LEXINGTON, Ohio – Pato O’Ward is eager to finish what he couldn’t last year at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
In 2022, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver with four career wins captured the pole and led 28 early laps before helplessly retiring from the race when his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet failed him. O’Ward was reduced to finishing 24th among 27 drivers, a disappointment that was one of his biggest of the year.
O’Ward did more than return to Mid-Ohio form on Friday, he drove even faster. His lap of 1 minute, 6.4935 seconds was more than two-tenths of a second quicker than last year’s pole-winning speed. Part of that was due to amendments to the 13-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course, including new curbing.
SEE: Practice Results
O’Ward easily cleared this weekend’s 27-car field, too, putting more than three-tenths of a second between him and series leader Alex Palou (1:06.8558). Third-place Marcus Ericsson was nearly a half-second off O’Ward’s pace in preparation for Sunday’s The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid.
“A good start here at Mid-Ohio,” O’Ward said after the session. “We made some good changes to the car and ended up the practice in a really nice spot. Looking forward to tomorrow.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Vivid Clear Rx Honda) and Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) rounded out the top five at 1:07.0262 and 1:07.0269, respectively, as Mid-Ohio hosts its 40th series race.
If the field is aimed at O’Ward when practice resumes Saturday, it is Palou being chased for the season championship. The driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 The American Legion Honda holds a 74-point lead over teammate Ericsson and is 81 points in front of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who won last month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet. O’Ward is fourth in the standings, 98 points out of the lead. Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) has the same number of points as O’Ward.
Palou leads the series in momentum, too, having won three of the past four races. He might also have won the “500” had his car not taken pit road contact from Rinus VeeKay’s car, but Palou responded by driving from the 27th position to finish fourth.
Palou has proven strong at this track as well, finishing second to Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by .5512 seconds in last year’s race. This also is the track where Palou auditioned for his first INDYCAR SERIES opportunity, driving a car of Dale Coyne Racing the day following the 2019 series race.
McLaughlin, who led 45 of last year’s 80 laps, was eighth in Friday’s practice at 1:07.1531 in the No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet.
The field spent Friday’s practice testing the track’s new limits created by the modifications. Alexander Rossi, the driver of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet who won the 2018 race, crossed the track in Turn 11 during a harried moment and later went wide in Turn 1, which has been slightly widened. Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda) drove deep in the grass in Turn 4 while Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) got sideways and off track exiting Turn 5. None of the cars took contact.
The challenge the rest of the weekend could be weather and wet conditions.
“It will be interesting to see if the rain decides to make an appearance or not,” said O’Ward, referencing local forecasts. “But yeah, so far so good (for us).”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda) is participating in his 17th series race at what he considers his home track, and that’s one more than his father, three-time series champion Bobby Rahal, made in his career. The younger Rahal was born in New Albany, Ohio, which is 50 miles south of Mid-Ohio. In emotional fashion, Rahal won a series race here in 2015.
With this start, Rahal ties Tony Kanaan for most series starts (251) driving a Honda-powered car. Rahal’s first start with the manufacturer, in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, resulted in a victory. Honda drivers have won 11 of the 17 races at Mid-Ohio since 2007.
Action resumes Saturday with the weekend’s second practice at 9:45 a.m. ET. Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award will be at 2:05 p.m. with both sessions available on Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Sunday’s race, the ninth of 17 races this season, will be at 1:30 p.m. on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.