Pato O’Ward concluded a topsy-turvy day at Portland International Raceway by claiming victory for Andretti Autosport in Saturday’s Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland Powered by Mazda. It was enough to clinch this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire title – and a scholarship valued at $1M to guarantee entry into three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the Indianapolis 500 – with one race remaining.
Colton Herta tried his hardest to keep the title-chase alive with a bold early pass of the polesitter before eventually having to settle for second for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing. Brazilian Victor Franzoni completed the podium for Juncos Racing.
Indy Lights’ return to the Pacific Northwest for the first time since 2001 saw the two championship rivals once again to the fore as O’Ward obliterated the old qualifying lap record yesterday afternoon by more than two seconds with a best lap of 1m02.8074s, an average speed of 112.573 mph.
The pole was O‘Ward’s ninth of the season, finally erasing the old record of eight that had been established in 1993 by Bryan Herta and subsequently equaled by Townsend Bell in 2001, Thiago Medeiros in 2004 and Ed Jones in 2016. Herta had to make do with second on the grid, almost four-tenths of a second adrift.
Earlier this morning, however, O’Ward crashed during the second period of qualifying, which would determine the grid for tomorrow’s 17th and final race of the season. His Andretti team worked hard to repair the car in time for this afternoon’s race, and O’Ward was narrowly able to maintain his advantage at the tight Festival Curves as Herta tucked obligingly into second.
In their wake, a momentary brake lock-up for third-place qualifier Aaron Telitz sent his Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15 into the escape road. He resumed in fifth behind Franzoni and Santi Urrutia, aboard the second Belardi entry.
Unsurprisingly, all eyes were on the front of the field. Herta knew full well his only realistic hope of wresting the title away from O’Ward was to score a pair of victories in this final weekend of the season. He remained tucked up under O’Ward’s rear wing for the first three laps, then looked for an opportunity under braking for the Festival Curves on Lap Four. O’Ward held his ground – and the lead – but next time around, Herta was able to dive for the inside and sneak past at the same location.
Now the boot was on the other foot. Herta held the advantage but was unable to pull away. On Lap 13, rather than forcing the issue, O’Ward wisely decided not to push his luck. Next time around, as before, he was a little bit closer, and the two leaders ran side by side deep into the braking area.
Herta knew his only option was to outbrake O’Ward into the left-hander at Turn Two, but the two were fighting for the same racing real estate. In an instant, O’Ward was through and Herta was left scrabbling for grip on the outside over the curbing.
Once back into the lead, O’Ward turned a sequence of seven laps all within one-tenth of a second of each other. Clearly, there was no way for Herta to make up the deficit of almost 2.5 seconds. The 18-year-old Californian did manage to creep a little closer in the closing stages of the all-green, 35-lap race, but O’Ward still took the checkered flag a clear 1.6867 seconds in front to claim his eighth win of the season – just two shy of the all-time single-season record of 10 set by Greg Moore in 1995.
“I was screaming in the car,” said O’Ward. “You work for it all year, so many months of just hard work and focus, and finally all that weight is off my shoulders. I knew it would be a battle with Colton today, and I had to beat him, because that’s the only way you can be a champion. My pass on him was pretty much the same pass he did on me; he just didn’t give me as much room as I gave him.
“It was hard racing: we both want to win. I knew I had the car and I just had to get around him. It’s been this way all year, just hard-fought races. We have been pushing each other so hard, and IndyCar owners have realized that. Hopefully you’ll see us both in IndyCar next year.
“But it’s been a dream season – so many wins, so many poles, and the car has been an absolute bullet. I can’t thank Andretti Autosport enough for making this happen. I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight.”
Herta was frustrated with O’Ward’s pass, but conceded that the championship hadn’t been lost in a single afternoon.“I passed him cleanly but he didn’t pass me cleanly, but it is what it is,” he said.
“We raced hard all year and did what we could. If we hadn’t had such a big point drop in some of the races, like St. Pete and Toronto, we might have been closer, but he did a good job this year. We’ve done everything this year with next year in mind: it’s been on my mind all this year, trying to get an IndyCar ride and we have a long time ‘til the season starts again so I have time to put something together. But I’m proud of this season and how much we’ve progressed.”
Franzoni, last year’s winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, ran a lonely race to claim both the Tilton Hard Charger Award and his first podium finish since Road America in June, well clear of Urrutia in fourth.
O’Ward now holds an insurmountable 32-point advantage heading into tomorrow’s finale.