Being a fast, impressive rookie has been the theme of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season – starting with Robert Wickens winning the pole at St. Pete while Matheus Leist and Jordan King were qualifying third and fourth, respectively, in the season opener.
But all three had the benefit of preseason testing and getting into a bit of a comfort zone with their new team.
So what Pato O’Ward did Saturday at Sonoma Raceway was nothing short of spectacular, jaw-dropping and beyond impressive.
In his first IndyCar qualifying session, the newly crowned Indy Lights champion stuck Mike Harding’s No. 8 Chevy into the fifth spot on the 25-car grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” O’Ward replied when asked what it felt like to be in such fast company so quickly. “I honestly don’t know what to think about it. When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought [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.”
For the record, O’Ward was one year old when Dixon began his IndyCar career, and not only did O’Ward outrun Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais, the 19-year-old Mexican looked like a veteran as he dealt with red tires for the first time ever.
“Usually I think they told me that rookies in the first outing, like in the group outings, they go red, red [tires],” continued the young man who won nine times in Indy Lights in 2018.
“I didn’t really use the maximum out of the red the first time because it came in a little late. I said, ‘Put those back on.’ Kind of get an idea of what the next reds we’re going to put on would be. I wanted to transfer to the Fast Six. I didn’t care where I ended in the Fast Six, I just wanted to transfer.
“Then for obviously Q3, the Firestone Fast Six, I just tried to lay down a good lap. I think it was a pretty clean lap. Obviously could have been better. But it was a good, clean lap to know that it would have been strong enough to be maybe in the middle, just something within there. I think any position in the Fast Six is really good. I didn’t really care where I ended.”
A preview of things to come was turned in Friday when O’Ward wound up third fastest in the second practice period. Some people passed it off as getting the most of his red tires while others were thwarted by a red flag.
“I was pretty happy after that session, to be third, and I thought we had a really good car,” he exclaimed.
Obviously, the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion was able to repeat his performance 24 hours later when it counted, and now he’s facing the longest race of his open-wheel career.
“There’s a lot of veterans, a lot of people that have been in situations where I haven’t been in,” he continued. “I think in that I’m going to have to play a little catch-up in the course of 85 laps. The car is very, very physical, too.
“Hopefully I can withstand it, especially going down in the carrousel, up the hill. It gets really, really, really heavy, way heavier than what I’m used to.”
With Michael Andretti’s team pitching in this weekend for Colton Herta and O’Ward, Harding Racing doesn’t look anything like it has the past two seasons.
On or off the track.
And if Pato is part of Harding’s future like most people believe, it’s going to be a fun ride.
“Like I said, it’s going to be a new experience,” O’Ward said of his impending debut. “I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to the challenge. I’m going to be working hard to end up better than what I qualified.”