By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — Welcome to the Verizon IndyCar Series, rookies.
The Harding Racing duo of Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward exceeded expectations in their debuts on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. Both drivers finished on the lead lap, with O’Ward finishing ninth and Herta coming home 20th.
Race strategist Brian Barnhart was proud of both by bringing his entries home with a clean car and lead lap finishes, stating that it was crucial of allowing the duo an opportunity to compete at the highest level before the 2019 campaign.
“It was a great weekend all the around for Harding Racing,” Barnhart told Motorsports Tribune. “It was really important for us to run both of those guys this weekend, and we’re really proud of the opportunity to provide their debut in the IndyCar Series. They both did a magnificent job. Didn’t put a wheel wrong all weekend long. Great efforts out of both of them, completing every lap of the race.”
Piloting the brand new No. 8 Harding Group Chevrolet, O’Ward made tons of buzz that caught the attention of the established superstars such as Indianapolis 500 champion Will Power and newly-crowned series champion Scott Dixon after qualifying fifth.
O’Ward’s day took a little hiccup on Lap 12 when he wore out his Firestone reds, losing several track positions due to going wide in Turn 9, resulting in a three-wide frenzy as Sebastien Bourdais and Takuma Sato passed him. His crew didn’t want him to pit right away, but after losing five track positions, O’Ward pitted two laps after his error instead of waiting eight more laps to stay on schedule.
“It was definitely intense. It was just something new to me,” said the 19-year-old Mexican-American. “I was just feeling how people were racing each other. How they were racing me, and how aggressive I had to be to pass him.”
For the majority of the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, O’Ward ran outside the top-10, but once he found the confidence of overtaking his competitors, it was game on, gradually climbing back into the top-10 to cap off a phenomenal weekend.
“Since I didn’t pass anyone in practice, it was kind of hard to get around someone at first,” said O’Ward. “But once I made a pass, I believed that I can do it, so I just started picking off one-by-one.
“Midway through I think we got shuffled back to 16th. I just put my head down and started passing like five-six and we made ourselves up to ninth.
“I’m pretty satisfied with the weekend. My objectives coming in was a Fast Six and a top-10, and I achieved that. So I’m really really happy, and the team gave me a great car and we did an awesome job.”
As for Herta, it was a quiet and tough weekend matching the Indy Lights champion’s performance, running inside the top-20 for much of the 85-lap event. However, he kept his car out of trouble and adapted to the faster cars. As the race winded down he was within striking distance to catch Matheus Leist for 19th, but couldn’t get one last track position in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Herta felt he had the pace of competing for higher track positions, and felt his performance didn’t reflect what he’s capable of.
“Tough race. I think we ran as high as 15th, and for sure we had the pace to run top-12. Sometimes it doesn’t work out how you want it,” said Herta.
“There’s some stuff that we could’ve done better, but I just didn’t capitalize on everything. For sure there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to in the off season.”
All across the leader board, drivers struggled adapting on tire wear and wind variations all weekend, which the 18-year-old Californian said timing was everything to reduce those problems and its was contrast to tracks that he’s previously raced in.
“It’s important to get right on the pace as soon as you can. Being the first time in a car and at the track, it’s difficult to that,” said Herta. “Something like St. Petersburg, where I’m a little more used to the track. Hopefully, we can get up to speed better.”
Barnhart beleives this weekend was not just an example of what they can do in INDYCAR, but making a name for themselves heading into 2019 and beyond after capturing their only top-10 as an organization of the season—their first on a road circuit—and entering two cars for the first time.
“Pato’s weekend was even more unexpected with his qualifying performance,” Barnhart said.
“Starting fifth and finishing ninth is awesome. Colton did a great job in the car as well, and it’s good for them.
“They got an opportunity to learn what they need to do and what to work on for their future endeavors in IndyCar, and we learned a lot from our race team as well, so we’re excited about the future.”