career here in IndyCar. My mom’s Swedish and I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe racing karts, but I’ve never really regarded the open-wheel scene over there as the best choice for me.”

After winning kart titles in USA and Europe, and showing an immediate aptitude for translating that talent into cars in Formula Masters China, Askew earned a Team USA Scholarship. The prize included being sent to the UK to race in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch – he was a podium finisher in two of his three races there – and the Walter Hayes Trophy race at Silverstone, in which he finished second.

Heading home on the crest of a wave, Askew then captured the Road To Indy $200k Scholarship at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, earning himself a ride with Cape Motorsports in the 2017 USF2000 Championship. Seven wins led to title glory and he graduated to Indy Pro 2000 (then called Pro Mazda). After taking third in the championship, Askew joined Andretti Autosport for his Indy Lights campaign in 2019 and racked up seven wins, seven poles and the title. That earned him a $1.1m scholarship for next year, guaranteeing him an entry for the Indy 500 and two other IndyCar races. 

2019 Road to Indy champs: (left to right) Braden Eves – USF2000; Kyle Kirkwood – Indy Pro 2000; Oliver Askew – Indy Lights.

2019 Road to Indy champs: (left to right) Braden Eves – USF2000; Kyle Kirkwood – Indy Pro 2000; Oliver Askew – Indy Lights.

Photo by: Road To Indy

One shouldn’t describe any form of motorsport as easy, but there were definitely days this past Lights season when Askew made winning look routine – always the sign of a potential star. Behind the scenes, such was not the case, and it was that aforementioned determination and drive throughout a race weekend that allowed him often to drop his pursuers once the green flag dropped and he could make his preparation pay off.

“I feel fortunate in a way, because I always assume there’s someone better than me,” he says. “I don’t go into any race event thinking, ‘Yeah, this one is mine; I’m going to sweep the weekend.’ And so that mindset has helped me a lot. The confidence in what I can do is still there, but at the same time I need to do the preparation and work as hard as I can – harder than the others – to use the opportunity and put myself in position to find the success I believe I’m capable of delivering. From what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, I feel I’m getting the most out of the car almost every single weekend and that’s paid off.”

Something else that bodes well for Arrow McLaren SP in 2020 is that Askew drove his rookie Lights season with the wisdom of a veteran. No, he didn’t back off in the championship fight once he’d established a good lead over title rival Rinus VeeKay, but that points advantage was due to him being keenly aware of the limits, and how to not overstep them.

“Yeah, I think that’s what separated us this year,” says Askew. “Midseason, Rinus made two crucial mistakes that put him behind the eight-ball, whereas I kept doing what I was doing. I understood how to not put myself in a situation that might hurt my chances by trying the impossible; that’s something I learned quite early on in my career.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of Askew’s title run was that he was able to score poles and wins on all type of track.

“That’s the beauty of the Road To Indy, isn’t it?” he says. “We’re racing on the same tracks that IndyCar races on, so we get all the preparation we could hope for – and always in front of IndyCar team owners, too! So I was very pleased to win on all types; people always look at that.”

Clearly so, hence his arrival at Arrow McLaren SP, and there is nothing to suggest that Askew can’t continue his habit of delivering on his immense promise. Among racing’s upper ranks worldwide, there is probably no better balanced field of cars than in the NTT IndyCar Series, so it will be tough, but these are precisely the circumstances where Askew’s blend of speed, hard work and racing maturity could deliver a strong sequence of results. It will be fascinating to watch.

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