One-Year Delay Intensifies Herta vs. O’Ward

Pato O'Ward testing with Arrow McLaren SP at COTA

While Colton Herta worked through rookie mistakes during the kickoff weekend of his first full NTT IndyCar Series season, Patricio O’Ward watched from the sidelines. He was eager to arrive at Circuit of The Americas for the second round of 2019, where his partial-season campaign with Carlin would begin.

These two were in a class of their own during a captivating 2018 Indy Lights season, developing a rivalry slated to earn attention in IndyCar. Herta’s co-entrant George Michael Steinbrenner IV partnered with Mike Harding and intended to field both Indy Lights graduates under Harding Steinbrenner Racing in 2019. That was before O’Ward, learning of financial difficulties for the team, asked to be released.

The inaugural INDYCAR Classic at COTA saw O’Ward turn a challenging day into an eighth-place finish, equaling Herta’s outing on the St. Petersburg street circuit. Unfortunately for the reigning Indy Lights champion, O’Ward’s debut with Trevor Carlin’s team was overshadowed by Herta becoming IndyCar’s youngest race winner.

O’Ward stunned in a one-off drive with Harding Racing in the 2018 season finale at Sonoma Raceway when he sped into the Firestone Fast Six and finished ninth in the race. Six months later, Herta beat him to a more impressive punch: winning at the top level of open-wheel racing in North America.

It wouldn’t be the final blow O’Ward would take on the chin in 2019. Though Herta proved unable to maintain a presence in the spotlight at the three races between COTA and his first Indy 500, his situation was inarguably better than O’Ward’s. Six months after his full-season shot disappeared, the young Mexican was on the outside looking in again as one of three Carlin-affiliated drivers failing to qualify for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500. The cornerstone feature of his Indy Lights championship scholarship vanished.

Pato O'Ward bumped from 2019 Indy 500 field
A heavy crash during practice led to Pato O’Ward falling short of the field of 33 for the 2019 Indy 500. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Subsequent financial trouble made O’Ward’s original 13-race schedule with Carlin less of a certainty. At the same time, a mechanical issue and 33rd-place finish for Herta meant both drivers left Speedway, Indiana seeking a recovery weekend in Detroit. O’Ward’s time with Carlin would end five races early, making midfield performances in the “Dual in Detroit” the beginning of the most significant divergence yet for their rookie seasons.

When O’Ward starts the 2020 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 15, it’ll be the IndyCar follow-up to his run to 17th at Road America last June. O’Ward’s post-Indy funding shortage meant he was lucky to race in Detroit and Wisconsin. Toronto, Iowa, Mid-Ohio, St. Louis and Portland were on his original schedule with Carlin but ended up off the table.

Seeking a new opportunity and benefitting from his new Red Bull Junior Team membership, O’Ward slotted in as the replacement to a banned Formula 2 driver for an event at the end of June. He profited from another driver’s loss once again when he replaced Red Bull oustee Dan Ticktum at the Mugen Honda team in Japan. Just as he seemed to be getting a grip on the Japanese Super Formula Championship, however, O’Ward was dropped by Red Bull himself.

He paired with Jordan King that weekend in Austria before benefitting from another driver’s loss once again when he replaced Red Bull oustee Dan Ticktum at the Mugen Honda team in the Japanese Super Formula Championship. But just as he seemed to be getting a grip on the top open-wheel championship in Japan, O’Ward was dropped by Red Bull, too, due to an unclear path to earn enough Super License points to soon race in Formula 1.

This turn of O’Ward’s turbulent 2019, however, didn’t cause the ladder to success to become more challenging to scale. Instead, it was his most significant break yet.

Pato O'Ward tests Arrow McLaren Indy car in Austin
Pato O’Ward didn’t have the same opportunity as Colton Herta to prove his ability in IndyCar in 2019 but was still sought after by Arrow McLaren SP. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s head of driver development, let O’Ward go early to ensure he had a fair shot at landing a new opportunity. Particularly the glaringly obvious one in IndyCar with Arrow McLaren, which he ultimately secured to the detriment of James Hinchcliffe.

The events of the past 12 months for the young prospects that won 13 out of 17 Indy Lights races in 2018 led them to different teams and new learning experiences. Still, the battle between the Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Racing and Arrow McLaren SP pilots figures to be surprisingly competitive.

Driving for a different team than the California kid he beat to the Indy Lights championship, O’Ward turned fastest race laps that were, on average, 0.6168 seconds slower than Herta’s in 2019. The maximum difference between their fastest race laps came in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America. There, Herta’s quickest lap of the 4-mile circuit was 1.8996 seconds faster than O’Ward’s. Risking the car on the challenging Belle Isle street circuit, O’Ward was just 0.1222 seconds off Herta on the chart of fastest in-race laps during the second Detroit contest.

Excluding the rain-affected Race 1 on Belle Isle, the gap between each driver’s fastest race lap averaged 2.5036 seconds at the six races that included O’Ward. That’s 300% larger than the average difference between O’Ward and Herta, demonstrating relative competitiveness between the two despite O’Ward’s alignment with a smaller team and lack of Andretti Technologies engineering support.

Colton Herta lapping wet COTA in preseason test
Colton Herta couldn’t overcome Pato O’Ward during the 2018 Indy Lights season and might be engaged in the same battle again in 2020. | Credit: Taylor Robbins/Spacesuit Media

Predicting how the two will fare in 2020 becomes more interesting when taking into consideration their unique seasons last year. For starters, O’Ward didn’t race at Indianapolis, Iowa or Gateway as he planned to and enters his first full season with no experience racing an Indy car on an oval.

Meanwhile, Herta won as many IndyCar races as Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, and Will Power in 2019, but lacks the skill O’Ward likely acquired in Formula 2 and Super Formula. O’Ward’s post-IndyCar 2019 included just five races, and it wasn’t as impressive on paper as the conclusion to Herta’s season. Still, Oliver Askew’s new teammate had a more productive second half of last year than most North American fans probably know.

For his sophomore season, Herta will be a full-on member of the six-car Andretti Autosport conglomerate. O’Ward’s first chance at a full IndyCar calendar will come with the refreshed Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The team is admittedly is unproven but has the resources of Arrow Electronics and McLaren Racing, to the envy of almost every other team.

The differences are real and sprout caveats every which way. Still, the playing field roughly evens out given the learning both drivers did in 2019 and the elite status of their car entrants. The narrative deepens as it engages McLaren versus Andretti, Chevrolet versus Honda and more. Best of all, the reignited duel between O’Ward and Herta will take place with about two dozen other motivated drivers on track at the same time.

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