IndyCar: Despite their youth, O’Ward and Herta are ready for the big leagues

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That Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta both will be in the IndyCar Series in 2019 is only fitting.

They were the class of the 2018 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field – O’Ward won eight races, with Herta winning four – and dueled each other all the way up to the season-ending weekend at Portland International Raceway, where O’Ward clinched the Indy Lights championship.

And earlier today, both got rewarded with the chance of a lifetime as drivers in a revamped, and renamed, Harding Steinbrenner Racing outfit, featuring a partnership with George Michael Steinbrenner IV and Mike Harding.

Perhaps it’s surprising to some that two drivers who are so young – O’Ward is 19 and Herta only 18 – have such an opportunity at their doorstep. Yet, despite their youth, each has demonstrated an enormous amount of maturity and are ready to tackle the big time.

Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta were the class of the Indy Lights field in 2018. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Let’s start with O’Ward. The 2018 numbers for the Indy Lights champion speak for themselves; eight wins and 12 podiums are astounding numbers no matter how you slice them. However, the story of O’Ward’s season goes deeper than that. Things could’ve come unraveled after Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg – he ran off course after overshooting Turn 4, and with a commanding lead at that, and finished seventh. However, he came back to sweep the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

Things could’ve come unraveled again in the middle of the season when Colton Herta won four races in a row to take the points lead. However, from Iowa Speedway to the end of the year, O’Ward’s finishes went as follows: 1,1, 2, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1.

In short, he always managed to rebound when challenged and re-assert his dominance.

Patricio O’Ward won eight times in 2018. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An equally impressive on-track performance came outside of his Indy Lights campaign. In the Rolex 24 at Daytona, in which he drove the No. 38 Oreca 07 Gibson for Performance Tech Motorsports, O’Ward qualified an astounding fourth … ahead of DPi drivers like Dane Cameron (Acura Team Penske), Felipe Nasr (Action Express), and Tristan Vautier (Spirit of Daytona Racing). He also out-qualified fellow LMP2 drivers like Colin Braun (CORE autosport) and Stephen Simpson (JDC-Miller Motorsports).

Oh, O’Ward also out-qualified some guy named Fernando Alonso, who was piloting a Liger JSP217 for United Autosports.

It was an early signal that O’Ward meant business in 2018. It also comes off a 2017 season that saw him show his mettle in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, as he helped Performance Tech clinch a Prototype Challenge title and acclimated himself well to long-distance races. In other words, he’s already had a taste of the big leagues, and knows how to conduct himself accordingly.

And with IndyCar potentially looking at a return to Mexico in the near future, having a Mexican driver on the grid – and a budding young star at that – is an enormous boon and would make any potential event in Mexico an surefire homerun.

Of course, not to be forgotten is Herta. The son of 1993 Indy Lights champion and former IndyCar race winner Bryan Herta, 18-year-old Colton burst onto the scene in March of 2017 on the streets of St. Petersburg, his debut weekend in Indy Lights – he finished second in Race 1, charging up from fifth on the grid to do so, before leading every lap of Race 2 from the pole to take the win.

The then-16-year-old Colton had announced his presence as a force to be reckoned with, though keen observers would have seen that coming. He won four races competing in the Euroformula Open Championship in 2016, and with such success in the cutthroat world that is the European racing scene, Colton certainly possessed the pedigree to become a superstar and the hype-train was off and running, with several predicting he might run away with the 2017 Indy Lights title.

However, maybe the best thing that could have happened to the young Herta was not winning the Indy Lights crown last year. Despite possessing an incredible amount of raw talent, Colton remained unpolished, evidenced by on-track incidents that blighted his 2017 season, especially in the first half – he had five finishes of 10th or worse, featuring a pair of crashes, that essentially cancelled out two wins and a second-place effort.

Things got better in the second half, though he still was rough around the edges – he threw away a win on the streets of Toronto after contacting the wall while leading.

As a result, he ended the season third in the championship. Despite demonstrating the talent to be an IndyCar driver, he needed just a little more seasoning.

His performance in 2018 was nothing short of remarkable, even if he ultimately came up short of the championship. Colton rebounded from a crash in Race 1 at St. Petersburg to win four races in a row, as previously described. And, three of them came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, two on the IMS Road Course and one in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta won three times at the Indianapolis Motorsport in 2018, including the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In other words, Colton is not afraid of the big stage, and he embraces the chance to compete at the highest level.

Rest assured, while they are young, O’Ward and Herta are mature beyond their years. The INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma was more evidence of that. O’Ward’s story has been told in detail, and qualifying fifth and finishing ninth is genuinely remarkable.

Herta’s result won’t garner the same attention – he started 19th and finished 20th – but he accomplished the most important goal of the weekend: he ran all 85 laps and finished his debut race without incident, gaining a world of experience in the process.

They’ve even drawn praise of Al Unser Jr., who has previously worked with the team as a driver coach and will continue in that role next year.

“Really, I’m looking at two of the brightest stars in racing to come along for a long time,” Unser Jr. asserted. “Working with them out at Sonoma, I was with them when Colton ran his first test at Portland, I was with Pato when he ran his first test at Sonoma. These kids, they’re smart, they’re great drivers. They go out there and they use their heads. That’s 90% of it right there.”

There will be growing pains with O’Ward and Herta, as there always are with young guns. However, rest assured, IndyCar has a pair of budding young stars in the two of them, and they’ll be swinging for the fences in 2019.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things have to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Otherwise, whether he wants it to be that way or not, Kanaan could be doing a farewell tour in 2019 – and not have a choice about it.

Follow @JerryBonkowski