IndyCar: O’Ward, Herta enjoying IndyCar education at Sonoma

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Historically, September is “back to school month” – most schools in the U.S. see students return between late August and early September.

And 19-year-old Patricio O’Ward and 18-year-old Colton Herta, both at ages where they would likely be in college in a traditional school year, are getting an education this weekend at Sonoma Raceway in this weekend’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

However, their education does not involve textbooks and No. 2 pencils. Theirs involves controlling a 700+ horsepower Verizon IndyCar Series machine around the 12-turn 2.52-mile road course as they make their IndyCar debuts with Harding Racing.

The significance of the task at hand, and all the facets of it, is not lost on either of them, as O’Ward explained following opening practice on Friday.

“(I’m) still getting into the mix of things, learning the ins and outs of what practices are here, and there’s a lot more cars than what I’m used to in Indy Lights. The track position is a little hard to get,” O’Ward explained in a press conference following the first practice.

Herta added that tire management is especially tricky to adapt to, particularly at Sonoma, but his enthusiasm for getting into an IndyCar far outweighs any nerves he has about the challenge of it.

Colton Herta expressed a boundless enthusiasm in discussing his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Photo: IndyCar

“I’ve waited 18 years for this. Right out of the womb I was waiting to get into an IndyCar,” Herta quipped. “But yeah, just like Pato said, it’s a challenging track. It’s challenging circumstances. It’s hard to get the tires to work here, especially when you only have one lap. It’s tough to get on top of that.”

There is also another parallel between their IndyCar debuts and the traditional education system. Typically students in the same academic year progress from grade to grade at the same rate, and may even continue to have the same classes and/or teachers together.

Similarly, O’Ward and Herta, teammates in Indy Lights under the Andretti Autosport umbrella (Herta competed with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) are “graduating” to IndyCar at the same time. What’s more, they find themselves as teammates again as they make their debuts with Harding Racing – O’Ward pilots the No. 8 Chevrolet this weekend, with Herta in the No. 88.

And while they certainly have a rivalry, there doesn’t appear to be any animosity behind it.

“I think it’s really cool. I don’t know about (Colton), but I didn’t really feel any tension during this year. I thought it was really fun,” O’Ward said of their Indy Lights championship battle, which saw O’Ward emerge as the Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward added that he enjoys having a teammate who can push him, as he feels it’s vital in his own growth as a driver.

“I think it’s cool that we’re both pushing each other. We’re both trying to get better, and I’d much rather have a strong teammate than to have someone that I won’t really get information out of,” he explained. “I think it’s always good to have someone that pushes you and pushes you to your limits so you can get better and better, and I feel like he’ll feel the same way.”

Indeed, Herta echoed those sentiments.

“It was awesome to have (O’Ward) as a teammate. We obviously pushed each other really hard. He made me a better driver, as well as I think I made him a better driver,” Herta revealed.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest hurdle each may face is the jump in machinery. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engines in the back of the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 chassis makes roughly 450 horsepower. The 700+ horsepower in the Dallara DW-12 IndyCar comes close to doubling that, and it certainly got their attention.

Herta explained, “The first time I went out, they only gave me half throttle, so I didn’t even get that feeling. It was like, ‘What’s going on? It’s slow. It’s like Pro Mazda car speed.’ But on the second run, yes, it was pretty incredible coming out of the box and it really pushes your head to the back of the head rest, and yeah, the throttle application is pretty crazy.”

O’Ward added that the consistency and smoothness of the engine stood out to him, and actually caught him by surprise.

Patricio O’Ward had a strong Friday at Sonoma Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s really smooth. I was surprised how smooth it was, but it was — it’s hard to explain, but you just go through the gears so fast, and the thing just goes. It was pretty cool.”

Both drivers have been solid, albeit to varying degrees, to start their debut weekends. Friday practice saw Herta end up 16th and 20th in first and second practice. Though unspectacular on paper, Herta completed each session without incident as he continued the learning process.

O’Ward, however, starred in second practice, ending up third on the speed charts for the session.

Their weekend continues Saturday, with Practice 3 at 2:00 p.m. ET (11:00 a.m. local time) and qualifying at 6:00 p.m. ET (3:00 p.m. local time).

Note: qualifying airs on NBCSN Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET.

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds