Patricio O’Ward has been thrown in the deep end in Super Formula following Red Bull’s shock decision to part ways with Dan Ticktum. Can the Mexican live up to expectations and put himself in line for a Formula 1 graduation?
The news that Red Bull had ousted Ticktum from its junior programme came as a shock to the motorsport fraternity. The energy drinks brand had stuck with the young British teen through thick and thin, particularly after his infamous outburst against Mick Schumacher and Prema in the face of his declining title prospects in Formula 3.
Red Bull’s philosophy was simple: as long as Ticktum was delivering on-track, whatever happened off it mattered little.
However, once his results started to falter, it was forced into a rethink. Ticktum had been struggling in his first full season in Super Formula, despite having accumulated sufficient experience from two previous race outings and a full pre-season testing programme.
- Watch this Sunday's Super Formula race Fuji live and for free on Motorsport.tv, with coverage starting at 5am GMT.
A single point in the first two races were hardly something to boast about for a driver touted for a 2020 Toro Rosso drive, and Ticktum finishing a lap down at Sugo appears to have been simply too hard to digest for the top brass at Red Bull.
There were also murmurs about Ticktum resorting to blaming others when results failed to materialise, and he publicly questioned whether his chassis was damaged because he couldn’t fathom “why I am a second off my teammate.”
Dan Ticktum, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images
In the end, Red Bull simply lost patience with a driver heralded as its next F1 star, sacking him in the middle of the season in favour of O'Ward, another racer it has put its faith in.
O’Ward has gone from virtual unknown to being on the brink of a grand prix seat on the back of two impressive years in the US motor racing scene - including an Indy Lights crown - and now he has been tasked with replicating that success on the other side of the Pacific.
It certainly won’t be an easy task as the Mexican arrives in Japan with zero mileage, but Red Bull has ensured he has the right machinery at his disposal to maximise his talent.
Moreover, the Yokohama tyres used in Super Formula allow drivers to virtually push for every lap, in stark contrast to the high-degradation Pirelli tyres with which O’Ward failed to get to grips on his chastening Formula 2 debut at the Red Bull Ring.
“It was a bit of [a] different scenario with the Pirelli, it’s such a strange different tyre to everything else,” O’Ward told Motorsport.com. “It was going to be very hard to just jump in and be quick and be fighting up front right after that.
“But in this case, the team is a top team and the tyre is a bit more similar to what I’m used to, to what I’ve driven before.”
He added: “With the Pirelli I went into qualifying not even knowing the softer tyre and having maybe like five flyers on hardest of the two.
“So it was very hard to get up to pace so fast. But I think we did quite okay. But in Super Formula there is [a] bit more of a chance to adapt because you can push the car a bit more continuously on the tyre.”
O’Ward knows that he will have to deliver the results sooner rather than later. For while bettering Ticktum’s eighth-place Suzuka finish may satisfy Red Bull short-term, the real standard to aspire towards is Pierre Gasly, who after a subdued first couple of races shot to championship contention with an impressive mid-season turnaround - and with the same team.
“I’m hoping the adaptation will be a bit quicker [than F2],” O'Ward said. “And I want to be fighting up the front from the very first weekend.
"I think it’s hiding nothing that I want to be winning, I want to be competing at the front. I want to be fighting for the top, and giving the performances that I should be giving.”
Patricio O'Ward, MP Motorsport
Photo by: FIA Formula 2
Ideally, Red Bull would have liked to fast-track O’Ward to F1 as early as 2020, but a lack of clarity regarding his superlicense points may have put such ambitions on hold.
O’Ward may not receive the 15 points for winning last year’s Indy Lights title as the series did not meet the minimum requirement for 12 cars at all races, and there are question marks over whether his IMSA Prototype Challenge class title counts.
As such, O’Ward is prepared to spend 2020 in Super Formula ahead of a possible promotion to a Toro Rosso F1 seat the following year.
“I don’t really know what’s going to be in the future for me,” he said. “For now I want to perform in Super Formula, I want to do the best I can.
“If [I'm] not in Formula 1 by next year then I think it would be a good idea or a good thing to stay in Super Formula and just continue learning more and gain more and more experience with the quickest car available to drive that’s not a Formula 1 car.”
O’Ward certainly has the raw pace to make his way all the way to F1, having particularly impressed Trevor Carlin - the man who played a key role in the Mexican getting a Red Bull contract.
However, there were never any doubts about Ticktum’s speed either and yet he failed miserably in Super Formula to the point he had to be ousted mid-season.
O’Ward will be keen on avoiding the mistakes his predecessor did as he tries to cash in on a surprise opportunity to become a grand prix driver.
Dan Ticktum, Team Mugen
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Red Bull-backed O'Ward takes Ticktum's Super Formula seat
Fuji Super Formula: Palou leads Newey in practice
Can O'Ward succeed where Ticktum failed?
Super Formula Next session
- Formula 1