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 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.