Patricio O’Ward has, again, put in an impressive performance in the NTT IndyCar Series, this time in his return to the championship in last weekend’s 2019 IndyCar Classic at the Circuit of the Americas. O’Ward made his debut as a Carlin driver in the race on Sunday, starting and finishing in eighth place in what was a combative drive to maintain position.
Heading into 2019, O’Ward had been slated to drive alongside Colton Herta at Harding Steinbrenner Racing; the team that he had made his series debut with at the 2018 season-finale at Sonoma Raceway. In that race, Patricio was arguably the star of the weekend, taking Harding to their first appearance in the top-six shootout for pole position in qualifying, before going on to finish the race inside the top ten.
Sadly for O’Ward, his deal with Harding Steinbrenner Racing collapsed on the eve of the 2019 season, with the Mexican announcing just before pre-season testing at COTA in February that he would no longer be racing for the team. Instead, shortly before the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it was announced that O’Ward would be racing on a part-time schedule with Carlin; with his first race being the IndyCar Classic at COTA.
Having not run with the team beforehand, the two Friday practice sessions were vital for Patricio to get back into the swing of things and to get acclimatized to both the new circuit to the calendar as well as his new team, Carlin. As a result, O’Ward would complete twenty-three laps over the course of the first two practice sessions, the most of any other driver during the day, setting the sixteenth fastest time in session one and the eleventh fastest time in session two.
“I’d say it was a good first day of practice here at COTA.” O’Ward said on Friday, “Obviously, I would’ve liked to end the day a little bit higher on the timing sheets, but I know that I’m a bit behind the curve with not having two full testing days here like the rest of the field had back in February.
“This track requires a lot of technique even in the slow areas, so there really isn’t a lot of room for mistakes, which is why I’m working so hard to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
“There are definitely some things I need to work through before qualifying tomorrow afternoon, but it’s obvious that the whole Carlin team is very buttoned up and will get me to where I need to be. I think, overall, we’re in pretty good shape heading into qualifying tomorrow.”
In Saturday’s qualifying session, O’Ward beat his team-mate, Max Chilton, by less than a tenth of a second in the opening round to advance through to round two. In the second round, Patricio would set a best lap time of 1:46.3807, a lap-time that would see him miss out on a spot in the final round by just eight-hundredths of a second. He would qualify in eighth place; a result that he would say after the session that he was “really proud” of.
“I think we should be really proud of ourselves with the result this weekend,” O’Ward said on Saturday, “I’m a little bit behind the curve from everybody else not having those two testing days at spring training here in February, so it’s been a process of trying to get comfortable with the car and getting to know the Carlin team.
“This is such a long track and, even spread out, everyone was able to be extremely competitive in qualifying today. I think we were only eight-hundredths of a second off of moving into the Firestone Fast Six, so I’m a little bummed that I wasn’t able to advance but then again I’m super happy to be starting eighth tomorrow especially with how little track time I’ve had. I’m just pumped and ready to go racing tomorrow.”
At the start of the race on Sunday, O’Ward moved up two positions in the melee at turn one to take sixth place. From there, Carlin would place O’Ward on an alternate strategy compared to much of the field, which would see him run inside the top ten for much of the race, at one point running as high as fifth place.
O’Ward caught the attention of many during the opening half of the race, with the Mexican being involved in some fantastic wheel-to-wheel battles; most notable with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing‘s Graham Rahal. After battling for several corners, O’Ward would pass Rahal around the outside of the high-speed turn eighteen; earning plaudits from pundits and fans alike.
In the end, O’Ward would be somewhat hampered by a caution on lap forty-four of the race. On his alternate strategy, O’Ward was hoping that he could save fuel in the final laps of the race where, hopefully, the cars behind would be too far back to catch him. Instead, O’Ward was left largely defenceless for the final few laps, having to save fuel whilst cars were right on his tail.
O’Ward would cross the line to finish in eighth place, the exact place that he had started. After the race, O’Ward would brand the race as “successful” but he would also go on to admit that he thought he could have finished in the top-five had the race played out differently.
“I think it was a pretty good race for us,” O’Ward said on Sunday, “We ended exactly where we started [eighth] and didn’t go backwards, so I’d say that was a successful day. We ran a clean race and we were right on pace, but after that yellow came out we needed one more lap under yellow to be able to push as hard as we wanted to. I was having to save a lot of fuel to make it to the end, so it was just impossible to keep Marco [Andretti] and Takuma [Sato] behind me coming full power.
“I know the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet had a top-five finish in it today and even though we couldn’t make it happen, it’s nice to know that we have the pace and can be fighting up front with the veteran drivers. Huge congrats to Colton [Herta]. I’m really happy for him – I know this means a lot to him.”
So far, O’Ward is scheduled to be back on the race track with Carlin at eleven further races over the course of the season. His next outing in the #31 Carlin Chevrolet will come at the next round of the championship, the 2019 Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, which will take place on Sunday, April 7.