INDIANAPOLIS — Pato O’Ward was a pleasant surprise for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. We all knew his skill. That wasn’t ever in question. What was tough to see was that O’Ward would be a championship contender despite being in basically his rookie year, with a rookie teammate on a rookie team.
To have finished fourth in the final standing and to have been as close as he was to actually winning, that even somewhat surprised O’Ward too.
“We set a bar very high last year. I agree,” he said on Friday. “I looked back and I said, That’s a mega year. My first full year in INDYCAR and I even exceeded my expectations. But that put a very high bar, and now we want to make that better.”
O’Ward said that backing up last year’s success with improvement is going to be ridiculously hard. But he thinks if they just take everything step by step and everyone does their job, minimize mistakes, then they should be in the fight in the end.
“I think it’s hard to put expectations, certain expectations down, but I think it’s nothing hidden. We want to win races,” O’Ward said. “We want to win races. We want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend.
“I think in doing so, that’ll put us in a position at the end of the year to fight for the championship. That is the goal. I want to get to Long Beach having a possibility to win the championship. That’s why we do this, man. We do this to win races, win championships. The team has been working really, really hard to just make everything that we had last year better.
“Me as a driver, I’m just trying to do everything I can to be better physically, mentally, preparation-wise, honestly anything I can do that will make my life and the team’s life easier at the race weekend, I’m all for it.”
As to how he’s going to improve between 2020 and 2021, O’Ward said that he spent a lot of time rewatching how he lost races a year ago. Ask any successful racer, it’s the losses that are remembered more than the wins. In doing so, a few things stood out. Mix that with areas to where they can improve themselves and you get what should be a race win on the horizon for the No. 5 Chevrolet.
“I rewatched every race where we were in contention, both Iowa races, both Gateway races, Road America. Just from things that I learned last year, you qualify up front, you make your life so much easier,” he said.
“Another thing is that pit stops are huge in INDYCAR racing. I lost a lot of my race wins because we didn’t execute in the pits, and that’s huge. I feel like our pace was very, very strong. I think we were very strong in many places that we went to all year.
“But where we need to push this year, and we may need to make sure if we have a mistake it has to be minimized, is in the pits, and me as a driver just do my job. I know that if we can accomplish that, we will get race wins because if the pace is there, just like last year but maybe even a little bit better, qualifying further up front should make it easier on us, every single pit stop, execute, execute, execute. I think that’s what’s going to make us be in contention by the end of the year.
“Last year getting to St. Pete, I think second was the best we could have done. But we want to get to Long Beach knowing that there is a possibility of being able to win the championship. That is the goal.”
O’Ward, notes that he hopes the lowest point of his career is last season. They always want to strive to be better, so why have goals to go backwards. He says last year was a lot of unfinished business.
They were close to winning four races. He says there were tough pills to swallow, and feels like that left everyone in the team is so hungry as a result.
“I can see it from the off-season, just how much work has been put into the development of trying to make the cars go faster at the speedway and road courses,” he continued. “Me as a driver, I truly don’t think I’ve ever been fitter, more ready to try and win the thing. I have lots of faith in the team. I have lots of faith in what we can accomplish as a group. It’s going to be ridiculously hard, but it is possible.
“I have lots of faith that we can make some great stuff happen this year.”
O’Ward says while having lofty expectations against a field of this quality could bring massive pressure, but he doesn’t look at it that way. He says these goals don’t add pressure at all.
He goes into every year thinking that this is the time to do it. You have to he says.
“I mean, at least this is how I approach it. You have to approach every single weekend, whether you’re racing with Scott Dixon or Lewis Hamilton, you have to get there every race weekend and you have to believe as a group, not as a driver but as a group, that you can beat them. You have to believe that you can beat the best. If not, you’re always going to be a step behind, and you don’t want to be a step behind. You want to compete against them.
“I think this year we just have to take everything step by step and not get ahead of ourselves. But I think if we follow our mentality of what we did last year, be consistent and just all the results, just one-up them, every single place, that should put us in very good position.”