BELLE ISLE, Mich — Pato O’Ward earned the pole for the season opening race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season at the Barber Motorsports Park. He had the fastest car that day, but strategy didn’t allow for him to win. He had a slow tire leak and had to pit off strategy. Fast forward to Saturday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.
O’Ward, won the pole in similar fashion. Even the guy starting alongside of him was the same as that day in Barber as Alexander Rossi. This time, he wasn’t going to be denied again. Unfortunately, something out of his control kept his No. 5 Chevrolet for celebrating in victory lane.
O’Ward, pit on Lap 3 from the lead to go off strategy. He and most others started on the Firestone alternate tires and a lot of them would pit early to get off them and onto the Firestone primaries. Initially, Rossi got by him following their opening sequence. He was there in the hunt though to challenge for the win still. They had worked their ways back up and the only cars in front still had to pit.
Then, O’Ward’s teammate Felix Rosenqvist had a frightening crash on Lap 25 in Turn 6 to bring out the first of just two yellow’s on the day. Rosenqvist’s throttle had stuck which is why the accident occurred in the first place. While O’Ward’s race winning chances were severely dashed at that point, he was worried at the time for his teammate.
When he found out Rosenqvist would likely be fine, he went to his bus to grab some food and rehydrate. The Arrow McLaren SP driver said that while he knew the incident had to be a part failure on Rosenqvist’s car, he wasn’t too worried about it for his car because he says race car drivers can’t allow those thoughts to creep in their minds.
“Yeah, he popped off the brake,” O’Ward said of that scary crash involving his teammate. “I mean, if you see the replays, you hear it out, the engine just goes flat out. I know him. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t him doing that with his own throttle.
“Man, I feel for him. It sucks. If you think about it, I mean, if it could have been in like a turn seven, turn three, that’s ugly. I really hope they find what caused it because that can be really bad. It was really ugly.
“I’m really happy he’s okay. We’re like brothers. I was definitely asking for updates.
“You have to block that out. We’re in a business where you just, I mean, see accidents and accidents will happen, they can happen to you at any time. You just hope that they don’t. But if they do, you just try and do everything possible to recover.
“These INDYCARS are very safe. The monocoque was intact. The front end of the car was destroyed, but it’s a survivor cell. They’re meant to withstand hits of 230 plus miles an hour. This situation more now is more of the G that your body, like, compresses through when the car just launches up.
“But, yeah, I mean, I think the cars are really, really safe.”
So, following an hour-18 minute and 36 second red flag, O’Ward was ready to pounce. He knew his work was cut out for him as he had to pit under that caution and would be behind those who didn’t and were on a different strategy.
Without any cautions until six to go, O’Ward was flying. He drove from outside the top 10 to a podium effort for his fifth top five finish in his No. 5 Chevrolet in seven tries. Was it frustrating to have such a good car and to start on the pole but not to win?
“Yeah, I mean, we started on pole. We’ve never won from pole. We went backwards. I guess that’s a disappointment,” he said. “If you go back into the first red, we got hosed by that really bad. Everybody in our strategy I don’t even think finished within the top — I can’t remember who was in our strategy. We really had to fight for this podium.
Still, it was a really good points day for him. He went from 37 points out in third in the standings to 15 after one of two races this weekend. He passed Scott Dixon in points as Dixon had what O’Ward would characterize this as a Scott Dixon kind of day.
He went off strategy, didn’t luck out from that first caution either, but would still rebound to finish eighth. That’s what Scott Dixon does to win championships. He maximizes days that would otherwise go badly.
“I mean, I think we salvaged a lot of points from where we, like, could have finished, which was further back just considering how hard it was to pass,” he continued. “But the guys did a great job in the pits. I did my job on the track. Made it through. I think we passed like eight people on track, seven people on track, in three or two in the pits. That was fantastic.”
That’s what O’Ward told me earlier in the week on if he learned anything from battling for a championship last year.
“Yeah, what I learned was that you have to beat the master of consistency at his own game in order to win the championship,” O’Ward told me on Wednesday afternoon of this past week. “I think that’s the best way to put it. We just need to outscore him as much as we can every weekend. I think that’s the best thing we can do in order to have a shot at the championship at Long Beach.”
O’Ward also said then that it’s not all about Dixon for this year either. It may be tougher to win the championship in 2021 than it was in 2020.
“Man, it’s so tight this year that I feel like the field is stacked,” he continued. “It’s full of many very talented drivers. I don’t think it’s ever been harder. I don’t think it’s ever been this competitive from a driver’s standpoint. This is a true driver’s championship. I don’t think there’s anything harder in the world.
“Whoever is most consistent and most consistently in the podiums and in the top 5s is going to take it at the end of the year.”
Still, Saturday was a great first step of beating Dixon in the consistency department. He out placed him by five spots in what was shaping up to being a day to where he was going to finish outside the top 10.
Now, can the numbers help in O’Ward winning on Sunday?
In Texas, he finished third in Race 1 and won the next day. A Ganassi car won that night. On Saturday, he finished third and another Ganassi car won. Is Sunday’s O’Ward’s day?
“Everyone keeps asking me, Would you risk it? I mean, obviously it’s not like it’s one race, double points. There’s two races in two days. You need to maximize those two races. You’re better off having two top fives rather than a win and a DNF.”