Why Arrow McLaren replaced Theo Pourchaire, signed Nolan Siegel to multi-year deal

INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time since they courted Alex Palou for more than a year, only to be left at the altar by the eventual two-time IndyCar champion, Arrow McLaren bosses Gavin Ward and Tony Kanaan, and McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown saw an opportunity late last week to make a proactive decision about the future of the team’s No. 6 Chevy.

Sitting in front of them wasn’t just the best driver not constrained by a team option (David Malukas last September). Neither was it just the most talented one available at a moment’s notice (Callum Ilott in February), nor the hottest prospect with the fewest short-term constraints (Theo Pourchaire in April).

In 19-year-old Nolan Siegel, who Arrow McLaren signed early this week to a multi-year deal to take over the No. 6 Chevy, the team has a driver who:

  • is available

  • can commit to a multi-year future right now

  • is someone they’re ready to commit to long-term

  • they think is supremely talented

That’s what this all boils down to.

Arrow McLaren has signed 19-year-old Nolan Siegel to a multi-year deal to man the team's No. 6 Chevy moving forward.
Arrow McLaren has signed 19-year-old Nolan Siegel to a multi-year deal to man the team's No. 6 Chevy moving forward.

Ward and Kanaan told reporters Tuesday they were willing to make what comes off to many as another cold, heartless driver swap, because they believe it sets up Arrow McLaren for the future.

“I think at the end of the day, Tony and I both have a view that you need to be able to sleep at night with the decisions you make, and so we try to do what we think is right, but also what’s in the best interest of the team," Ward said Tuesday. "It’s not an easy decision or one of the most pleasant parts of the sport, but we certainly are trying to do our best to be good to the people that work for this team and drive for this team. You can’t make everyone happy with every decision you make.”

The news: Arrow McLaren signs Nolan Siegel to replace Theo Pourchaire

Siegel had long been an Arrow McLaren target

Had Siegel been willing to abandon his Indy NXT title pursuits in February, or even April, when the severity of Malukas' mountain bike accident was apparent, all the drama of this week likely would’ve been avoided.

Siegel -- who took Rookie of the Year honors after finishing 3rd in the Indy NXT championship a year ago and entered 2024 as the title favorite -- was approached in early-spring to take over the No. 6 once Ilott’s World Endurance Championship schedule began to clash with IndyCar. Having already committed to Dale Coyne Racing to run three points-paying IndyCar races in 2024 – one shy of the 19-year-old losing his eligibility for IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors in 2025 – and still motivated by an Indy NXT title, Siegel passed on the opportunity.

In came Pourchaire, the 2023 Formula 2 champ who had just completed his Super Formula debut as part of his 2024 calendar put together by Sauber to keep its F1 reserve driver active. McLaren negotiated with Sauber to extricate the young Frenchman out of a Super Formula ride – first for the races at Long Beach and Barber, and then longer term once it became clear Malukas’ recovery timeline would be far longer than predicted.

Insider: For Arrow McLaren, releasing Malukas a tough, necessary business decision

Arrow McLaren driver Théo Pourchaire (6) fist bumps a fan as he walks out to the starting grid, Saturday, May 11, 2024, before the Sonsio Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Arrow McLaren driver Théo Pourchaire (6) fist bumps a fan as he walks out to the starting grid, Saturday, May 11, 2024, before the Sonsio Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In May, Arrow McLaren officials held a press conference with Pourchaire at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center, unveiling him as their driver for the final 12 races – having hastily gotten him his rookie oval test at World Wide Technology Raceway to prepare for the half-dozen he’d have to tackle. The choice, the team said, to cast Malukas aside after four missed events – something the pair’s contract allowed for – in favor of Pourchaire following the 500 was to provide consistency for the team’s partners, who hadn’t known who would be driving the No. 6 Chevy until days before the start of practice.

Ironically now, the team will arrive at Laguna Seca this week having replaced the driver who was supposed to settle the ship just as Malukas is healthy enough to make his first start of the year with his new team at Meyer Shank Racing.

“With the recent developments and (Siegel) choosing to step away from his Indy NXT season at Road America, that brought this forward in a hurry," Ward said. "So while we might’ve been looking just for a 2025 commitment, it became pretty clear that the logical thing to do, although not the easiest emotionally, was to fast-forward and get (Nolan) in the car as soon as possible, so we could hit the ground running.”

Charlie Kimball (from left), Tony Kanaan and Dale Coyne talk with Dale Coyne Racing driver Nolan Siegel (18) oin Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Charlie Kimball (from left), Tony Kanaan and Dale Coyne talk with Dale Coyne Racing driver Nolan Siegel (18) oin Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kanaan enamored with Siegel's tenacity during 500 qualifying

In an introduction to his sporting director role that’s been nothing like what he expected, Kanaan says he believes so much in Siegel’s talent that when he learned of the driver’s availability for the rest of the year, he told Ward, “Hey, you’ve got to trust me on this. I’ll put my job on the line.”

That came from just a few hours the IndyCar legend spent with the 500 rookie last month, when Siegel was on the knife’s edge battling with two of the series’ giants – Graham Rahal and Marcus Ericsson – and his own Coyne teammate (Katherine Legge) to make the race. Having crashed on Fast Friday less than 24 hours before his first planned qualifying attempt, Siegel's Coyne crew did what they could to retrofit the backup chassis and overcome what had already been a slow primary car, but Siegel was going to need a near-miracle to make the field of 33.

And so Saturday evening, he came knocking at Kanaan’s RV looking for some help.

“He just wanted to chat, and I really felt bad for the kid. I think this is a good kid, and he was struggling, and I’ve been there,” Kanaan told reporters the Sunday of 500 qualifying weekend. “He just came and knocked on my bus door. Didn’t even call, and he just said, ‘Hey, I hate to bother you, but can you talk?’

“And I said, ‘Sure.’ He didn’t ask for a debrief. He was just asking for advice. I didn’t even tell him anything beyond that.”

But then Kanaan woke up Sunday morning, and despite his team having placed three of its four cars in the Fast 12, almost the sole focus of the Arrow McLaren sporting director was on assisting Siegel.

“I said, ‘(Expletive) it. I know he’s racing for Zak at Le Mans (for United Autosports), and so I texted Zak and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to give him anything, and I don’t know anything about setups. That’s not my job. But can I go help him?’” Kanaan detailed that Sunday afternoon. “Honestly, I just think me showing up there (on the timing stand) is going to help the kid.”

Doyel: Scott McLaughlin, Kyle Larson, Nolan Siegel at fastest, most stressful day in racing

Tony Kanaan looks up at the screen to see Arrow McLaren/Rick Hendrick driver Kyle Larson's (17) lap times Friday, May 17, 2024, during Fast Friday ahead of the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Tony Kanaan looks up at the screen to see Arrow McLaren/Rick Hendrick driver Kyle Larson's (17) lap times Friday, May 17, 2024, during Fast Friday ahead of the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And so that’s where Kanaan stood during morning warmup, enthralled with the 19-year-old steering far-and-away the slowest car in the field – only moreso when Kanaan’s only realistic suggestion to try and get Siegel into the field was to strip loads of downforce off the car, and the rookie leapt at the idea.

“(Siegel’s engineers) said, ‘We’re going to take this off, but it’s huge’, and (Siegel) said, ‘Take everything off. I’m going to make Turn 1 flat no matter what,” Kanaan said Tuesday, noting he sees some ‘Young Scott Dixon’ in his new protégé.

Siegel, of course, would go on to crash in Turn 1 on his final last-ditch run during the Last Chance Qualifier, but Kanaan was perhaps maybe even more enamored. Juggling his own team’s pole aspirations, Kanaan drove over to the infield care center to console Siegel and give him a final few words of encouragement.

“He said, ‘You know what? I’m going to sleep fine tonight, because I went in there flat and did everything I could to hold it.’ And to me, that was the right attitude,” Kanaan said. “I said, 'You need to come back here with the right equipment, with the right team and the people that can provide it for you.'”

Less than a month later, Kanaan’s lingering curiosity about Siegel’s budding talent has led to just that. When and ‘if’ Siegel ever was to become available, Kanaan said at the time he knew Arrow McLaren needed to make him “a priority.”

“Not that he needed to impress me, but working with him all day under pressure, there was something there. You know how that place is, and that kid showed me how strong he is in the head, and that’s something you have to have,” Kanaan said Tuesday. “Do I doubt he’s fast? I think he’s proved that too, but now it’s on us to make him good or better.”

‘We had to do something’: Agustin Canapino takes leave of absence from Juncos Hollinger

In a last-minute move, Juncos Hollinger Racing hired Indy NXT title contender Nolan Siegel to fill-in for Agustin Canapino at Road America while the Argentine driver was on a 'leave of absence.' The fill-in role could very well be made permanent.
In a last-minute move, Juncos Hollinger Racing hired Indy NXT title contender Nolan Siegel to fill-in for Agustin Canapino at Road America while the Argentine driver was on a 'leave of absence.' The fill-in role could very well be made permanent.

How we got here: Siegel's gamble, Pourchaire's Sauber deal

The way Siegel became immediately available is almost stranger than fiction. In the wake of Pourchaire receiving death threats from Agustin Canapino’s fans for running into the Argentine driver at the Detroit Grand Prix, and then the backlash Canapino himself received for how he dealt with the situation, JHR chose to sideline the second-year driver of the No. 78 90 minutes before the start of IndyCar practice at Road America. The potential substitute they called upon had told reporters just two hours prior how he was going to throw caution to the win and do what he could that weekend to make up a 44-point gap he had in the Indy NXT standings to championship leader Jacob Abel.

But with the unexpected chance to hop in for JHR for the weekend, Siegel’s Indy NXT title aspirations almost immediately went by the wayside. He hopped out of Indy NXT practice Friday afternoon to ready himself for the IndyCar session. Overnight, he and his father decided to abandon his No. 39 entry with HMD Motorsports, to pour all his focus into his IndyCar shot that many believed could quickly turn into a full-time gig.

The decision was curious. Even a half-focused Siegel, many believed, could’ve still mustered a top-5 in the Indy NXT race and mitigated his losses. With a relatively flawless performance for JHR, he still finished 23rd.

In a last-minute move, Juncos Hollinger Racing hired Indy NXT title contender Nolan Siegel to fill-in for Agustin Canapino at Road America while the Argentine driver was on a 'leave of absence.' The fill-in role could very well be made permanent.
In a last-minute move, Juncos Hollinger Racing hired Indy NXT title contender Nolan Siegel to fill-in for Agustin Canapino at Road America while the Argentine driver was on a 'leave of absence.' The fill-in role could very well be made permanent.

And even after JHR opted to put Canapino back in the car for the remainder of the year, the missed Indy NXT race and ensuing points gap was enough for the Siegel family to look at other opportunities. Then, on Tuesday or Wednesday last week after opening practice for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Brown received a text from his United Autosports co-owner Richard Dean raving about Siegel’s speed in the team’s LMP2 entry.

Dean famously ran an 18-year-old Lando Norris at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2018 alongside Fernando Alonso, and Dean and Alonso’s rave reviews of Norris, who at the time was a McLaren F1 test and reserve driver, began to set the wheels in motion for the young Brit to land an F1 race seat there the following season.

Learning that Siegel was available sparked a sleepless five-day stretch where Kanaan and Ward negotiated a contract with Siegel over the phone while the young driver also readied himself for what would be a winning Le Mans debut.

The Arrow McLaren decision makers contend there was nothing Pourchaire could’ve done differently to avoid the messy end to the pair’s relationship. As Ward hinted at Tuesday, there had been a long-held understanding that Pourchaire would, first and foremost, be a Sauber F1 reserve driver. As the most successful and longest-standing member of the Sauber Academy, the F1 team was never going to relinquish control over his career.

But ultimately, Ward and Kanaan see this decision as a necessary end to an unnecessary chapter not of their own making.

“When it was clear Nolan was headed to IndyCar, no team was going to just let him do the rest of the season and not sign him up for the following year, and so we would’ve lost him. So we had to act. If we didn’t jump, somebody else would have,” Kanaan said. “I just told (the team), ‘You change race cars all the time. You come in and make changes, and that’s not what we want to do with drivers, but I’m in this to win races, and that’s all I care about.’

“Everybody’s going to look at this and say this is bad timing, but what is a good time to do what we did? We’ll take the heat, but to me, it’s the right decision, and I believe I’m making the right call with the team.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Why Arrow McLaren signed Nolan Siegel, replacing Theo Pourchaire

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