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  • Five Things You Need To Know About Theo Pourchaire’S Indycar Debut

Five things you need to know about Theo Pourchaire’s Indycar debut

F2’s 2023 champion Theo Pourchaire drove in his first Indycar race for Arrow McLaren at Long Beach last Sunday, and finished an impressive 11th.

The Frenchman became the latest rookie to race in Indycar, whilst still competing in this year’s Super Formula championship in Japan.

Pourchaire filled in for the injured David Malukas, who had to sit out on the first three race weekends of the year whilst recovering.

Pourchaire’s debut race performance was amazing considering it was the first time he ever drove this type of car, jumping straight into practice.

Here, Planet Sport’s Ayla Vaughan looks at Pourchaire’s race at Long Beach and explains how he got there in the first place.

The 2023 Formula 2 champion

Pourchaire is the most recent F2 champion, which is impressive as he achieved this title at the last race of the year in Abu Dhabi, fighting with Frederik Vesti. He raced for ART Grand Prix and they took their first teams' title in F2 history, racing alongside 2022 F3 champion Victor Martins. 

Pourchaire achieved only one win, but stood on the podium 10 times in 26 races. He still made mistakes, such as the Dutch Grand Prix weekend where he finished in 19th in the sprint race (due to mechanical issues) and crashed in the feature race. He struggled in the sprint races more, but the points for finishing are less so he could still get many points in feature races.

He is also Formula 2 and Formula 3’s youngest race winner, showing his talent from a young age. Pourchaire has been part of a young driver development programme, the Sauber Academy since 2019. Additionally, he is the reserve driver for Stake F1 Team, so he has been waiting for a while now for his chance to compete at the highest level in motorsport. 

Since no new drivers debuted in F1 this year, Pourchaire will compete in Super Formula this year with the team Impul, where he had a poor debut race at Suzuka. He will race around Japan, and hope to improve his skills. Liam Lawson also drove in this series, showing it’s a great way to gain experience and super licence points (necessary to compete in F1). 

The vacancy at Arrow McLaren

As aforementioned, the young American-Lithuanian was supposed to drive the number five car for Arrow McLaren, but he injured himself in pre-season training. This was his first year with the team, having raced for Dale Coyne Racing in his first two years in this series. 

Malukas had surgery on February 13 “to repair a fracture in his hand suffered while mountain biking last weekend” according to Indycar. In a statement, Arrow McLaren said “His recovery timeline is estimated to be six weeks following the removal of his stitches [on] February 22.” 

Calum Illott replaced him at the first two races of the year in St Petersburg, Florida and Thermal, California (after he lost his seat at Juncos Hollinger Racing to ex-F1 driver for Haas Romain Grosjean). However, the Brit couldn’t compete at Long Beach due to his obligations in the world endurance championship racing for JOTA at Imola last weekend.

Despite six weeks having already passed, McLaren gave the opportunity for Pourchaire to drive for them. The news was announced on April 18 by Indycar, where Pourchaire said “this is an amazing opportunity to drive with such a legendary team in a legendary motorsport series like the NTT INDYCAR SERIES,” and “I’ve watched INDYCAR since I was a young kid, and the racing is incredible. I was thrilled to get the call from the team”.

In the same article, Arrow McLaren Team Principal Gavin Ward said “Theo may be an unexpected driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock this season, but we’re excited to see what he can do on the track…He has a strong resume, especially for his young age, and he’s eager to work with us and put his driving to the test this weekend.”

The 20-year-old proceeded to drive the number five Arrow McLaren in the first practice session on Friday. According to Indycar he said “it’s incredible” after practice and “I’m super happy to be back driving. The car felt great…I feel like tomorrow is going to be a better day again because I'm learning quick. I'm happy the team is helping me a lot. Super happy.”

The history of Arrow McLaren

This historic team has competed in all categories of motorsports over the years, and last weekend they celebrated the 50th Anniversary of their first Indianapolis 500 victory (by Johnny Rutherford) with a revival of the winning car at Long Beach. 

The M16 was driven by 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, the sporting director for Arrow McLaren, as part of the events surrounding the Grand Prix. Rutherford is a “three-time Indy 500 winner (1974, 1976 and 1980) and 24-time INDYCAR SERIES winner” according to Indycar.

Despite having a successful stint in the 70s and 80s, they left Indycar for decades until rejoining “in 2017, with Fernando Alonso, to race in the Indy 500 in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport,” according to McLaren. In 2020, McLaren joined with Arrow Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, taking majority ownership of the team in 2021 with a 75% stake in the company. 

In 2023, they completed their first season with a three-car line-up, scoring 10 podium finishes out of a total of 17 races. Each driver was talented and experienced, with the Mexican Pato O’Ward being the youngest driver at 24 (same age as McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris). 

He finished the highest in the drivers’ standings for Arrow McLaren, finishing in fourth as he scored seven out of the 10 podiums the team got last year. Alexander Rossi finished in ninth and Felix Rosenqvist in 12th, showing they have a balance of younger and older drivers who each bring a unique aspect to the team.

The papaya team signed Malukas to replace Rosenqvist who signed for Meyer Shank Racing, deciding to take a chance on young talent as they did with O’Ward. The team had a great start at St. Petersburg with a podium for O’Ward, but a collision between O’Ward and Rossi at Long Beach, and the subsequent drive through penalty derailed the ability to score near the top. 

Pourchaire took the opportunity as he always has done, and finished in 11th after qualifying 22nd, being the biggest mover of the race. In post race interviews he had a smile on his face and was thrilled to drive again. In a tweet on X he wrote “IndyCar is crazyyyyyyyy !! I enjoyed it so much”, showing his thoughts on the 85-lap race around the streets of Southern California.

The story behind the street track Long Beach

Long Beach has been on the IndyCar calendar since 2009, but it has had a long history before then. “It is one of the longest continuously running events in IndyCar racing and is considered one of the most prestigious events on the circuit,” according to Wikipedia

The 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit encircles the Long Beach Convention Center and runs down scenic Shoreline Drive. Over time the track has changed for a variety of reasons, from safety to better racing to having to navigate new buildings in the area.

The Long Beach Grand Prix was created by Chris Pook, a former travel agent from England. “Pook was inspired by the Monaco Grand Prix, and believed that a similar event had the potential to succeed in the Southern California area…The inaugural race was held in September 1975 as part of the Formula 5000 series,” according to Wikipedia.

In an exciting F1 season where James Hunt and Niki Lauda fought tooth and nail to become world champion in 1976, they drove at Long Beach for the first time. Hunt ended up retiring from the race after crashing whilst trying to overtake Patrick Depailler, with Lauda standing on the second step of the podium. 

F1 raced at this track from 1976-83, calling it the United States Grand Prix West. Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni won the first race at this new street track, and in 1982 Lauda later won at this track for McLaren. There were no repeat winners, but Ferrari won the most races at this circuit with three in total.

In 1984, the race switched from a F1 race to a CART IndyCar event (what Indycar used to be called before they merged). “Support races over the years have included Indy Lights, IMSA, Atlantics, Pirelli World Challenge, Trans-Am Series, Formula D, Stadium Super Trucks, Formula E and the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race,” according to Wikipedia.

Despite the challenging nature of the course, the track has produced the first Indycar victories for several drivers and champions, such as Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Takuma Sato and Kyle Kirkwood. 

In terms of other statistics, Al Unser Jr. has the most wins at this track with six, and Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing share the most wins for a team with seven each. Six-time Indycar champion Scott Dixon won this year’s race, overtaking front running and back marker cars to secure an amazing win, all whilst trying to save fuel and activating push to pass at the same time. 

The future for the Frenchman

Wherever Pourchaire races for in the future, he will definitely have more options now than before as he proved his adaptability in racing a car he never has before. Many other young drivers have been exploring opportunities outside F1 once they graduate from F2. For example, 2022 F2 champion Felipe Drugovich is racing in the European Le Mans series alongside other ex-F2 drivers such as Vesti, Ollie Caldwell and Clement Novalak

Pourchaire told Autosport “I'm super proud of the performance this weekend. Coming here to Long Beach without knowing the car, the track, and the team as well, the first time with the team, it's an amazing performance”. This shows his quick learning in new machinery and his flexibility to adapt his racing style no matter what.

Arrow McLaren also put Pourchaire on a “conservative strategy that didn’t require him to save fuel, which allowed him to constantly push and gain significant experience in understanding how to overtake” according to Autosport. This strategy worked wonders for him as this street track where it can be hard to overtake in fear of ending up in the wall.

Arrow McLaren team principal Ward confirmed that Pourchaire will be at the next Indycar race, saying “It's certainly been an unwanted distraction having to try and go find other drivers. But given the circumstances, it could be worse. We're trying to make the most of a difficult situation,” according to the same article. Their belief in Pourchaire seemed to have been proven right with him being on the cusp of the top 10, but only time will tell if they made the right decision.

Ward added “we dropped Theo in about as much in the deep end as he could be dropped,” and “we had high hopes and I love the way he's approached the weekend. He just got built up to it. He's completed every lap and just got better and better. Really, really impressive debut,” according to the same article

Pourchaire will hope to continue this good debut performance at Barber, Alabama which is a purpose built track, also called a road course. He said to Autosport: “If I have a second opportunity like this, I will be more prepared because I did a complete race weekend. I know that a track like Barber, for example, it's a road course that looks more like a European track. So, for me, maybe it will be easier; we'll see.” 

The most recent F2 champion will still have the Super Formula championship in his mind with the next race being in the middle of May, but he will make the most out of this new opportunity. 

His dream may be to drive in F1, but after driving in Indycar he has acknowledged the competitiveness of this series and the excitement it produces. 

He ended by saying “...we will have time to know what will happen in the future, but we have to enjoy this one. It was a good one,” according to the same article.

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