Pato O’Ward triumphed in a dramatic NTT IndyCar Series qualifying session to secure pole for Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio — and made a little bit of history along the way.
On a day where fortunes were routinely decided by thousands of a second, O’Ward unloaded a 1m06.7054s to put relative daylight between himself and closest rival Scott McLaughlin, who was 0.1328s behind. In doing so, the Mexican became the ninth different pole winner from nine races this season: a streak that last occurred in the series in 1961.
“It was a good session for us,” he said. “I couldn’t get the lap together in the first two sessions but was able to in the third one. It’s huge man — it’s a track position race. The best position we’ve started here is I think 18th, so first is definitely a lot better than that!”
If you ask David Malukas, O’Ward was fortunate to have been in the Fast 6 in the first place. Malukas conjured plenty of speed from the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Honda during the opening two phases of qualifying, but found himself trapped behind O’Ward late in the second round and unable to make full use of what appeared to be a quicker car. A flurry of fast times from other drivers in the final seconds tumbled the rookie out of a transfer spot, and left him with some questions for race control.
“It’s really frustrating,” Malukas said. “I’m not too sure how he made it through without getting an inpediment (penalty). I’m not sure how that works. If I’d lifted, I would have impeded Kyle (Kirkwood). We had the pace. It hurts; it really hurts. But the fact we’re upset about eighth shows we’re making progress.”
Fast drivers getting hosed by unfortunate track position was the story that defined the day, as illustrated by McLaughlin being the only Penske driver in the Fast 6 despite the team wheeling out three quick cars. Will Power was quickest in the opening qualifying group, only to be docked his two fastest laps and a chance to transfer after he inadvertently blocked an unsighted Helio Castroneves while warming his tires on an out-lap.
Josef Newgarden was in the second qualifying group and also failed to progress to the second round, but in his case the problem was a simple inability to find enough clear track to stretch his legs.
“Just traffic,” he said. “That’s all it was. The car’s fine. Just traffic. It’s just IndyCar qualifying. It’s a tight track, I’m first out and catch the slowpokes. I was catching (Tatiana) Calderon and (Jimmie) Johnson, but I had O’Ward behind me so I can’t block him, so it’s a bad spot. I know they’re trying hard but…. just needed to be behind some faster cars.”
The sole consolation for the Penske pair might be that most of their main title rivals also had early showers. Points leader Marcus Ericsson was on a quick lap at the end of the first round when he went wide at the Keyhole and dropped out of contention, while Ganassi teammate Alex Palou made it through to round two, but was bumped out of the Fast 6 by a scant 0.001s.
“IndyCar, man,” shrugged the reigning series champion. “Just a shame — it’s so close. We had the car to be up there, but it’s OK. It’s close, it was a good show for everybody and the car is good for tomorrow, so we’ll try to make the most of it. It was not a perfect day for us, but not a bad day either. Last year we started seventh and finished on the podium and I think the car is better than last year, we just didn’t put it together.”
Several of the rookies shone in the absence of the heavy-hitters, with Malukas, Kyle Kirkwood and Callum Ilott all making it through to the second round. None could find quite enough to get into the Fast 6 though, leaving Colton Herta to share the second row with Felix Rosenqvist — the latter completing a solid one-four for AMSP — and Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud claiming row three.
But at a circuit that arguably puts a bigger premium on track position than any other, O’Ward was in no doubt about the advantage he’s earned himself for Sunday.
“It’s a long race and a lot can happen,” he said. “But we’re in a great starting position, we have the best view into Turn 1 and we’re going to be giving it hell tomorrow.”