Harding Racing has today confirmed that 2018 Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta will make their Verizon IndyCar Series debuts for the team at next weekend’s season-finale at Sonoma Raceway. The team will field two cars in an event for the first time in their brief history; with regular driver Gabby Chaves sitting out.
O’Ward and Herta are coming off of the season finale of the 2018 Indy Lights championship, which supported the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway. After a stellar season of competition between the pair, O’Ward would claim the title in the first race of the weekend at Portland, with the pair eventually finishing the season separated by forty-four points.
The duo were essentially the only two contenders for the crown all season. Out of the seventeen races held, O’Ward won an incredible nine races. Herta only took four victories, but he kept himself in contention until the final weekend by finishing on the podium on a further nine occasions. By contrast, O’Ward and Herta’s nearest challenger, Santiago Urrutia, was ninety-six points adrift by the end of the season, having only taken two victories with a further six podium finishes over the course of the season.
Both O’Ward and Herta have had track time in a Verizon IndyCar over the course of the season courtesy of Harding Racing. Colton took to the track in a test at Portland in the run-up to the last race weekend, with Patricio, or Pato as he is also known as, taking part in a test earlier this week at Sonoma Raceway.
As has been the case for Indy Lights championship winners over the years, O’Ward has a received a $1 million scholarship to get him into the IndyCar series for the first time. That journey will begin at Sonoma with his first race. O’Ward stated after today’s announcement that he was aware that this was a “huge” opportunity and that he ultimately wanted to claim wins and championships in the big league.
“It’s a big responsibility, but I’m ready to take charge of that and I want to take IndyCar [racing] back to Mexico,” said O’Ward, who also stated that he wanted to emulate his fellow countryman and former IndyCar racer, Adrian Fernandez, “There’s a lot of people that have started following me now. The following has grown immensely [after winning the Indy Lights title].
“It’s going to be special. I feel like this can be huge and I feel like it’s going to be huge because they’re hungry for someone to strive and put the flag on top of the podium and to win championships, to [get] wins in INDYCAR – just like I want to. Hopefully, I can give them that.”
Herta, too, was understandably elated by the news today. The American teenager, son of former IndyCar driver and team owner Bryan Herta, is coming off of the back of two consecutive top-three finishes in the Indy Lights championship, which included a win in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year. Colton is looking to compete in IndyCar next season will get his first start in the series next weekend at Sonoma, an opportunity that he very grateful to Harding Racing for giving to him.
“I’m super happy to get my start in INDYCAR next weekend for the Sonoma Grand Prix,” Herta said following today’s announcement. “Mike Harding [the team owner] and Brian Barnhart have been very supportive in this effort and I can’t think of a better place to get my start in INDYCAR. There are too many people to thank for this opportunity, but I’m very thankful for Harding Racing.”
The team’s president, Brian Barnhardt also commented today that he was excited about the prospect of the two young talents making their debut at Sonoma, stating that he had been very impressed by the pair in their respective tests within the last week.
“We’re really happy with how Patricio did in the car at Sonoma,” Barnhart said. “Coupling that with the excellent job that Colton did [testing] in Portland earlier in August, Harding Racing is really excited about being able to provide their Verizon IndyCar Series race day debuts next week at Sonoma.”
Barnhart went on to tell Autosport that it was still his and the team’s intention to expand to a full-time two-car effort in 2019, with Brian stating that the team’s recent running with Chaves, Conor Daly and now the two rookies will provide valuable information as they look toward the potential expansion.
“At the moment, we’re doing it step by step, so we’re just focused on Sonoma in 10 days, running Pato and Colton, and not beyond that, but there is certainly interest in us changing things up a little bit,” Barnhart told Autosport.
“We’ve talked all summer long about how tough it is as a one-car team. Virtually impossible, in fact. But to expand, first, you’ve got to find budget and to do that you’ve got to have something sellable and be able to demonstrate improved performance. We feel we’ve shown that, so we’re trying to put all the puzzle pieces together.
“So having Gabby and Conor in the season so far, and then running two young guys in a pair of cars at Sonoma, should give us more knowledge to base any decisions about our future. But whatever our decision, it’s got to make sense from a business standpoint before we can think of growing the team to two cars.”
O’Ward and Herta’s first laps in an official IndyCar race event will come in practice at Sonoma Raceway next Friday. The season finale of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Grand Prix of Sonoma, will take place on Sunday, September 16.