LONG BEACH, Calif — The Long Beach area may be scenic and bring a smile to most fans faces. But for Pato O’Ward, he left the track on all three days fuming mad. It all started on Friday when his car wasn’t to his liking. He was only 16th quickest on the speed charts.
Was it time to panic?
“Yeah, messy for us,” O’Ward said, who trailed Alex Palou by 35 points entering the season finale weekend. “Yeah, I didn’t really get a read. It’s kind of hard to tell where we’re truly at. But, yeah, that’s as much as I have honestly. It was very messy for me.
“It’s hard to say where we’re at. The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. So we need to find what is wrong with it I guess and trying to go into a direction that’s going to help us for qualifying. I think qualifying here is going to be everything.”
After a wholesale set of changes overnight, he came out with a top 10 in practice on Saturday morning. He had Fast Six pace in qualifying but due to Ed Jones, James Hinchcliffe and his own teammate going faster during a local yellow, it bumped him from sixth to ninth.
After a lengthy review by INDYCAR, they determined only Jones would get penalized meaning despite evidence that their own car in Rosenqvist went through the yellow at speed, O’Ward would only move back up one spot.
That was the turning point of the weekend and a decision that indirectly cost him a championship.
Jones, was behind O’Ward at the start and made a terribly timed move to the inside of James Hinchcliffe entering the hairpen. He got in too hot and couldn’t slow down in enough time and as a result, spun O’Ward in the process.
19 laps later, O’Ward had a mechanical failure and his day as well as his championship hopes were dashed.
Still, you can look back to the Lap 51 caution in Portland a couple of weeks ago as to why he was even in this position. O’Ward, needed a miracle in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach to win this year’s title because of that.
See, the Mexican driver had regained the points lead following a runner-up finish back in late August at the World Wide Technology Raceway. Alex Palou had finishes of 7th, 27th and 20th respectively last month which allowed O’Ward who had scored his second straight top five of the season to claim the top spot in the standings by 10 points.
The next race was in Portland. Palou started on the pole. O’Ward was seventh. After the first corner, Palou was in sixth and O’Ward first. To add more fuel to this fire, Palou and several others were penalized for cutting the corner to avoid the opening lap crash and went from the top 10 to outside the top 20. So, while being back there and before we went back green, he elected to come down pit road to top off.
That plus how the Lap 51 sequence played out gave the upper hand back to Palou. O’Ward had a top two car that day. Two cars stalled on track and in fears of being left out due to a caution, O’Ward and everyone else on his strategy hit pit lane before the yellow. Palou didn’t have to.
O’Ward would finish 14th, Palou would win.
Instead of being 40+ points up leaving Portland, he was 25 points down. Then in Laguna Seca to where Palou finished second and O’Ward fifth, that gap opened up to 35.
That’s too much to overcome with Palou needing to just finish 12th or better on Sunday and it didn’t matter what O’Ward did.
O’Ward just needed everything to go right for him and even if it did, it still may not be enough to earn his first career series championship in what was his second full-time season in the sport.
That’s not what transpired in a wild day of race on the cloud filled sky around 1.968-mile Long Beach street circuit. O’Ward started eighth and finished 27th as he also dropped to finish third in the final standings now too. That’s a year after being fourth last season as a rookie.
He also nearly become the second youngest champion ever too with Sam Hornish Jr. holding those honors as the youngest at 22 years, 3 months and 4 days. He did that in 2001. O’Ward is 22 years, 4 months and 20 days old. He also would have been the first non Penske, Ganassi or Andretti series champion since Hornish in 2002.
Five of the six drivers in the top six of the final standings belong to those three teams. The only one not?
For the season though, he can’t hang his head too low. The reason he missed out on the title was the lack of podiums compared to Palou.
Palou had eight podiums compared to O’Ward having five. O’Ward was one behind in top fives (10-9) and top 10’s (12-11).
That was the difference. It was the podiums.
O’Ward was missing just that little bit compared to Palou. The speed differential for Palou to get podiums compared to O’Ward having top fives is what proved to be the difference in the championship. They know they need to close that gap and will spend all offseason using their resources to do so.