When Patricio O'Ward first sat behind the wheel of a Formula One car last winter, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. The moment stuck with him, and even though the 22-year-old Mexican driver known more commonly as "Pato" began his third IndyCar Series season just last weekend, his ultimate goal remains fixed: Get to Formula One, where his countryman Sergio "Checo" Perez has made waves after more than a decade of racing in the circuit.
O'Ward had just wrapped up his second IndyCar season in December with Arrow McLaren when he got a taste of the team's most powerful vehicle. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown gifted him the opportunity, promising a test drive if he won at least one race in 2021.
Pato won two.
"I remember really enjoying it and truly seeing what those amazing cars are capable of, which by the way is truly mind blowing," O'Ward told ESPN last week. "Seeing what a Formula One car is like, the cars just do everything so perfect."
The test drive inched O'Ward a little closer toward Formula One, though it's hardly what got the ball rolling. In 2019, he signed with the Red Bull Junior Team and raced in Formula Two and the Super Formula Championship, with the goal of obtaining the FIA super license needed to join Max Verstappen, the reigning Formula One champ, on the Red Bull squad.
However, O'Ward left Red Bull just six months later after falling short of that goal. Red Bull then signed Perez -- the current face of Mexican racing and the man whose steps O'Ward wishes to follow -- before the 2021 season.
"Red Bull couldn't use me," O'Ward said, adding he has nothing but positive memories of his time there. "I appreciated that [being released so I could join Arrow McLaren]. The contract I signed for Red Bull was for Formula One, nothing else."
So far, IndyCar has suited O'Ward well. In 2021, he finished third in the championship and got to the final race of the season with a shot at the title still possible. This year, O'Ward is one of the top contenders to win it all; should he do so, he would have the necessary points for the super licence.
Despite this, O'Ward isn't taking anything for granted and knows the road to glory within IndyCar is a treacherous one. He finished 12th at last Sunday's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first race of the 2022 season.
"Everybody wants to do well [on the first race]. That's the type of pressure the team puts on itself, the drivers put on themselves. But in the end, it's the first race and you have 16 more to go [after that]," O'Ward said.
Last year, O'Ward went through a similar start, finishing 19th in St. Petersburg, before recovering with a podium finish in his next race. It was the first of five podium appearances for O'Ward, an accomplishment that gained significant attention in his native Mexico -- which continues to build a strong racing fan base thanks in large part to Perez.
Perez hasn't been the only Mexican driver in Formula One's ranks recently. Esteban Gutierrez raced three seasons from 2013-16 for Sauber and Haas. However, the idea of finding the next Checo has put more of a spotlight on O'Ward, who has received heady praise from Perez himself.
"To be honest, I think Pato is very talented, he just has to adapt to Formula One," Perez told Racer magazine last June after O'Ward won his first IndyCar race. "I certainly think he has the talent to compete against the world's best drivers."
Mexico has left its mark on Formula One. Between 1961-81, the country fielded four drivers. The most successful, Pedro Rodriguez, won two races -- the same as Checo's current count -- before he was killed in a crash in 1971 at age 31 racing in West Germany. It would be three decades after Hector Rebaque's final season in 1981 before Checo's debut reignited Mexico's passion for the sport.
The Mexican Grand Prix returned to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in 2015, after more than two decades of being off the race calendar. The pandemic cancellation of 2020 notwithstanding, it has undoubtedly become one of Formula One's top events. In 2021, secondary-market tickets were being sold for up to $20,000. With more than 300,000 fans witnessing the fanfare, the Mexico GP was Formula One's second-most attended race weekend.
Perez finished last season with 190 points, his best year to date. It would seem logical for another Mexican driver such as O'Ward to convince a Formula One team to give him a shot. By rule, racing teams must allot two free practice runs a season to their prospects. O'Ward is on the shortlist to do so for McLaren.
"We haven't decided who to put in yet, but he's certainly a candidate," Brown said in St. Petersburg. "OK, [a potential IndyCar title] is a good thing. But we're more interested in our F1 testing, doing some comparisons [with other] drivers."
McLaren currently employs Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris as their Formula One drivers. Norris has consistently been singled out as one of the United Kingdom's top prospects, while Ricciardo won the only race for the team in 2021, coming out on top in Italy. If O'Ward wants a call-up in the short term, one of the two would have to leave first.
Should Brown call him up for practice runs, O'Ward is clear on which races he'd like to attend. O'Ward, born in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey, moved to San Antonio when he was 11 and continues to call Texas home today.
"If I had to pick and choose, I would probably say Mexico and Austin because I consider both of those home," O'Ward said. "I'm from Mexico, and I've lived an hour and a half from Austin for a decade."
Without a doubt, both races would be appropriate venues for O'Ward to cater to his core audience. Even it doesn't come to pass, fans can still travel across the U.S. and watch him in person at IndyCar races. Fans in Mexico and Latin America can follow along on ESPN, IndyCar's broadcast partner in the region.
Ultimately, it is hard for O'Ward to deny his ultimate motivation, and the duality that comes with it: Focus on IndyCar for now, so that one day, Formula One might become a distinct possibility.
"I was that six-year-old kid that fell in love with all of this because of Formula One," he said. "It's a childhood dream that will never leave my heart because that is what sparked what I am now."