By David Morgan, Associate Editor
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Almost as quickly as the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach began, the championship hopes for Pato O’Ward vanished just as fast.
Starting the day with high hopes that he would be able to put up a challenge for the Astor Challenge Cup, it took just one lap on the Southern California street course for everything to go awry.
As the field stormed into Turn 11 on that first lap, O’Ward found himself in the middle of a hornet’s nest, when Ed Jones dove low on James Hinchcliffe heading into the hairpin turn, but couldn’t get slowed up in time, running into the back of O’Ward and spinning him around.
O’Ward helplessly had to watch the entire field pass him by before he could get his car righted and back underway. Luckily, he would catch a break when Sebastian Bourdais spun later in the second lap, bringing out the caution and allowing him to catch back up.
After bringing his car down pit road to the attention of his crew, O’Ward returned to the track with a full tank of fuel and his work cut out for him to be able to overcome the early race incident and still challenge for the championship.
Naturally, both O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren SP team didn’t hold back over the radio, laying the blame for the predicament they found themselves in squarely at Jones’ feet.
“Nothing you could do there. That was just Jones being an idiot,” his team radioed to him.
“Not surprised it was him. Idiot,” O’Ward replied.
“Long way to go dude. Long way to go,” the team radioed back.
Unfortunately, O’Ward would not get the chance to attempt the comeback. On lap 17, as he raced down the frontstretch, his Chevrolet slowed dramatically, with the driver radioing back to his crew, saying “Gearbox is gone.”
The contact with Jones on the first lap had broken vital components in the rear of the car. With his wounded car rolling to a stop on track, his championship hopes were done for.
“It’s not the first time he’s hit us,” O’Ward said of the contact with Jones. “It’s not the first time he does something stupid all season, so I just wish he could use his head a little bit more. At least respect the guys fighting the championship. I don’t know what else to say, man.
“That corner is kind of just respect the guys in front of you and then maybe you get a run. I’m not telling him to not race me, but don’t be stupid about it.”
Though it appeared O’Ward would be done for the day, there was no give up in the Arrow McLaren SP team, as they repaired the No. 5 car and returned him to the race to allow him to not finish last on the leaderboard.
By the time the checkered flag flew, he had fallen from second to third in the standings, finishing 62 points in arears of 2021 champion Alex Palou.
“Definitely not a great day,” added McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. “The team has done outstanding all year. Pato has done an unbelievable job all year. A lot of credit to the team; they’ve been fast.
“Disappointed to have Pato taken out by a bit of an amateur move before the race really even got started, but these things happen. Just really proud of the work all the men and women here at Arrow McLaren SP have done.”
Despite the disappointment of not winning the championship, the second full-time season in IndyCar for O’Ward has certainly jumpstarted things for both him and his team going forward.
In the final rundown, the 22-year-old will finish the year having won his first two races at Texas and Detroit, along with five podium finishes, and three poles.
“I think we’ve had a great season,” O’Ward said. “I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of myself. Obviously, it wasn’t the most perfect of seasons, but I think that’s how it’s going to be. You have to learn from the little mistakes that you might have made and then I think that gets you stronger.
“I’m looking forward to next year. I think we have a great baseline to start off from and see if we can get some more wins and challenge for another title.”