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.”