By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The penultimate round of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge at virtual Circuit of the Americas had its spinning twists that impacted several competitors outcomes for better or worse. Among the better was Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward, who rounded out a McLaren 1-2 effort in Saturday’s AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge won by Formula One driver Lando Norris.
Not only it was a much needed podium finish for the 2018 Indy Lights champion, but for his race team who’ve spent a lot of time working together for moments like this.
“I’ve been working hard on it these past few weeks. It does make a difference in what you got, so I made an investment here and there, and I can definitely feel the difference. It feels more real and I’m just working at it,” O’Ward on his iRacing podium result.
“It’s awesome having Lando here. If he’s not the best in the sim racing world, he’s one of the best because I don’t know how much quicker just out right pace in qualifying or in a race you can go. It was great having him there and trying to see where those little tricks the game likes are because at the end of the day, it is a game.”
O’Ward backed his concluding statement by saying the differences between his real-life Indy car to the virtual world boiled down to the physics, gaining ground and tire management. However, he did say it has helped him exercise more about data learning and is so determined to get back to a race car.
“We’re exercising a lot of the things that we do in a normal race weekend,” said O’Ward. “So having everybody really just pushing every single session to try to get better and better and better was really cool. But it teases you, man. We want to get back to real racecars.”
Additionally, McLaren has benefited from iRacing because of the superb team effort with not just himself and Norris, but also his other NTT IndyCar Series teammates Oliver Askew and Robert Wickens based on navigating the Texas road course.
“I think it’s great and the whole week we’re working as a team to improve each and every one of us,” O’Ward on McLaren’s teamwork. “Some corners Lando was quicker, some corners I was better, some corners Oliver was quicker and some corners Robby was strong. It’s a whole teamwork and I’m proud that we ended 1-2. I was pushing hard to get him in the end, but I couldn’t quite get to him.”
The turning points of O’Ward’s race happened in a short amount of time. First, it was O’Ward pitting before the competition caution coming out on Lap 12. The other being another driver who pitted that very lap, which happened to be his dominant teammate Norris, who spun in Turn 20 three laps later.
Due to Norris’ spin, it put O’Ward in an excellent spot of a possible race win as the quest of making it on a single stop was on.
Things would get more intense once Will Power spun twice after pitting on Lap 18, which gave O’Ward was now the race leader.
However, the No. 5 Chevrolet’s fuel economy wouldn’t last the distance as O’Ward had to give up the lead with six laps remaining. This wasn’t the end of a shot towards victory as chaos transpired two laps later.
Going into Turn 3, race leader Felix Rosenqivst lost it and nearly collected Norris, who went on to regain the lead. O’Ward capitalized from Rosenqvist’s misfortune and was now in second with push-to-passes favoring him.
However, a race win wasn’t mean to be as O’Ward crossed the line 1.444 seconds behind the Formula One sophomore, but an overall satisfying performance due to his team finishing 1-2.
O’Ward (who led 10-of-32 laps) was very aware of everything that went down with Norris and Power, saying to himself that he couldn’t afford spinning out and just had to lay down flying laps. It was difficult as Norris kept mastering the 3.426-mile circuit seamlessly, being an easy 5 to 6/10ths quicker than O’Ward.
“I would have put the car in the wall if I tried to push more and more and more,” said O’Ward. “I was just trying to keep my nose clean, trying to stay as consistent as possible. But as you saw in the end it was just not quite enough. I was trying to push towards the end to try to give him a run for his money, but I wasn’t quite close enough.”
Five rounds down, just one more remaining in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge campaign. The dream venue may not be a non-NTT IndyCar Sereis circuit, but it’s the biggest one for the series which is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Live coverage begins at 2:30 pm EST on NBCSN May 2 as O’Ward is guaranteed a spot on the 33-car grid by virtue of being a full-time INDYCAR driver.
When asked about running the 2.5-mile mecca, O’Ward replied that there’s a lot of learning to do as oval racing is still relatively new to him and failed to qualify in last year’s Indianapolis 500. Not only that, he also hopes that Norris, who has an invite by virtue of winning at COTA, competes as well.
“I’m a bit of a newb in those ovals I just cannot keep the car on the track,” said O’Ward. “I feel as much as he’s going to be learning, I think we’re going to be learning together.”
Norris response on the invite?
“I would love to. It’s going to be a completely different experience,” said Norris. “I need to just ask the team. Yeah, I might see you next week.”