Patricio O’Ward and Andretti Autosport tightened their grip on the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship – and a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million to guarantee entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 – during a weekend of perfection at the Cooper Tires Mid-Ohio Grand Prix Powered by Mazda.
In race one, O’Ward produced another textbook performance for Andretti Autosport to win Saturday’s Cooper Tires Indy Lights Mid-Ohio Grand Prix Powered by Mazda. The 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, led every one of the 30 laps from pole position to claim his sixth win of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season and extend his championship lead over chief rival Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) to 25 points with four races remaining.
Herta finished hot on O’Ward’s heels in second place, followed by Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada, who earned his second podium finish of the season for Andretti Autosport.
After posting the fastest lap in qualifying yesterday afternoon by a relatively comfortable margin of four-tenths of a second, O’Ward took off into the lead this afternoon at the challenging 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. But he was unable to shake off the attentions of locally based teammate Ryan Norman, from Aurora, Ohio, who had qualified a career-best second.
Herta also pursued closely in third place as the top trio soon began to edge away from Belardi Auto Racing teammates Aaron Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., and Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia.
O’Ward, Herta and Norman all traded fastest laps during the early stages, although even with a remarkably consistent sequence over the course of the next eight laps, all within 0.1 second of each other, O’Ward was unable to pull away.
The caution flags waved for the one and only time on Lap 18 when Telitz spun into the gravel trap at Turn Nine.
Right away after the restart, Norman’s hope of victory evaporated when he slid wide under braking for Turn Two. A close-following Herta lost no time in nipping past into second, whereupon the loss of momentum allowed Kellett also to pounce at the end of the back straightway.
Then Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) seized his chance by driving around the outside of Norman at Turn Five before sealing fourth place with a neat out-braking maneuver at Turn Six.
In little more than a few blinks of the eye, the unfortunate Norman had plummeted from second to fifth. But worse was to come one lap later when Urrutia also made a pass for position around the outside under braking for Turn Four.
Norman tried his best to hold on, but instead clipped the inside curb, ran wide at the exit and inadvertently nudged the passing Uruguayan into a spin. The contact earned Norman a drive-through penalty.
Herta chased as hard as he could after O’Ward, posting the fastest lap of the race just one lap from the finish, but the Mexican held on to claim a well-judged victory by just 0.6361 of a second.
Kellett also enjoyed a close battle with Franzoni for third, earning himself the Tilton Hard Charger Award after having started in sixth.
A separate qualifying session this morning saw O’Ward continue his recent run of success by securing his second pole position of the weekend. He will begin his quest for another victory when the green flag flies at 1:20 p.m. tomorrow, immediately before the Headline Verizon IndyCar Series event.
In race two, O’Ward held off a race-long challenge from Herta to secure his seventh win of the season and the second triumph in as many days at Mid-Ohio.
Herta finished second for the second day in succession for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, despite driving with a broken left thumb, sustained in a crash two weeks earlier. Norman thrilled his hometown crowd by completing another podium sweep for Andretti Autosport.
O’Ward made another exemplary start from his eighth pole position of the season to hold a commanding lead over outside front row starter Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) by the completion of the opening lap around the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
The margin over second had grown to over three seconds by the time Herta found a way past Telitz’s wayward-handling machine after just two laps, although that margin was eradicated at a stroke on Lap 10 by a full–course caution after Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., was nudged into a spin by Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) in Turn Five.
The unfortunate Telitz resumed a lap behind, while Franzoni was obliged by the race officials to serve a drive-through penalty for his part in the incident.
Herta never relented in his pursuit of fellow teenager O’Ward after the restart. Twice he took advantage of his Mazda/AER engine’s push-to-pass feature to draw alongside the Mexican on the main straightaway that leads downhill toward Turn Four, but on each occasion, O’Ward was able to maintain his lead.
After a slight slip by Herta in Turn Nine with three laps remaining, O’Ward was able to edge clear and take the win by a margin of 4.3680 seconds.
“My plan was to get out to at least a two-second lead so the guys behind me couldn’t use the push-to-pass. But then the yellow came out so once Colton could engage it, he was able to stay behind me,” O’Ward explained after race two. “I just had to stay in front and try to make him use all of them early. He got close to me once but I made sure I was fast in Turns One and Two because that’s really the only place you can pass.
“At that point, it’s about keeping everything focused and tidy. I did have a mistake early, locking it up in Turn Two, so I was just hoping I hadn’t damaged the tires. I’m happy to get the sweep, it’s great momentum for the championship.”
For Herta, two consecutive runner-up finishes this weekend is disappointing but far from crippling. More importantly, a three-week break to Gateway gives his fractured thumb a chance to heal.
“After (Saturday), I knew it would be tough at the start because it’s easier to hold second around the outside than it is coming from the inside. I didn’t want to risk anything right at the start – the chance of getting pinched on the inside,” said Herta. “I got alongside Aaron but backed out. He was struggling so I got by early but Pato and I were running such similar lap times that I couldn’t get to him. I had massive understeer over the last few laps and it’s tough around here if you’re in that situation.
“I used the push-to-pass to keep up, but he was just a little bit quicker today. We’re good about leaving each other room: we take what we can and give what we have to. But I am looking forward to three weeks off, to get the hand to a place that it needs to be. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, the doctor says I should be 90 percent at Gateway.”
Telitz’s teammate, Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, from Uruguay, ran third but couldn’t hold a candle to the two Andretti cars ahead of him. Nor, indeed, could he hold off the attentions of Norman, who started seventh but made good progress as he found a way past teammate Dalton Kellett on Lap Five, then was elevated two more positions following Telitz’s assisted spin and Franzoni’s penalty.
Norman stalked Urrutia doggedly before using the push-to-pass and making his move for third even before the braking area for Turn Four on Lap 20. Norman then drove away from Urrutia to confirm his third podium – and his third Tilton Hard Charger Award – of the season.
The weekend’s double victory for Andretti Autosport was enough to clinch the Team Championship over Belardi Auto Racing with just three races remaining.
The driver’s championship remains up for grabs, with O’Ward and Herta separated by 32 points, 395-363, as the contenders head to the third and final oval race of the season at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., on August 25.
Image and content courtesy of Mazda Road to Indy.