By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — After qualifying second, Patricio “Pato” O’Ward knew he would need to find a way around teammate Colton Herta if he was going to claim a redemptive second victory of the young Indy Lights Championship season.
What he didn’t know was how quickly he would manage it, or how crucial it would be.
O’Ward maneuvered his way around Herta on the opening lap of the 30-circuit event, snagging the top spot shortly before the race’s lone safety car for a crash between Dalton Kellett and Aaron Telitz in Turn 2.
From that moment on O’Ward wouldn’t relinquish the top spot. Despite an ill-handling car – he complained of drastic oversteer to his team – the Mexican prospect fended off a fierce challenge from Herta to claim his second win of the year.
“I had a lot of trouble to keep the rear tires under me,” O’Ward said. “I think if I didn’t make that pass in the beginning, I wouldn’t have been able to pass Colton. There’s no way. I was struggling a lot in the exit of the corners.
“But I’m really happy that we got the win.”
The run elevated O’Ward to the points lead, and served as a return to form after he crashed out from the top spot in Race 2 at St. Petersburg.
“I wanted to redeem myself, because that was very uncharacteristic and I was really mad at myself,” O’Ward said of the St. Pete shunt. “I was six or seven seconds in front of everyone, and you just don’t freaking run off the road. I felt pretty bad.”
Herta crossed the line 1.325 seconds behind O’Ward to claim a disappointing second-place result.
“I’m not really happy at all with that effort,” he said. “It was just a little sloppy, so yeah. Tomorrow’s a new day. Obviously (we’re) still on the podium, and points are alright. Ready to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow.”
The son of Verizon IndyCar Series owner Bryan Herta claimed his struggles stemmed from the challenges of the wake at Barber.
“This is probably the worst track we go to for the wake, because it’s such a fast track, and there’s not a lot of straights that you can slipstream up on,” he said. “So you kind of are a sitting duck when you are behind someone unless there’s a mistake made or a really good opportunity for you.
Santi Urrutia followed a distance third, frustrated with the performance of his Belardi Auto Racing machine.
“We have to figure out hat is the problem with the car and see if we can improve a little bit, not just for this weekend, or just for the next few weekend,” Urrutia said. “Because (O’Ward and Herta) were quicker than me in St. Pete, and they’ve been quicker than me here. So we have to change something, probably on the car or whatever. I know the Belardi guys are going to work hard, and we’re going to find the problem.”
Victor Franzoni and Ryan Norman rounded out the top five, with Kellett, Alfonso Celis and Telitz completing the field.
The Indy Lights paddock will return for Race 2 on Sunday.