By Tony DiZinno
Call him the rain-meister. Patricio O’Ward dominated the second race in the Mazda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park, in a near-perfect weekend for Andretti Autosport.
O’Ward delivered his third win in four Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series races. While Saturday’s was under sunny skies, today’s was held on a damp track following intermittent but persistent rain.
The second straight Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires race went green under tricky conditions for Indy Lights, barely 15 minutes after Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires completed its second race.
Indy Lights’ eight-pack of cars started on Cooper Tire wet weather tires, rather than slicks as Pro Mazda had. Fortunately for Alfonso Celis Jr., the Mexican driver was able to make the start in his Juncos Racing machine. He’d had an incident in this morning’s qualifying session, and when his car was brought back to the paddock on a wrecker, it was actually dropped on course entering Turn 7.
O’Ward started on the pole ahead of Victor Franzoni, Colton Herta, Santi Urrutia, Aaron Telitz, Dalton Kellett, Ryan Norman and Celis.
At the end of Lap 1, the top two stayed the same but Urrutia got past Herta for third. In a small victory, Telitz completed his first lap of his season in the fourth race, and in fifth place ahead of Kellett, Celis and Norman.
The order stabilized for the opening five laps before Herta got back to third, with a move by Urrutia into Turn 5, deep on the inside. Urrutia then had to hold back Telitz, who was close to his Belardi Auto Racing teammate as well. Telitz got past Urrutia for fourth on Lap 9.
At Lap 10, O’Ward led Franzoni by 6.4154 seconds, with those two well ahead of the rest of the field. Herta was third, more than 25 seconds behind, with Telitz, Urrutia, Kellett, Celis and Norman the rest of the order.
Celis’ adventurous morning continued into the race when he ran wide at Turn 7 with 30 minutes to go. Shortly thereafter, Celis went off at Turn 5, and that allowed Norman through for seventh place. He had another excursion at Turn 5 a few laps later.
On Lap 16, after Celis’ rollercoaster ride, the order is still O’Ward, Franzoni, Herta, Telitz, Urrutia, Kellett, Norman and Celis.
Urrutia fell back into the clutches of Kellett and Norman, and would need to hold them back to ensure another top-five finish.
On Lap 25 the order remains the same, with Urrutia doing everything to hang on. O’Ward has consistently held a six-second lead over Franzoni.
With two to go, O’Ward’s lead over Franzoni is 6.695 seconds. The lead is nearly identical at 6.6725 seconds as O’Ward takes the white flag.
The checkered flag flies at the end of Lap 30, with O’Ward bringing it home for the third time in four races this season, by a final victory margin of 5.8325 seconds.
It’s a near perfect weekend for the Mexican driver. In two races, he led all 60 race laps, won both races, and scored one of two pole positions, and one of two fastest race laps in the No. 27 Riverina CDMX Mexico City Dallara IL-15 Mazda. Not to mention, he did this with his primary race engineer unavailable this weekend and with a backup engineer.
Franzoni finishes second for his first Indy Lights podium. The Pro Mazda champion had been fourth in each of the first three races in the No. 23 Soul Red Mazda for Juncos Racing.
Herta is third for his third podium in four races, all either second or third place, in his No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry.
Telitz enjoys his first finish of the season in fourth, and Belardi Auto Racing teammate Urrutia withstands the Kellett and Norman pressure to complete the top five.
Unofficially, O’Ward has 110 points on the board through four races, with Urrutia second on 94 points. Herta (83) and Franzoni (82) are third and fourth while Norman completes the top five in the standings on 68.
Next up for the series is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in three weeks, the second weekend of May.
O’Ward told TSO Ladder after the race he was super motivated to make this weekend like 2016 in Pro Mazda, a year he also won both races after scoring one of the two pole positions. Showing pace in both wet and dry conditions was excellent for his confidence. Knowing he has the rest of the season after this, unlike 2017 when this marked his last Indy Lights weekend, is also huge.
For Franzoni, Barber was a calmer weekend without the pressure of the first weekend of the year and the fact he was debuting in the series. Getting his first podium now was a huge boost. He said the Indy Lights car handles better in the wet conditions than either a Pro Mazda or USF2000 car did, as he’s raced in all three series in the rain at least once. He hailed the turbo of the car and the Cooper wet weather tires. Both Franzoni and Juncos Racing excelled at the IMS road course last year – Franzoni swept the Pro Mazda weekend and Kyle Kaiser won the second Indy Lights race – so they are very excited for May.
Herta’s third place came courtesy of a move on Urrutia at Turn 5. He noted he was better on the brakes, and was able to power through for the move.
Mazda Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires Race #2 results