They say life comes at you fast, and being a rookie in the Verizon IndyCar Series is no different (we will hold the ‘football field a second’ reference, just this time).
For recently-crowned Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward, a budding open-wheel career is getting a shot in the arm this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
O’Ward was called up to Harding Racing for this weekend’s championship finale at Sonoma similar to a team in Major League Baseball bringing in a prized prospect for a few games at the end of the season.
With little to no expectations in place for his IndyCar debut, O’Ward entered ideal conditions to succeed on Friday, and the Mexican driver has hit the ground running.
Throughout the weekend, O’Ward has been impossible to miss in his No. 8 Harding Racing Chevrolet. The 19-year-old has breathed life into Sonoma Raceway – which looks unmistakably dead this time of the year – by slinging his blue, white and yellow machine through corners and down hills in a violent nature.
Over the course of three practice sessions, O’Ward was 6th-quickest with a time just a shade of 1 minute, 18 seconds set in second practice. Entering qualifying, the charismatic prospect was poised for a breakout performance.
“It was a pretty good day and I’m very satisfied with how we ended,” O’Ward stated at the end of Friday. “The first practice felt like a shot out of a canon because there were so many cars out there than what I was used to and I didn’t get any clean running. I’m happy I got some clean running in Practice 2.
“We were working hard on getting the car right for qualifying, so we were on the red (Firestone alternate) tires for most of practice. It feels really good, so now we’re going to work on the black (Firestone primary) tires to get ready for the race setup. As of now, I’m very satisfied with today.”
Soon, O’Ward would be satisfied with Saturday as well.
Slotted into the second qualifying group with veterans such as Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais, O’Ward was one of the six quickest and was able to escape the first round of qualifying to make the top-12.
In round two, O’Ward showcased his resiliency when the rookie ventured off-track which burned a set of his Firestone alternate red tires. Without much worry, O’Ward slapped on another pair of skins and proceeded to throw down the second-fastest time in round two to advance to the Firestone Fast Six.
O’Ward would be at a disadvantage in the Fast Six without that last set of alternate red tires he needed, eventually slotting in 5th quickest at the end of a hectic Sonoma Grand Prix qualifying session.
At this point, it seems O’Ward is playing with house money.
“I think it’s pretty cool… I honestly don’t know what to think about it,” O’Ward said upon making the Fast Six. “When I saw that I moved into the Firestone Fast Six, I saw (Josef) Newgarden, (Scott) Dixon, (Ryan) Hunter-Reay, (Marco) Andretti, (Alexander) Rossi, such big names, you’ve been looking at them for years and years and years, since I was a kid.
“Scott has been racing for a long time. I think even before I started my open-wheel career, Josef was already in INDYCAR. Basically, everybody here was already in INDYCAR. It’s just something unique. It’s something that you have to start believing that you can be like them, that you can beat them, that you can give them a run for their money. It’s a new feeling. I really don’t know what to think about it.”
While O’Ward cherished the moment in his own personal career timeline, he duly understood the importance of reaching the Fast Six for Harding Racing. It is the team’s first Firestone Fast Six appearance.
“I couldn’t be more stoked for the team. I’m really happy I got to give them their first Firestone Fast Six. Harding and Team Chevy have given me an awesome opportunity so far. The focus this weekend has been, obviously, to do a good job. My objective was always just to be in the top 10, so it was an objective succeeded.”
So now we arrive with only one thing left to do this weekend: race. O’Ward will be right in the thick of a championship battle with contenders Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, and Will Power distributed equally around him.
The rookie driver doesn’t have much to lose, but there will almost certainly be a bit of apprehension in the race’s early stages. If O’Ward can survive the opening stanza without any sizable incidents, keep an eye on O’Ward as the race matures.
One could wager that mistakes are bound to be made at some point in this weekend, but man, is anyone expecting it from this rookie on Sunday?
Image courtesy of Chris Jones/INDYCAR.