By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
Two years ago, Pato O’Ward was staring at a crossroads. Having enough funding for the first two race weekends of the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, the Mexican racer ended up winning three of the first four races and finished second in the other race.
In 2018, O’Ward again has won three of the first four races of his championship campaign in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and despite a seventh at race two in St. Petersburg, the hope is that 2018 doesn’t mirror 2016.
In 2016, O’Ward ended up winning six of the first seven races as he was trying to find money any way he could. Team Pelfrey ended up bringing him back for the rest of the season on a weekend-by-weekend basis but a late season slump kept the No. 80 Pro Mazda car out of winning the championship.
What did mirror 2016 was the first race of the weekend in that O’Ward had to deal with a fast teammate the entire race but instead of making a late pass on a restart to secure the win like in 2016, this time around he made the winning pass on the first lap of the race and had to fend off Colton Herta.
“I think the only difference (to 2016) is the car is way stronger, its way faster,” said O’Ward. “Throughout the whole race I had a handful of a car, my hands were definitely never relaxed. It was always super tense and Colton didn’t give me any breathing room, he did an awesome job to stay on my gearbox.
“I just knew that I had to keep it on the black stuff, it’s a hard place to get around someone. I knew he was using push to pass and he had a few launches but I don’t think he was close enough to make it stick. I feel like I really earned this one.”
O’Ward’s Saturday victory gave him the points lead but Sunday helped put the Andretti Autosport racer on display, winning by nearly six seconds over Victor Franzoni. Herta finished 35 seconds behind O’Ward while fourth place on back were over a minute and ten seconds behind.
“This time we had a car to expect the rain,” said O’Ward. “I basically just tried to find the limits of it, tried to find the braking points, tried to find everything and we pulled out a very nice gap, very nice laps and we took both wins.
“Mentally you have to do every single lap the same, if you want to push it a little bit more you have to be faster, you can only push in inches, you can’t push big time because if you lock a tire up in the rain, usually you’re just going into the kitty litter.”
Natural terrain road courses have been O’Ward’s strength with seven of his ten Mazda Road to Indy wins coming from that track discipline. Four of those were at Barber.
“I like the track,” said O’Ward. “It’s a trim track so it’s a different driving style, different setup but I’m sure the team is going to give me a strong car to challenge for wins and poles so I feel like it’s probably going to be up to me if I make it happen or not.”
“It’s a physical track, when it’s raining, physically (Sunday) was way easier, your body goes through a lot in a dry race because there’s a lot of g forces to go through. The race (Saturday) was definitely way harder for me because I had a handful of a car.”
Indy Lights next heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for a doubleheader on May 10-12. The No. 27 machine will look to bring its driver to victory lane for the third (and possibly fourth) time at that venue after a Pro Mazda doubleheader sweep in 2016.