Pato O’Ward has been a revelation during the early stages of the 2018 Indy Lights season. As part of Andretti Autosport’s squad, the 18-year-old Mexican has taken three emphatic wins from four races, and if you were lining up the pre-season favorites, the young Mexican might have been missing from the list.
Santi Urrutia, now in his third year of Indy Lights competition, stood out as an immediate title contender with Belardi Racing, and O’Ward’s teammate Colton Herta, returning for his sophomore year with Andretti, was another easy pick. Urrutia’s Belardi stablemate, Aaron Telitz, was the third driver atop the list, but as he’s demonstrated, O’Ward has been the first breakout performer.
He and Telitz waged an unforgettable fight that fell in the American’s favor for the 2016 Pro Mazda championship, and after making a handful of Indy Lights starts at the beginning of 2017, O’Ward turned his attention to endurance racing.
The year spent in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship would prove to be invaluable as the sheer volume of track time behind the wheel of Performance Tech Motorsport’s ORECA FLM09-Chevy PC surpassed anything he’d receive on the junior open-wheel ladder.
A string of seven consecutive victories in Performance Tech’s prototype, including the Rolex 24 At Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, saw O’Ward and teammate James French take the PC championship with ease. And thanks to a season filled with multi-class racing across iconic North American tracks, O’Ward has come back to the Mazda Road to Indy as a faster, more complete driver.
It might not be the traditional path for future IndyCar drivers, but O’Ward says the lessons learned during his brief switch to sports cars is showing in Indy Lights.
“It’s a very different type of racing, but all of the seat time at this stage is a plus,” he told RACER. “The PC car had a lot of horsepower, almost the same as Indy Lights, and while there were some things that didn’t carry over from driving that car, it was fast and I had to race against so many other cars for so long, that it gave me a lot of seat time –a lot of mileage – that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
“I didn’t race against a lot of PC cars because we were up front most of the time, but I did race with the P2s and DPis sometimes, and then all of the GT cars. All the decisions every corner, every lap, with where to pass and how to pass without getting hit and ruining your race was really great for me. Coming back to Indy Lights, it was like I got two or three years of extra racing experience with the one year [in IMSA].”
So far, O’Ward’s led the most laps in every race, scored two poles, two fastest laps, and was on the road to a clean sweep until an error while leading the second St. Petersburg race handed the victory to Urrutia.
With 13 races left to run, he has plenty of work left to do if he wants to secure the title and the $1 million advancement prize from Mazda, and as he heads into the Indy GP and Freedom 100 at IMS, maintaining the form shown at St. Pete and Barber will be critical.
“I want a full year of being able to do exactly what everybody else does, and this is the first year I’ve had that chance,” he said. “I know I have the tools to do it with Andretti Autosport, and my confidence is high. I know I’ll make mistakes, but I know I have all the things I need with the car and the team and the engineers, and with them, I can win this championship. I know this. The car has been dialed in and I’ve been working really hard with the team to find all the little hundredths and tenths with the setup to make us fast. I want to make this my year and I want to be in IndyCar in 2019.”
Looking ahead, O’Ward believes he can be a conduit that brings his home country closer to IndyCar, and vice versa.
“I want to help promote IndyCar in Mexico and help IndyCar get back to racing in Mexico,” he said. “The racing fans in Mexico are like nothing you’ve ever seen, and if we have a young driver who is winning in Indy Lights and can get into IndyCar, I think there’s a lot of support waiting for us. I’m hungry for wins, I’m hungry for poles; I don’t want to be just the champion, I want to destroy.”