Advertisement

How Mid-Ohio showed O’Ward has ‘turned the key’

The full measure of Pato O’Ward’s growth as an NTT IndyCar Series driver was on display last weekend in Mid-Ohio.

As rival and polesitter Alex Palou built a formidable gap during the opening stint, O’Ward was given multiple opportunities to chase, just as he’d done many times in the past, and use his fearsome speed to coax extra performance out of his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevy.

Palou was demonstrably faster over the first 20 laps, pushing out to a lead that reached more than six seconds at one point — an eternity in a mostly spec series like IndyCar — as the first round of pit stops loomed. But as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver motored away, O’Ward chose peace instead of violence with the treatment of his Firestone tires.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was this mature decision in the initial phase of the 80-lap contest that made all the difference in how the rest of the race played out for O’Ward.

His inner voice, one that embraced the big picture with two more stints to complete, led the 25-year-old to apply the necessary experience and wisdom to embrace the long game. In the middle stint on the quicker Firestone alternates, the No. 5 Chevy came alive and scythed into Palou’s lead; when it was time for their final stop, a hiccup on pit lane slowed Palou, promoted O’Ward to the lead, and set the stage for an intense battle to reach the finish line.

The Ganassi driver was a rocket as the two closed the event on Firestone’s primaries, and in a rare twist, it was Palou who was sliding wide, dropping tires into the dirt, and over-driving his car to try and keep up with O’Ward. Learnings during the opening stint were applied by Arrow McLaren when they went head-to-head in the last stint. The adjustments resulted in more speed — enough to keep Palou at bay — and despite feeling strong pressure from behind, O’Ward was a vision of calm, which netted a 0.4993s win to defeat the championship leader and break into victory lane after an absence (not counting the after-the-fact St. Petersburg win) of nearly two years.

The previous knock on O’Ward was his lack of interest in the moments where tire conservation was needed to capture the win. With a fast car, the Arrow McLaren driver was prone to spend the opening half of a stint on a road, street, or oval circuit with his No. 5 Chevy generating lap times that were simply breathtaking. But that level of ferocity came at a price.

While his closest rivals held back — intentionally restraining themselves from using everything their Firestone tires could offer — in order to preserve some pace for the end of the stints, O’Ward often gave into temptation. He’d put on a big show and run away, but the inevitable cost was paid as the tires surrendered well before the next pit stop and he’d tumble backwards before fading into an unrewarding finishing position.

And to his credit, the young Mexican, now in his fifth full IndyCar season, didn’t put the puzzle together for the first time on Sunday. His 2023 season was his best yet when it comes to consistency and using his smarts as much as his raw speed, but the victory at Mid-Ohio was a breakthrough for O’Ward to package all he’s learned and send it to the top step of the podium.

“ I was thinking to myself, ‘If he pulls this off, it’s going to send a statement,’” says Arrow McLaren’s Tony Kanaan, “and I am 100-percent convinced that it did.” Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“I think Pato on Sunday turned the key,” Arrow McLaren sporting director Tony Kanaan told RACER. “I think this is part of his growth. There is a crucial moment when you have a choice. You go down the road, and it splits, and one way you go, you become like everyone else, or you go the other way, and you become the driver everybody’s expecting you to be. The way he drove on Sunday, I was thinking to myself, ‘If he pulls this off, it’s going to send a statement,’ and I am 100-percent convinced that it did. Things are going to change.”

And now it’s time to take what he engineered in Mid-Ohio and apply that formula — to become “Championship Pato” — in the eight races that remain. The win vaulted him from sixth in the drivers’ standings to third, 70 points behind Palou. Of the eight races left, six are on ovals, which suits O’Ward’s skills; two of his six IndyCar wins are from ovals.

If he can channel the same focus this weekend at Iowa, then at Toronto, and through the other stops on the tour, O’Ward stands a good chance of receiving a newfound level of respect from his peers. Nobody doubts his abilities to win a few races per season, but he has yet to strike fear within title contenders like Palou, or Will Power, or Scott Dixon, when it comes to settling the championship.

Using Mid-Ohio as the model, Kanaan sees a prime chance for O’Ward to reach IndyCar’s upper echelon if his form holds.

“You’ve got to take him seriously,” he said. “This win was personal, for many reasons, and I think that showed Pato and everybody else how strong he is. I am 100-percent convinced that, and it doesn’t matter who it was behind them, that when he took the lead, they would think, ‘Don’t worry about it, he’s gonna mess up, I’m gonna pass him. He’s not strong.’ And he made a statement there, because then all of a sudden you see Palou putting wheels off here and there. Like, not a normal situation.

“So maybe what Pato did surprised everyone, but it didn’t surprise me, because I have the inside information and what he did is the stuff that we’ve been working on through the offseason, back with Gil [de Ferran] with his F1 tests with Pato. I knew this guy was in there waiting to get out, which he did.”

And now the race begins to see if O’Ward and the No. 5 crew can chase down Palou and Power, two of IndyCar’s masters of controlled excellence, in the standings.

“When he got out of the car, we had the longest hug ever, but it wasn’t just because of the win,” Kanaan added. “I was holding him and helping him to sit down, because he was spent. He left it all out there. It was personal. He was in the shop today and did a speech for the mechanics. He’s confident, he’s pumped, he pumped the team, and that’s the Pato we need.

“So hopefully this will turn the key for good. I want to keep that momentum going and make this a habit. That’s why we signed him for the next five years, because that’s the kid that we believe is going to deliver for us, totally.”

Story originally appeared on Racer