Arguably the star performance of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Sonoma race weekend was from a young driver making his debut in the championship. Harding Racing‘s Patricio O’Ward defied his inexperience with both the car, the Sonoma Raceway circuit and the even the length and demands of the actual race itself, to take a top ten finish after having qualified in fifth place on debut.
O’Ward was picked up by Harding Racing for the season finale after the Mexican claimed the 2018 Indy Lights championship at the Grand Prix of Portland race weekend. Patricio, or Pato, beat Colton Herta to the title and, with it, won a multi-race scholarship for IndyCar next season as a part of the Mazda Road to Indy scheme.
Harding, so impressed with both O’Ward and Herta’s performances over the course of the season, elected to give both drivers their IndyCar debuts at Sonoma Raceway; even expanding to a two-car entry for the first time in their short history in order to accommodate both drivers. Both were given some seat time in an IndyCar prior to their debuts, Herta in a test at Portland and O’Ward in a test the week before the finale at Sonoma. For O’Ward, it was the first time that he had driven an IndyCar and the first time that he ever driven around Sonoma.
With some testing under his belt, O’Ward entered the race weekend hoping to capitalize on every lap he could run to try and get further acclimatized to the car, the circuit and the series. He spent his first practice session getting to grips with being in the car on the track with many other drivers. He finished last in that session, but in the second session of the day, he looked much more comfortable and set the third fastest time; a great run so early on in the weekend.
“It was a pretty good day and I’m very satisfied with how we ended.” O’Ward said after Friday practice, “The first practice felt like a shot out of a canon because there were so many cars out there than what I was used to and I didn’t get any clean running. I’m happy I got some clean running in Practice 2.
“We were working hard on getting the car right for qualifying, so we were on the red [Firestone alternate] tires for most of practice. It feels really good, so now we’re going to work on the black [Firestone primary] tires to get ready for the race setup. As of now, I’m very satisfied with today.”
Final practice saw O’Ward further down the time-sheets again, this time in twenty-first place, but he did complete the most laps of any driver in the session. It appeared as though he and his #8 Harding Racing crew were focusing on more than just outright pace.
This proved to be the case when qualifying took place later in the day. O’Ward set the fifth fastest time of his group in the first round of qualifying, which saw him advance into the second session. That was an impressive enough achievement in itself, however, Patricio was not done. He set the fourth fastest time of session two with a lap-time that was only a tenth of a second off of the fastest lap. This put him through into the “fast six” final session; the first time that a Harding Racing driver has accomplished this.
O’Ward would go on to set the fifth fastest time in the final session of the day, securing a spot on the third row of the grid for Sunday’s race. The performance saw Patricio gain high praise from many members of the IndyCar community. O’Ward himself went on to admit in post-qualifying interviews that he was astounded to have been right in the mix with many drivers that he had watched and admired whilst rising up the ranks of motorsport.
“I think it’s pretty cool.” O’Ward said on Saturday, “I honestly don’t know what to think about it. When I saw that I moved into the Firestone Fast Six, I saw [Josef] Newgarden, [Scott] Dixon, [Ryan] Hunter-Reay, [Marco] Andretti, [Alexander] Rossi, such big names, you’ve been looking at them for years and years and years, since I was a kid. Scott has been racing for a long time. I think even before I started my open-wheel career, Josef was already in INDYCAR. Basically, everybody here was already in INDYCAR.
“It’s just something unique. It’s something that you have to start believing that you can be like them, that you can beat them, that you can give them a run for their money. It’s a new feeling. I really don’t know what to think about it.
“I couldn’t be more stoked for the team.” Patricio added, “I’m really happy I got to give them their first Firestone Fast Six. Harding and Team Chevy have given me an awesome opportunity so far. The focus this weekend has been, obviously, to do a good job. My objective was always just to be in the top 10, so it was an objective succeeded.”
The biggest challenge for O’Ward was yet to come, however. O’Ward had an eighty-five lap race to get through on Sunday, with many challenges ahead of him that he had yet to contend with during his career. This included the length of the race, as well as managing the fuel and tyres over much-extended race runs than he had seen in Indy Lights.
At the start of the race, O’Ward looked scrappy. He dropped a number of positions in the opening stages of the race and had numerous moments where he went off track or slid the rear of the car on the exit of corners. As the race went on, however, he slowly and steadily got into the groove. Despite being caught up in a massively intense mid-field battle with seasoned veterans of the sport, O’Ward kept his nose clean.
In the end, O’Ward would recover to not only finish on the lead lap in his first race but to also finish inside the top ten in ninth place. The result was hugely impressive, especially considering that it is Harding Racing’s third-ever top ten finish and their first to come in a race held on a road course. His team-mate, Colton Herta, meanwhile, would finish twentieth after starting nineteenth; a decent enough finish for a driver making their first start, but a long way off of O’Ward nonetheless.
“It was a really great weekend,” O’Ward said post-race, “we learned a lot. We qualified the car fifth and we ended the race ninth. As a driver, you want to stay in your qualifying position or get better. But I think for a first try, especially with a super long race with three or four pit stops that was a job well done. I’m really satisfied, and I just want to get better for next year.”
Patricio’s stunning debut performance will likely put him right in the mix for a full-time seat in the 2019 IndyCar Series. Harding Racing will, of course, be a likely candidate for O’Ward to drive for, but that will depend on other decisions that could revolve around the potential signing of Formula 1‘s Fernando Alonso; a possibility that has been heavily rumoured over the last few weeks and months.
The 2019 IndyCar Series will kick off with the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10.