MRTI: O’Ward, Herta show IndyCar mettle in fighting for Indy Lights crown

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The ultimate goal of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system as a whole, is to help produce future stars for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And the 2018 Indy Lights season potentially produced a pair of them.

Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta quickly distanced themselves from the 2018 Indy Lights field in the first half of the season. O’Ward won three of the opening four races (Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg, and both races at Barber Motorsports Park), while Herta won four in a row (both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the Freedom 100, and Race 1 at Road America) immediately after.

What’s more, they often found themselves battling each other at the front of the field. They dueled for the win in the Freedom 100, battled each other the entire weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and did battle again this past weekend at Portland International Raceway.

Colton Herta just edged Patricio O’Ward to win the 2018 Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In total, they finished on the podium together 10 times in 2018, going 1-2 seven times.

And critically, while their battles were often close and intense, each driver kept their mistakes to a minimum. Perhaps O’Ward’s only glaring mistake all year came in Race 2 at St. Pete, when he overshot Turn 4 and slid off into the runoff area. It allowed Santi Urrutia to take the win, while O’Ward was relegated to seventh.

And Herta, whose 2017 season was marked with lots speed but also plenty of on-track incidents, saw a significant improvement in his own race craft. Indeed, the 18-year-old Herta harnessed his talent more often than not in 2018 to become a genuine title contender.

Unfortunately for Herta, his only glaring errors of the season likely cost him a shot at the championship. Herta crashed in Race 2 at St. Pete, and crashed again in qualifying on streets of Toronto – the Toronto wreck was especially costly as he suffered a broken thumb in the process, and he aggravated the injury in a subsequent crash in Race 1.

Regardless, Herta certainly cut down on his errors in 2018. However, he previously explained that his mindset didn’t change that much – he just adapted to the circumstances he faced in 2018.

“Not much has changed. The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then,” he told NBC Sports back in June in discussing his growth as a driver.

The O’Ward/Herta rivalry was again on full display this past weekend in Portland. Saturday’s Race 1 presented an opportunity for O’Ward to clinch the Indy Lights title ahead of Sunday’s Race 2, but Herta was certainly not going to make it easy.

Indeed, Herta sliced inside of O’Ward entering Turn 1 on Lap 5 to take the lead, showing that he was going to do everything in his power to keep the title going until Sunday’s finale.

However, O’Ward fired right back on Lap 12, making a similar move in Turn 1 to retake the lead.

It was a hard-fought battle between the young guns, who are also teammates in the Andretti Autosport camp, but despite slight contact when O’Ward retook the lead, their battle stayed relatively clean.

O’Ward explained afterward that he enjoyed racing against Herta, and that he hopes IndyCar teams took notice.

“It was hard racing: we both want to win. I knew I had the car and I just had to get around him. It’s been this way all year, just hard-fought races. We have been pushing each other so hard, and IndyCar owners have realized that. Hopefully you’ll see us both in IndyCar next year!” he expressed.

And that may happen sooner than later. NBCSN’s Robin Miller has reported, in a piece on RACER.com, that both O’Ward and Herta will be part of a two-car effort from Harding Racing at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma to end the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Coincidentally, Herta tested with Harding earlier in the summer, sparking speculation that he would be in an IndyCar before the 2018 season ended.

Regardless, both O’Ward and Herta showcased themselves as emerging stars in the 2018 season. O’Ward’s Indy Lights title guarantees him three starts, including the Indianapolis 500, in next year’s IndyCar season, while Herta had already started working on a possible IndyCar effort for next year.

And both O’Ward and Herta could be positioned to again race against each other in 2019…this time on the IndyCar grid.

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Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.