One-Year Delay Intensifies Herta vs. O’Ward

Aaron Durant
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, 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 that was expected to earn attention in IndyCar. With Herta’s co-entrant George Michael Steinbrenner IV partnering with Mike Harding to field both Indy Lights graduates under Harding Steinbrenner Racing in 2019, the battle appeared set to transition seamlessly into IndyCar before O’Ward, learning of financial difficulties for the team, asked to be released.

The inaugural INDYCAR Classic at COTA featured O’Ward turning 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, driving the one car the Harding-Steinbrenner combination did have the resources to field.

O’Ward stunned in a one-off Harding Racing run in the 2018 season finale at Sonoma Raceway, earning a spot in the Firestone Fast Six during his first experience qualifying an Indy car and coming home ninth in the race. Six months later, he had been beaten to a more impressive punch by Herta.

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 that of O’Ward, who, half a year on from anticipating a full-season shot with support from Harding, Steinbrenner and Andretti Technologies, found himself on the outside looking in as one of three Carlin-affiliated drivers who failed to qualify for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500. The cornerstone feature of his Indy Lights championship scholarship was wasted.

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 surety while an early mechanical issue and 33rd-place finish for Herta meant both drivers left Speedway, Indiana and headed to Detroit seeking a recovery weekend. O’Ward’s time with Carlin was destined to be cut five races short, making midfield performances for both drivers in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader the end of similarities and beginning of the greatest divergence yet for their already unpredictable rookie seasons.

When O’Ward takes the green flag to start the 2020 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet on Sunday, March 15, it’ll be the IndyCar follow-up to his run to 17th at Road America last June. Despite Toronto, Iowa, Mid-Ohio, St. Louis and Portland being on his original schedule with Carlin, O’Ward’s post-Indy funding shortage meant he was lucky to race in Detroit and Wisconsin and took the five other races off the table.

Clinging to any opportunity to reach eventual stability in a top open-wheel series after his second IndyCar fallout of the 2019 season, the Monterrey, Mexico native was lucky again as his new Red Bull Junior Team membership helped him slot in as the replacement to a banned MP Motorsport driver for a Formula 2 event at the end of June.

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 difficult to scale. Instead, it was his biggest break yet and precisely the move necessary — at precisely the right time — to make Herta and O’Ward’s battle for IndyCar supremacy even more thrilling than it was anticipated to be when they were supposedly set to race in 2019 together under Harding and Steinbrenner.

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

Red Bull’s head of driver development Dr. Helmut Marko let O’Ward go early — October instead of November 2019 — to ensure he had a fair shot at landing an IndyCar opportunity, particularly the glaringly obvious one with Arrow McLaren that 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 — but also different — experiences to draw from, but 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 by 44 points, O’Ward turned in fastest race laps that were on average 0.6168 seconds slower than Herta’s in 2019. The maximum difference between fastest race laps came in O’Ward’s most recent IndyCar outing, the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America, where Herta’s quickest race lap of the 4-mile circuit was 1.8996 seconds faster than O’Ward’s. In the second Detroit contest that preceded Road America for O’Ward, he was just 0.1222 seconds off Herta on the chart of fastest in-race laps.

Excluding the rain-affected Race 1 on Belle Isle, the average fastest race lap split across the whole field was 2.5036 seconds at the six races that included O’Ward, or 300% larger than the average gap between O’Ward and Herta, who was faster everywhere except on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course where O’Ward had the best race lap of anyone.

Perhaps offseason studying and training helped Herta consistently perform marginally better than O’Ward, or maybe his team’s access to the data of Andretti Autosport’s four full-time cars brought relative ease to his rookie season.

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

The game of predicting how the two drivers will fare in 2020 becomes more interesting when taking into consideration what they each might have learned last year. By missing the Indianapolis 500 and not racing at Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway as he was meant to, O’Ward enters his first full-season with no experience racing an Indy car on an oval.

Herta may have won as many IndyCar races as Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Will Power did in 2019, but what he enters year two lacking is the skill O’Ward likely gained in scrambling to get a handle on two different open-wheel cars with new tires at new tracks — sometimes in the rain — for new teams. O’Ward’s post-IndyCar 2019 included just five races and wasn’t as impressive on paper as the conclusion to Herta’s season which included only two finishes outside the top 10, but 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, in a more official capacity than before, be a member of the Andretti Autosport conglomerate which will run six full-time cars including the affiliated Meyer Shank Racing Honda — plus a seventh at Indianapolis and Texas. O’Ward’s first chance at a full IndyCar calendar will come with the refreshed Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which admittedly is unproven but has the resources of Arrow Electronics and McLaren Racing, to the envy of most every other team.

The differences are real and sprout caveats every which way, but the playing field roughly evens out given the learning both drivers did in 2019 and the elite status of their entrants. The narrative is deepened as it engages McLaren versus Andretti, Chevrolet versus Honda, experience at every IndyCar track versus experience at Austrian and Japanese tracks, half a dozen cars versus two. Best of all, the reignited — finally ignited — 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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