Ryan Hunter-Reay tops IndyCar Mid-Ohio practice; Pato O’Ward spins

IndyCar practice Mid-Ohio
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Ryan Hunter-Reay paced practice Saturday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as the NTT IndyCar Series hit the road course for the first time on its doubleheader race weekend.

The No. 28 Dallara-Honda driver turned a lap of 1 minute, 6.33 seconds, putting him just ahead of Will Power (1:06.395). Alexander Rossi, Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport teammate, was third quickets at 1:06.430.

Points leader Scott Dixon, who won at Mid-Ohio last year, was fourth fastest, followed by Santino Ferrucci.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: Results from the first practice at Mid-Ohio

TODAY’S RACE DETAILS: Info for the Honda Indy 200

Josef Newgarden, Alex Palou, Colton Herta, Conor Daly and Marco Andretti rounded out the top 10 as Andretti placed four of its cars in the top half of the 23-car field.

There were two significant incidents during the session involving championship contenders.

Dixon went off course for a half-spin 25 minutes into the session. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who was second fastest at the time, avoided any damage to his No. 9 Dallara-Honda, and the five-time series champion rebounded to get back on track and run top-five speeds near the end of the session.

Pato O’Ward, who is third in the standings after consecutive podiums two weeks ago at Gateway, wasn’t so lucky 35 minutes into the session.

The Arrow McLaren SP driver lost control of his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet in Turn 12 and backed into the tire barrier, making contact with the left rear and left front. The session went under a red flag for 12 minutes.

O’Ward was unhurt but was left with only 12 laps in the session (all the other drivers made at least 23 laps). He thought his team could fix the car in time for qualifying at 2 p.m.

“It just seems like the car maybe bottomed out, and I lost the rear,” O’Ward told NBC Sports Gold pit reporter Kelli Stavast. “Obviously, not the start we wanted. Wanted to get more laps in here, and I truly don’t think I was pushing that hard to get in a situation like that. We’ll fix it back up, get ready for qualifying. We’ll be going in a little blindsided, but there’s not much more we can than try to do the best we can.

“It doesn’t seem like the damage is too bad. Track position is absolutely key, so we’re in a little stress point now, but we’ll be fine. We’ll just have to tackle it and see what we can come up with later today.”

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

INDYCAR AT TEXAS: Scheduls, start times, how to watch on NBC, Peacock

Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”