Pato O’Ward hopes that he laid a strong foundation for the future with his IndyCar debut at Sonoma — even if he could barely move afterwards.
The Mexican stunned the field on Saturday by qualifying fifth, and held station during the first part of the race before he began to struggle with fading tires. After drifting deep into the midfield, he rebounded to cross the line ninth.
“It was a very eventful race,” said the 2018 Indy Lights champion. “In the beginning, it’s really hard when you haven’t really done a stint on tires that you don’t really know, that you’re not really familiar with. I tried to do my best, but I think by lap eight or something — the stint is 22 [laps] — I was having a lot of trouble controlling the traction. I had a whole group of people trying to attack in the back. I think in the beginning I did a good job to stay in fifth. But the tires didn’t last with me so long. I just got shuffled back.
“The end of the race… it was a very long race, I’m pretty sore. My back is pretty tired. My neck. That safety car kind of saved me a little bit so I could rest my neck.”
O’Ward admitted to a few scares during a busy opening few laps.
“Everything is just so much faster [than in Indy Lights],” he said. “The aero wash was pretty big. When you’re right behind someone, the car did not stop. I had a few scares. But I was lucky not to hit anybody. It was just a completely new learning experience, something new.”
As he settled into the race however, he became more comfortable. Among the early lessons: overtaking, and fuel saving.
“When you move up in a class, usually it’s a lot harder to pass,” he said. “I didn’t pass anybody in practice. I didn’t know what to expect if I dive-bombed, I didn’t know what to expect on the situations until I just got frustrated and I just sent it and it was fine. Now I know the car will stop!
“[And] I think I learned how to fuel save. I learned how to take care of the tires. I learned how to be patient in a way. You can get pretty frustrated. If you start so far up, you can get pretty frustrated if you look at yourself and you’re, like, 10 positions worse.
“But then with just pit stop sequences and stuff, sometimes that can happen. In my case, it was the hard way, it wasn’t pit stops, it was just me getting passed. So I knew the only way I would get around people was to pass them back, so I passed them back. Some, not all of them.”
He also expects to be better placed in the future to understand how to deal with the softer red tires. Toward the end of his first stint, he cheerfully admitted that he was begging on the radio to be allowed to stop and get rid of the set he’d started the race with.
“I was begging,” he said. “I was on my knees, man. I could not handle the rear of the car. Once [Graham] Rahal got by me, I sunk. I said, ‘I have to pit. I’m going to lose, like, 20 seconds if I don’t pit now.’
“It’s just really hard when you first go on those reds, they’re so soft, you really have to know how to manage them. For the second reds that I got, I did a way better job. Like I say, it’s just things that you have to learn in the moment. I learned a lot of things today. I know a lot more than what I came into the weekend with.
“I think if I get another chance, you could see a way stronger O’Ward.”
With rumors strongly pointing to O’Ward needing to make a lot of hotel reservations that coincide with IndyCar race weekends next year, he might not have to wait long to prove it.