Harding Steinbrenner ‘looking forward’ with Herta, one-car team

Harding Steinbrenner Racing President Brian Barnhart
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AUSTIN, Texas – One day after Pato O’Ward announced he was leaving Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, team officials vowed they will move forward as a one-car effort with rookie driver Colton Herta.

“We’re not looking in the rear-view mirror, we’re looking forward,” Harding Steinbrenner Racing President Brian Barnhart told NBC Sports. “Everything we can do for Colton Herta from here on out is the most critical and important thing we can focus on.”

Ever since his impressive IndyCar debut at Sonoma Raceway last September, O’Ward was billed as a star of the future for the NTT IndyCar Series. The 2018 Indy Lights champion from Mexico had speed, charisma and potential.

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Harding Steinbrenner Racing was sold on the 19-year-old O’Ward and paired him up with 18-year-old Herta, his Indy Lights teammate at Andretti Autosport and the driver that finished second to O’Ward in that series. O’Ward had nine victories, nine poles and 13 podium finishes in 17 contests. Herta had four wins, three wins and 13 podiums in 17 events.

Instead of fielding two Hondas in 2019, the team will refocus its efforts on Herta as a one-car entry.

“I don’t think it’s really going to make any difference,” two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and current Harding Steinbrenner Racing official Al Unser, Jr. told NBC Sports Tuesday at Circuit of the Americas. “We have a great team, a great race car driver with Colton. We wish that Pato would have joined us and things would have worked out with him. He’s a great race driver and we definitely wanted him on the team.”

The reason O’Ward left is lack of sponsorship. Harding Steinbrenner team owner’s Mike Harding and George Michael Steinbrenner, IV have both been trying to secure the necessary funding to expand from a one-car operation in 2018 to a two-car program in 2019.

Combine that with the cost of a full-price Honda engine lease for two cars, and the dollars weren’t adding up for two entries. Originally, O’Ward was going to sit out this week’s two-day preseason test at COTA.

O’Ward decided to leave the team and try to find a ride elsewhere.

O’Ward has the $1 million scholarship for winning the 2018 Indy Lights title. That guarantees him a car for the 103rdIndianapolis 500 and two other races. The two most likely options are Chevrolet entries Carlin Racing and Juncos. Both teams have one full-time driver with openings for a potential second entry. The caveat at Carlin, however, is Max Chilton is the full-time driver in 2019 with Charlie Kimball committed to just five races in 2019 including the Indy 500.

“The environment in this day and age, sponsorship is the toughest that I’ve ever seen in my career, and that even goes back to when I was a kid with my dad racing,” Unser said. “It’s never been this difficult to obtain sponsorship. It’s the nature of the beast where we are at. I wish it would have turned out better, but you never know. The future is the future and I wish Pato the best of luck in the decision he has made to move on.

“Mike Harding’s passion is so huge in racing. All of this has come out of his own pocket. He’s a great guy, a great man and he loves racing and it shows with the effort he has put into it. We just wish we could have signed some sponsors that would have taken us into a two-car team. We’ll still working on it today.

“We’ll make the best out of what we have and so far, Colton is looking pretty good. I was hoping Pato would have stuck it out with us, but it was his decision to do what he has done.”

Unser said he loves O’Ward and continues to text the aspiring driver from Mexico.

Barnhart promised the team will move forward, despite this setback.

“It simplifies things to a degree, but you look at it as moving forward and doing the best we can at this point,” Barnhart told NBC Sports. “We are full steam, full focus on Colton for the 2019 season, and we’re going to give him the best opportunity to be successful in this rookie campaign in the IndyCar Series. We’re disappointed it’s not a two-car effort.

“The series is so competitive and with shortened sessions and shortened weekends and restricted testing, the best chance for success is to be a two-car team. We don’t have that but through our alliance with Andretti Technologies we have some great resources there and are aligned with a super team. That will certainly provide some benefit for us.”

The team announced a technical alliance with Andretti Autosport on Tuesday, but that was understood late last season when Harding agreed to become a partner team by switching from Chevrolet to Honda. The chance to get feedback from Andretti’s engineering department and four drivers including Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach will be valuable for young Herta.

“There is a ton of respect there and trust and we will clearly be the benefactors of that relationship,” Barnhart said. “That information will help take us to the next level.”

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”