BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – When rookie Patricio O’Ward started his first NTT IndyCar Series races of the season two weeks ago in the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas, the 19-year-old from Mexico put on quite a show. He looked more like an aggressive veteran, than a teenage rookie.
Perhaps his youth and inexperience helped him drive with fearless abandon. Whatever it was, it worked, especially in Turn 15 when he drove way off course to set up Graham Rahal for a spectacular pass.
By the time the Texas dust had settled, O’Ward finished eighth after starting eighth but ran as high as fifth late in the race. In many ways, he did not make much advancement in the field, but he sure made a lot of progress in the race.
“It was super fun,” O’Ward told NBC Sports.com. “I had a blast. Honestly, I wanted to get by Graham Rahal, but I wasn’t planning to do it here. It was spur of the moment. I stuffed it into Turn 15 and we were side-by-side. All of a sudden, when we were riding into the carrousel, you couldn’t follow through there. So, I tried a half-car offline to see how it is and the thing just stuck. I was flat. I kept it flat and went around him.
“It worked. It wasn’t really planned, but it turned out to be a great pass.
“It was a blast, man. It was super fair, and it was good. It was fun.”
There are few drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series that can successful pull off such a move without crashing. Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport has proven to be capable of brilliantly bold, yet potentially frightening passes.
O’Ward may have similar ability.
“Last year, I wasn’t really in the position to be aggressive,” O’Ward said. “I have learned to either be aggressive or when I need to be, be conservative. There are times for both. There are times to be smart and conservative and there are times to hammer down and get stuff done.
“I feel there is the racer side in me that didn’t really appear in me last year until Race No. 2. This year now, I’m realizing exactly how to follow people in an IndyCar and how to overtake. Every car is treated differently, overtakes differently and follows differently. I’m learning the ropes about that and COTA was a big eye-opener.”
O’Ward admitted the March 24 INDYCAR Classic at COTA was far different than this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
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Track Limit rules were waived by INDYCAR officials at COTA because of its wide runoff areas that are paved. If a driver found a racing line, he thought was fast that went over the limit of the track, typically defined by a painted white line, he could use it.
“I thought IndyCar made the right decision for racing purposes for sure,” O’Ward said.
Barber Motorsports Park, however, is a road course where a driver has to be precise, or he will pay a consequence. The race course is surrounded by grass, gravel and ARMCO barriers.
“I’ve said this since 2015 for the first time, the nature of the track, the event, everything meshes really well together,” O’Ward said. “I really like fast corners and this track has a lot of fast corners. This track really suits my driving style. I really enjoy driving around this place.”
The driver from Mexico has spent many years in the United States, but he is a very popular in his home country. COTA is located in Austin, Texas and is the closest IndyCar venue to his hometown that he will compete in this year.
“There were about 150 fans and followers of mine that came to that race and I think I gave them a show,” O’Ward said. “I wanted to go out there and for the people to have fun. All in all, the weekend was a blast. It was a cool event and I think it was one of the best IndyCar races ever. I think it was a really good one from that standpoint.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series started on March 10 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. When 2019 began, O’Ward would have been in that race, but his agreement with Harding Steinbrenner Racing had developed problems. On February 10, O’Ward announced he was leaving the team and would have to find a different ride for 2019.
“It was crazy,” O’Ward admitted. “IndyCar is a top category, so I’ve never been in the spotlight as much as I have been now. The problems that happen in the bigger categories, everyone finds out. If it happens in junior categories, no one cares. It was really nice. It was nice to see the support and cool to see everybody who sent me texts, called and direct messages. It was nice to have something to share with them with a new team, a new opportunity.
“We’re continuing to chip away with what we have to learn.”
He struck a deal with Carlin and it was announced the day before the St. Pete race, too late for the team to prepare a car for the rookie driver.
While the other drivers already had one race in competition in 2019, the second race of the season was O’Ward’s first.
But he wasn’t surprised with his performance.
“I know I have the pace,” he said. “I have the pace, just like anybody else. I can race just like anybody else. It’s not easy to compete with Andretti, Penske and Ganassi. They have been in racing for a long time and I’m a rookie and Carlin are in their second year in the series. It’s not easy to go up against the really big names that have really big support systems behind them. I think we did a good showing. There is more to come for sure. We’re enjoying it. We’re having a blast.”
In some ways, the rookie has elevated the level of Carlin, a second-year IndyCar operation that has been successful in other forms of racing around the world, including Indy Lights.
“It’s a very well-respected team in Europe,” O’Ward said. “It’s a very professional and well-organized group of people. I’m very happy to be part of it. I’m in the perfect place for the future of my career. Trevor has seen so many talented drivers on his team, either in junior formulas or Formula One. They are either in IndyCar or Formula One.
“I’m happy I’m here and he can evaluate. If he says I can drive, then I can drive.
“I’m trying to bring as much knowledge as I can to the team, and they are teaching me a lot of new things that I don’t know. We are helping each other, and we are both progressing and trying to progress as fast as we can. I am starting behind the curve; I didn’t get to test at COTA for the two days. And, I didn’t do any offseason testing. I am a little behind everyone else, but that doesn’t mean we can’t race against them. We just have to work a little bit harder.
“It will only be a matter of time before we are both up there.”
By having veteran like Max Chilton, a former F1 driver, as a teammate is also helpful to O’Ward’s development because he can help the rookie with race scenarios. The race presents many more challenges than qualifications, and Chilton can help O’Ward recognize those issues.
“I’m still learning, but it’s nice to have somebody who has been there,” O’Ward said. “If you have any questions, he will tell you what his opinions are and what you can do to be better.”
So, what does the future look like for this 19-year-old rookie?
“I see some opportunities coming up,” he admitted. “The right mentality every weekend is to win. I’m not here to be 10th. I’m not here to be 20th. I’m not here to be seventh. I want to win. I want to get podiums. I want to be fighting for the front.
“It’s tough to compete against the really big teams, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. On a very good day for us and a very good day for them, we could be right up there with them.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before we really start annoying them.”