By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Close, but no cigar.
On a day that featured plenty of chaos, Pato O’Ward kept his nose clean and found himself at the right place at the right time to be in contention for the win in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, only to have the win snatched from his grasp at the last minute.
Running behind leaders Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin, O’Ward cycled into the lead when the two collided and took each other out, setting the stage for what looked to be a smooth ride into NTT IndyCar Series victory lane.
After pulling out to a nearly three second lead over Marcus Ericsson to start the final green flag stint of the race, Ericsson began reeling O’Ward back in as the laps wound down, but it was still O’Ward’s race to lose down the stretch.
As O’Ward came off the final turn coming to three laps to go, his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet stumbled down the airport runway that serves as the frontstretch, allowing Ericsson to pass him for the lead and the win.
From then on O’Ward could do nothing but watch Ericsson score the win that likely would have been his and ponder what might have been.
“We did everything right today. It’s just…it’s always something,” a visibly frustrated O’Ward said. “The boys deserved that. [Texas] is next, so we’ll fight for that one.
“Compared to where we were last year here, it’s a massive step. We just gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore. I know we’re second, but yeah.”
O’Ward explained afterwards that the issue with his car was a plenum event, an engine overboost, which caused his car to lose speed momentarily before he was able to gather it back up and continue on for the remaining laps.
“Obviously, a little bit heartbreaking when you think you’re going to win a race and it doesn’t quite go your way at the end, but that’s motor racing,” said Arrow McLaren Race Director, Gavin Ward. “Overall, you take the big picture view here. We came in here wanting to get some good points on the board. It’s a long season, and the key to the season is consistency and two of our cars got right up there in the top four, so have to be super happy with that.
“Pato had a great car all weekend and had a strong race, but we have a lot we need to look at on the end of the race there. Onwards to Texas where we were strong last year and we hope to be even stronger this year.
While O’Ward was frustrated with not coming away with the win and having to settle for second, Ericsson had no problem with capitalizing on O’Ward’s issue and stealing the win away.
“Obviously today I didn’t want Pato to have a problem, but from what I heard the problem was because we were putting pressure on and they did a mistake or he did a mistake,” Ericsson said. “And that’s when these things can happen.
“I felt bad for Pato, but we were there to pick up on it. If I wasn’t putting pressure on him and hunt him down, he would have been fine and we would have been second. But we were there right on his gearbox, and we got past.”
O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren team will have to wait nearly a month before they try and rebound from Sunday’s stumble, when the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the PPG 375 on April 1.