O’Ward, Herta, discuss offseason improvements for a hopeful breakout year in 2023 for each

Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward will always have their stats compared against one another. That’s because they’re both as equal as they come in a race car and also have similar paths behind them and similar potential futures ahead.

Each were teammates in 2018 at Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights. O’Ward won 9 times that season. Herta won 4. Herta also had 7 runner-up finishes in that year, 5 of which he had a front row seat to O’Ward’s wins. O’Ward had three runner-up’s himself, two of which were in races that Herta won.

Combined, they had won 13 of the 17 races. They finished 1-2 in 7 of the 17. That allowed them to both graduate to the NTT INDYCAR Series for the 2019 season. Before that, they both made their INDYCAR debuts in the same race in the season finale of the 2018 season in Sonoma. They’d do so as teammates.

However, plans changed in the offseason. Harding didn’t have the funding anymore to run two full-time cars. Even though O’Ward had the scholarship money from his Indy Lights championship, Harding went forward with Herta. O’Ward went overseas but made it back in 2020 to drive for Arrow McLaren.

Now, four years later, Herta enters his fifth full-time season and O’Ward his fourth. Herta has 7 wins, O’Ward with four. Herta leads in the poles category too (9-5). O’Ward leads in podiums (13-11) and Top-5 finishes (23-22) but Herta has him back in Top-10’s (35-32).

Their stats are eerily similar with Herta eclipsing O’Ward in career starts by 10, 65-55.

As they each enter the 2023 season, both have had talks and discussions of a Formula One future. O’Ward drives for a team that has an F1 operation and has gotten some tests in the process. Herta, also has tested for O’Ward’s team, but his current team also has an aspiration to be their own standalone F1 organization too.

Could Colton Herta be in play for an F1 seat still? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The thing is, as things sit at the moment, each need to have a breakout season in 2023 in order for those F1 dreams to remain alive.

Herta lacked the Superlicense points to make a jump in 2023. Andretti lacked the success. For each to be more attractive, they need to be more successful on a consistent basis.

Similar for O’Ward. If he wants to become a future F1 driver, he needs to show Zak Brown that he can win more often here.

Herta had 10 Top-5 finishes in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums among those 10 Top-5 finishes.

2021 was supposed to be that breakout though with 7 Top-5 finishes and 5 of which being on the podium. That gave him more podiums in 16 races that season than in the 32 starts prior. Last year he took a step back in scoring just 4 Top-5 finishes, all podiums. However, he failed to score a single one though in the final seven events.

As he enters 2023 on a backslide from 2022, can he get back to the 2021 level but be more consistent in the process? If he wants to be a champion he better. He knows that.

“Yeah, it’s no secret that last year was not a good one for us,” said Herta. “We need to do better on all fronts. That’s what the main part of the off-season has been. It’s been looking at everything and just trying to improve everything.

“We just need mistake-free weekends, and that’s the goal, one by one.”

2021: The Indy 500 he qualified second but faded to 16th. Belle Isle 1 he was in the top five and going for a podium before a caution flipped the field. He finished 14th. In Belle Isle 2, he was running second but faded to fourth in the closing laps. Mid-Ohio saw him go from a podium to 13th. Nashville saw a dominating weekend end in a crash and 19th. World Wide Technology Raceway saw a top two finish and maybe even a win end in a broken drive shaft and a 18th place result. He was eighth in Portland.

2022: Long Beach Pole (bad 1st pit sequence 1st to 3rd, crash pushing hard to pit lane on 2nd stop), Carb Day flip, Mid-Ohio crew kept him out instead of pitting coming to a yellow, INDY GP in Aug. Gear box while leading.

That’s the difference right now in making him a champion, because he was already there before those problems occurred. The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into more wins too.

Similar for O’Ward. He’s had two wins in each of the last two seasons. The Mexican star also has had 9 podiums in that same two-year span (5 in 2021, 4 in 2022). Out of his 8 Top-5 finishes a year ago, only four of them landed on the podium.

See a theme among these two?

Both qualify extremely well, it’s just they’re not finishing. In O’Ward’s case, he had 13 starts of 7th or better (10 being 5th or better) over the course of the final 14 races in 2022. He only had 4 podiums to show for it.

Also, he has to get better on natural road courses too. On them a year ago, he won Barber, was 19th and 12th respectively at Indy, 26th at Road America, 24th in Mid-Ohio, 4th in Portland and 8th in Laguna Seca. A lot of those finishes were plagued by electrical issues.

“For sure it’s been looked into. We’ve obviously looked for answers,” he said on the opening day of Media Content Days on Tuesday morning. “Have we found them all? I really think, I mean, it’s a hard statement to say because I feel like you can find and analyze reasons of why things might have happened, but you never really know for sure.

“But what I do know is that we want to minimize those. The perfect thing would be to not have those issues, right? It’s possible, for sure. I mean, the first two years I was with the team, I never had a DNF. I had completed almost all the laps all year.

“Last year, I mean, we had the best, like, average qualifying positions that we had during a season. But we had, like, four DNFs. One of those was maybe unlucky, the other ones were just a mishap.

“It’s so hard to say. But for sure it’s possible to make those a lot less than they were last year. Last year was for sure not a fluke, but like I was very surprised because we had never had those issues, at least to that extent.

“So definitely just starting this year with a clean blank, just starting to work off the strong years that we’ve built together.”

McLaren has done their part to help those areas too. They’ve added more than 40 new hires in the process to help leave no stone unturned. They’re trying to match what Penske and Ganassi does, even personnel wise too. 

“A lot of new faces. A lot, a lot of new faces. I’m still in the process of learning all the names,” he says.

“It’s so cool to see, we’re all growing. There’s been big steps each year. I feel like in terms of personnel this year, it has been a very big one. One reason being probably because of the third car, just the team is growing.

“It’s great to see. It’s great to see everybody’s enthusiasm. Everybody’s here for that one goal, right? We all put so much time and sacrifice and energy into making these race cars go quicker.

“I feel like it’s been so hard to find people in all departments I feel like. From talking to not just the people in our team, but from other drivers, other friends, they’re like, Man, it’s hard to find people.

“I trust the team. I think the group of people that are in charge, seeing who joins the team, seeing who comes about, I think they know exactly what we need, and I trust they’re going to make the right decisions.

“Honestly, from what I’ve seen, there’s so much talent. There were already so much talent in the group. I feel like so much more has been added on which is just going to help us to really get us where we want to be.

“We as drivers put it into: how can we maximize it? Just really, really excited to get this season underway.”

Can these two gain in these areas and make a serious run at a championship?

Each are looked upon as leaders of their team even with being the youngest too. O’Ward is 23 but has a teammate in Felix Rosenqvist who’s 32 and a 31-year-old Alexander Rossi. However, O’Ward is the one with the tenure and success at McLaren.

Rossi was Herta and Andretti Autosport’s leader last year and now steps into the role of being only 22, but having teammates aged 23 (Devlin DeFrancesco), 24 (Kyle Kirkwood) and 36 (Romain Grosjean). The thing is, Herta has more starts (65) than that trio combined (64). All three are entering their second full-time seasons in the sport.

Can both lead their teams forward?

“It’s not much of a difference for me,” Herta said. “Maybe they’ll rely a little bit more on my feedback and I might have to do a little bit more, but for me, it’s kind of business as usual.”

His teammates very much see his data and feedback as a positive and even if Herta isn’t vocal, it’s that aspect to what they consider him the leader of the team.

“I’d say it’s a little bit different with Andretti. I think Colton’s way of saying that he’s like kind of brushed off his leadership role is in a sense that he’s not beating on his chest, like I’m a driver; everyone kind of bows down to me. He’s trying to brush that away,” said Kirkwood.

“But at the end of the day, he’s the one with the most experience, and if he does something, we’re kind of going to ask him the questions, be like, hey, Colton, when you tried this, what exactly happened, because he’s the one with the most experience, and he’s been the most successful driver on the team that we’ve had. It’s a sure thing that we’re going to reference off of him, which in a sense makes him kind of the lead driver, yeah.

“It’s definitely a unique situation, but at the end of the day he’s the one with the most experience. He has a right to be kind of in that position. It’s not a — I’ll say it again, it’s not a position that we’re all expecting him to lead us on track or expecting him to lead us off track and lead us with car development. He’s ultimately our main source of contact really.”

DeFrancesco views Herta as a leader to him and one that benefitted his rookie year greatly.

“Very fast. Very, very fast last year, just looking at his data, some of the qualifying laps he was able to put in were very, very impressive, and definitely someone I’ve been able to lean on and learn from for sure in many different ways, and I’m looking forward to putting that to use this year and making a big step forward.”

The other thing is, did their teams close the gap to the “Big 2.” Some of the lack of consistency is due to Penske and Ganassi’s stranglehold on the wins and podiums.

Since 2013, they’re the only two organizations that have won championships in this series. Chip Ganassi Racing has titles from Scott Dixon (2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) and Alex Palou (2021) while Team Penske has titles from Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017, 2019).

That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles a piece. Also, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15 year span.

Even further, with this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.

They just went 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the championship last season.

Arrow McLaren and Andretti have been on a level playing field against each other for the third best team. They tied 2-2 in wins last season and it was 3-2 in favor of Andretti in 2021.

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