INDIANAPOLIS — That NTT IndyCar Series test during the month long summer break in Portland must have been a good one for Arrow McLaren SP. Last weekend Felix Rosenqvist made it out of the opening round of qualifying for the first time all year in a fifth place effort. He’d finish a season best eighth at that in the race.
The Swedish driver credited that test in Portland for the new found speed.
Well, Pato O’Ward can now credit the very same test. See, O’Ward is ready for the back slide to be over. The second year driver enters Saturday’s race without a top five in his last three starts. That’s taken him from being in the points lead to third, 48 points behind leader Alex Palou heading into the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network).
“I’m tired of being midpack. I want to win,” O’Ward told me this morning.
He hopes it starts this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. O’Ward said that they’ve found some things in the Portland test that they hope can translate well over to improvement on natural road courses before as things sit now, he says these are the spots that they can use the most work on.
“I’m actually excited because we had a tough Indy road course at the beginning of the year,” he continued. “It would be really nice to get that sour taste out of my mouth from this specific race track and end the year on a high note.
“I think we’ve been really strong on ovals, specifically whether it’s a short oval or superspeedway. I think we’ve been strong in all kinds. But, there’s definitely some work that needs to be done in terms of road course pace. I think where we have found in our test in Portland, I’m excited.
“There still 5 races to go and I think we have some very strong tracks for us coming and I want to start our strong strength here.”
As to what they found in the test for him?
“It just handles better,” he said. “We’ve had a quick car in many places, but damn it’s a handful. It is so hard to drive. I think we have found something that just is more predictable, that just makes it a lot easier on Felix and I to actually get laps in lap after lap consistently.”
So far this season, he’s finished fourth, 15th, ninth and eighth respectively on natural road courses like this one. That’s part of the decline in stats. Two of the last three races were on them as will three of the final five at that too.
Plus, he’s kind of stuck in that Ganassi sandwich as three of their four drivers are in the top five in points with O’Ward. The problem is, these are Ganassi’s best tracks with Palou having a podium in all four races on these types of circuits this season including two wins, Scott Dixon having three top fours and Marcus Ericsson not only coming off of a win last Sunday in Nashville but also a runner-up in Mid-Ohio too.
If O’Ward wants to make a championship push against these guys, it starts here and he proved just that in earning the pole on Friday evening. O’Ward circled the 2.439-mile road course with a time of 1:10.7147-seconds in the waning moments to earn his fourth career INDYCAR pole, three of which coming this season.
He’s yet to win a race from the pole though but does have two podiums in his previous three pole efforts. What’s going to be different about Saturday than the other three instances?
“Yeah, man, we’ve just been really focused on trying to make a better package for both qualifying and the race. One thing is to have a qualifying car and one thing is to have a race car. We’re trying to maximize both.
“I feel like that’s where we have lacked a little bit in terms of we’ve had a very strong qualifying car and then we don’t have anything for the race, but then we’ll have a great race car but in qualifying we’re just not quite there.”
O’Ward also can jump back into the points race too in the sense that Palou qualified sixth, Josef Newgarden in 14th and Dixon in 26th.
Dixon, spun on his final lap in the opening group of the first round and was penalized as a result. He’s not made it out of the first round of qualifying three times this year with two of those three occurring on the Indy road course.
Newgarden, also didn’t advance past the first round and will start outside the top 10 for the second straight race. The other factor is, the Penske driver has a six-spot grid penalty and will roll off 20th instead now too.
Ericsson, rolls off 11th.
So, you may be wondering then who’s starting up front?
Will Power (1:10.7214-seconds) qualified second in his No. 12 Chevrolet. He started on the pole and led all 75 laps on this course last October. He values a win this weekend to turn this season around.
“Yeah, it was good. The car was really good,” Power said. “I just missed out by 6/1000ths, but so did about four other people. That’s about the tightest session I’ve ever seen, I think.
“Pretty good conditions. Car was good. I’m glad to just be back in the groove again. Had such a kind of bad qualifying run lately. Yeah, certainly right there in the running for pole, so really happy to be up front.
“It’s been a terrible year. A lot of desire for pole position and a victory. I didn’t get pole today. I was very determined coming into this weekend just considering how the last few races have been for me. Yep, right on the pace, back where I need to be. Very focused. Hopefully we can have a good day tomorrow.
“Long race tomorrow. Hopefully we have a good race car. I mean, we’re going to make some changes and see if we can get it hooked up.
“You never know in these races, as we saw last week. (Marcus) Ericsson was nowhere, and he was over the back of someone, then he won the race. So who knows. If you just stay out of trouble in these races, you always have a chance to win.”
May’s pole sitter Romain Grosjean (1:10.7418-seconds) rolls off third in his No. 51 Honda while Christian Lundgaard will start alongside in his No. 45 Honda. Lundgaard, qualified with a time of 1:10.7433-seconds which was good enough for Row 2 in his debut foray into the series. What’s even more impressive is, his teammates have struggled in qualifying this year. Graham Rahal has now started 11th or worse in five of his last six races. His best start all year is eighth. Takuma Sato has yet to earn a top 10 qualifying spot all year.
Colton Herta rounded out the top five.