With just five races remaining in the 2018 Indy Lights championship, a pair of teammates running underneath the Andretti banner find themselves at the top.
Pato O’Ward (No. 27 MEXICO #AWorldOfItsOwn Mazda) currently leads the points standings with an 18-point gap over Indy Lights sophomore Colton Herta (No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing/Curb Mazda).
The duo have fought tooth and nail over the championship lead all season long, with both Herta or O’Ward holding the top two positions since the INDYCAR Grand Prix in May.
Bursting onto the scene last season, “Hertamania” was revitalized in 2017 when Colton captured the attention of many with two wins and seven podium finishes as a rookie in Indy Lights. An average starting position of 3.4 was bolstered by six pole awards, while a couple untimely mistakes and a suspension failure in Toronto dashed any chances at the championship.
Herta would finish 3rd, behind champion Kyle Kaiser and runner-up Santiago Urrutia.
This year has been far from a sophomore slump for the second-generation driver. In 2018, Herta has already doubled his win total from last year (4) and upped the podium finishes to 9 through 12 races. The average starting position has dropped only slightly to 2.7, but the real improvement is in the average finishing position – now 3.1.
Still, that has only been second-best to this point in the season. After four Indy Lights starts in an abbreviated 2017 campaign, Pato O’Ward has seized an opportunity with Andretti Autosport in 2018 while reeling off five victories on the season.
O’Ward has led in all but three races in 2018, and he absolutely dominated at Iowa by pacing the field for all 100 laps on the way to victory. The Mexican driver has not been any lower than 2nd in the championship standings thus far and has completed all but one lap through 12 races.
In a season where Indy Lights has been plagued by low car counts, the racing has been far from bland. Herta and O’Ward have been dealing punches back and forth ever since May while the cream rises to the top.
Combined, Herta and O’Ward account for 75 percent of all Indy Lights race wins in 2018.
With the five races remaining on the Indy Lights calendar, four of those will come from two weekends as doubleheaders at Mid-Ohio and Portland will be crucial in deciding this year’s champion. One final oval contest at Gateway Motorsports Park in August is sandwiched between the two road courses.
While it isn’t mathematically a two-man battle just yet (Santi Urrutia is just 40 points back with those five races left in play), the focus will certainly be locked to Herta and O’Ward at Mid-Ohio this weekend.
Making four starts at the historic track while a Pro Mazda driver, O’Ward has finishes of 4th, 6th and 7th (twice) from 2015 and 2016. Knowing that those results won’t hold up in the tight championship battle this season, O’Ward recognizes a need for improvement at the 2.4-mile road course.
“I haven’t had much success at Mid-Ohio the past few years I’ve raced there, but I’m hopeful that will change this weekend,” O’Ward said this week. “I really think can we land on the podium and bring home a couple more wins. It’s a cool track and event and I know the No. 27 machine will be competitive.
“I am more than ready to extend my championship lead and keep racking up the hardware.”
Coming off of a win and a runner-up finish at Toronto, the confidence is understandably present for O’Ward. Furthermore, O’Ward has finished in the top four at each race since the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis in late May, a remarkable stretch.
The only driver who had been on a better run entering Toronto was Herta, before disaster struck in Canada two weeks ago. Heading into the doubleheader weekend north of the border, Herta hadn’t finished off of the podium since April when he placed 8th at Barber Motorsports Park. He then swept each race at Indianapolis (three in all) and picked off another at Road America in June.
Entering Toronto, Herta had a firm hold on the points lead and even took the pole for Indy Lights race one on the downtown street circuit. Without leading a lap, Herta would relinquish the lead early on before crashing out of the event on lap 22.
After another early retirement in the second race of the weekend, Herta was left with finishes of 7th and 6th, respectively, all while fracturing his thumb and being relegated to 2nd the championship behind a surging O’Ward.
Facing a different momentum swing than his in-house rival, Herta is aiming to right the ship this weekend in Ohio.
“After a tough weekend in Toronto, I’m ready to get back at it this weekend,” said Herta. “We fell back to second in the championship, but the season’s not over yet. We’ll continue the fight at one of my favorite tracks and I’m determined to take home a win in both races. I’m super excited and can’t wait for this weekend to get underway.”
It is tough to argue whether this championship is more important to Herta’s career or O’Ward’s at this point.
With backing from Steinbrenner Racing, Herta has gained interest as an IndyCar Series prospect for 2019. Bringing a Mazda Road to Indy scholarship to the table will certainly help with any of those negotiations this offseason, as would funding for the 2019 Indianapolis 500.
After a two-year career in Indy Lights, a move to IndyCar seems imminent for Herta.
At the same time, though, O’Ward may be more desperate for the series crown at the moment. While this is his first shot full-time in Indy Lights, O’Ward needs to capitalize on the past four months of solid finishes to make the most out of 2018. To win a Mazda scholarship and promotion to IndyCar would mean job security for 2019, and then some.
One of the rumored negotiating points between IndyCar and promoters in Mexico has been the presence of a Mexican driver for local fans to support. While O’Ward could potentially be the tipping point in those negotiations moving forward, that is a ton of pressure on the 19-year-old driver.
Winning the championship wouldn’t just be a breakthrough for O’Ward – it could be a breakthrough for a country that hasn’t hosted American open-wheel racing since 2007 with Champ Car.
The next chapter in this season’s story will continue on Friday when Indy Lights hits the track at 9:25 a.m. Eastern for first practice at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Race one of the doubleheader weekend rolls off at 3:05 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, July 28 with race two going green at 1:05 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, July 28.
Each race can be seen live at RaceControl.IndyCar.com with the IndyCar Radio on the crew with commentary and analysis.
Header image courtesy of Al Steinberg/SpeedSport.