Mexican driver Patricio O’Ward has claimed the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship that comes with it to move into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2019.
O’Ward won his eighth race of the season in dramatic fashion at Portland International Raceway, following a culmination of his season-long title battle with Andretti Autosport teammate Colton Herta.
The pair started on the front row with O’Ward up front in his No. 27 Dallara IL-15 Mazda, and Herta second in the No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry.
O’Ward made it back out for this race following great repairs from the Andretti team. He’d had an incident in qualifying for race two, earlier Saturday morning.
Seven of the eight cars rolled from pit lane for the two warm-up laps, with ambient temperatures of 71 degrees and track temperatures of 107 degrees. Heamin Choi, the eighth car, took the start from pit lane.
The field of seven moved out of the final turn and took the green flag. O’Ward got the jump from pole, Telitz locked up trying for second and Herta swept around the outside. Urrutia went through the runoff at Festival Curves after missing the corner.
O’Ward led Herta by 0.4019 of a second after the first lap with Franzoni up to third, then Urrutia, Telitz, Norman and Kellett. Choi started but was already more than 23 seconds behind on the first lap.
Herta locked up on the inside on Lap 4 on O’Ward and tried to go down the inside, but O’Ward defended enough to withstand the challenge.
He tried again on Lap 5, and this time made it past on the inside under braking into the Festival Curves to take the lead.
The Lap 5 order saw Herta clear of O’Ward by 0.8752 of a second, then Franzoni, Urrutia, Telitz, Norman, Kellett and Choi still in the same positions. Herta used more of his Push-to-Pass to get through to the lead.
Choi pitted on Lap 7 when ahead of the two leaders, to serve a drive-through as the field went past.
Norman closed on Telitz and attempted to pass him going into the Turn 10 chicane, but the Gateway winner was unable to get past.
Herta extended the lead to more than a second by the end of Lap 8 to 1.0995 seconds.
Norman tried again on Lap 10 to the outside heading into the Festival Curves.
O’Ward closed back on Herta to within 0.4633 of a second by Lap 11. He was nearly on Herta’s gearbox at the end of Lap 12.
Ultimately the most dramatic moment of the race – and the championship battle – came a lap later on Lap 13.
O’Ward went down Herta’s inside on Lap 13, and Herta bounded over the curbs once O’Ward was past! O’Ward hit the inside apex curbs at Turn 1 but regained track position, while Herta lost time to be able to do come back on the racing line. There appeared to be very light contact between O’Ward’s left rear tire and Herta’s right sidepod. As Herta re-entered the course, Franzoni closed right down to Herta’s gearbox.
Andretti Autosport’s Rob Edwards told the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network’s Rob Howden that O’Ward and Herta were “close” to exceeding the limits of what they could do as teammates.
“They were told to make sure to look after their teammate… that was close to the line!” Edwards said. “They’ve raced close all year. No team orders. Race hard… but look after each other as well.
“We’ve said it all year. The Lights field hasn’t been great in quantity but it has been in quality. Pato and Colton have done a great job all year. Santi has been a great benchmark for us all year too in his third year. It’s super competitive.”
At halfway, Lap 18 of 35, the order was O’Ward by 2.4577 seconds over Herta, then Franzoni, Urrutia, Telitz, Norman, Kellett and Choi.
The gap stabilized at 2.3 seconds between the two Andretti teammates with 15 laps to go.
With 10 to go, O’Ward still had a 2.2 second lead on Herta. Franzoni and Urrutia were next with Telitz still working to hold off Norman.
Alas by Lap 29, Norman had pressured Telitz enough to get past into Turn 1, having used his last Push-to-Pass to do so. Telitz still had two pushes remaining to use for the final five laps.
O’Ward kept Herta at bay with five to go, still outside that 1.5-second window where Push-to-Pass can be utilized. The gap was just over 1.9 seconds between the two teammates.
The gap remained between 1.8 and 1.9 seconds into the final few laps.
O’Ward took the white flag at the end of Lap 34 holding the gap to Herta by 1.7924 seconds.
He took the final corner, headed for the checkered flag and grabbed the win and the championship. The final margin of victory was 1.6867 seconds.
The Mexican driver becomes Andretti Autosport’s first Indy Lights champion since JR Hildebrand in 2009.
O’Ward was ecstatic, Herta understandably disappointed, following the checkered flag in their immediate interviews with IndyCar Radio.
“I am speechless man. It’s been such a hard fought year. What a great battle with Colton. He’s been so quick. Andretti has given us awesome cars. Mazda and Cooper Tires have treated us so well,” O’Ward told Rob Howden.
“I’m so proud of this team – mechanics, engineers, Andretti tent. It’s been amazing. I’m ready to go up to IndyCar man. I’m excited. I can’t wait to jump in one of these bad boys. It’s been a dream year.”
About the pass on Herta, O’Ward said, “I wanted to win this race. Colton did late one on me, so I returned the favor.”
Herta was less than thrilled telling Dan Rusanowsky, “Yeah I passed him nice and clean and I thought I’d receive the same respect back. But obviously not. He smacked me right off the track. I hope it was a mistake. I hope it wasn’t on purpose, because it’d make me really mad if it was.”
Tomorrow’s second race has nothing to play for but will still be fun to watch.
TSO Ladder presented by Cooper Tires will have more to come following O’Ward’s title clinch.
Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – Race #1 Unofficial Results
|8||7||Heamin Choi||30||5 LAPS|