McLaren tease two mystery driver signings as hot US prospect catches the eye

Thomas Maher
Lando Norris, McLaren, 2024 Miami Grand Prix.

Lando Norris became an F1 race winner in Miami, having risen to the top via the McLaren Driver Academy.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has teased some new signings to the team’s junior programme which haven’t yet been announced.

With five drivers currently signed to McLaren’s driver academy, Zak Brown has hinted at two extra signings which haven’t yet been made public.

Zak Brown: More McLaren drivers floating in junior categories

McLaren can boast five driver talents working their way through the ranks in other categories.

Amongst them is Bianca Bustamante, currently racing in the F1 Academy as the team’s female representative in the category.

Racing in Formula 2, Gabriel Bartoleto is racing for Invicta and is the defending Formula 3 Champion, but is having a slow start to his time in the category just below F1.

Ryo Hirakawa, signed to the programme last year, is racing in the World Endurance Championship, while reserve driver Pato O’Ward is driving in IndyCar for the Arrow McLaren squad.

Ugo Ughchukwu, who won last year’s Euro 4 Championship, has been with McLaren since 2021, and is currently racing in two Formula Regional championships – Middle East and Europe.

The American prospect was singled out for praise by Brown as the McLaren CEO spoke on the Beyond the Grid podcast, in which he said he’s excited by all the prospects he has signed to the McLaren roster, particularly after successfully turning junior driver Lando Norris into an F1 race winner.

“Well, of course, I’m gonna say all of them or we wouldn’t have them in the programme,” he laughed.

“But, you know, Ugo has been someone who’s been with us the longest, he’s doing a great job.

“We found him out of karting, so that’s very exciting.”

Intriguingly, Brown paused then as he realised he couldn’t speak as freely as he was initially going to, hinting that there are two further prospects on the McLaren programme.

“I’m gonna watch what I say here because I’ve got two drivers on the programme that I can’t remember whether we’ve actually announced or not!” he said.

“So we have a couple of drivers floating around in some of the junior categories that are part of the team.

“It’s great, it’s important, Lando was someone we found young. Oscar, obviously, came out of someone else’s racing academy [Renault/Alpine, – editor] but it just shows that these programmes work.”

McLaren is also understood to still have an active option on Brando Badoer, son of Luca Badoer, who has joined the Van Amersfoort team for the 2024 FRECA season.

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But, with McLaren boasting teams across various categories, including F1, Formula E, IndyCar, and Extreme E, Brown said the purpose of the driver academy isn’t simply to uncover drivers suitable for the F1 team.

“[It’s for] all of our racing,” he said.

“We’ve just had Sam Bird, who’s been injured, hop in to Formula E testing in Berlin.

“We’ve obviously got our IndyCar drivers, Pato O’Ward who is reserve driver in Formula 1 and done some Free Practice One.

“Gabriel [Bartoleto], who’s in Formula 2, we’ll probably put him in the IndyCar at some point to test.

“So we want to feed all of our racing teams and I also think IndyCar, Montoya, Zanardi… I think IndyCar is also a great place. You get drivers in Formula 2 that then go over to Super Formula in Japan and I personally think that maybe IndyCar would be a better home for preparation because IndyCar is unbelievably competitive.

“So I think they all kind of support each other.”

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