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How O’Ward ended run of IndyCar “heartbreak after heartbreak” to win again

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Pato O’Ward put to rest his winless 2023 season with victory in the season-opening race of 2024 on the streets of St. Petersburg. But for the Arrow McLaren driver, there was something impure about winning courtesy of a competitor’s disqualification.


Add in the fact that the St. Pete win was awarded six weeks after the event and there was something hollow for the Mexican pilot of the No.5 Chevy. That made it all the more gratifying when he returned to victory lane in last weekend’s Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, almost two years on from his last win in the second Iowa Speedway race in 2022.


Even that day at Iowa, O’Ward was aided by a mechanical failure sending dominant leader Josef Newgarden crashing out. So for both driver and team - an Arrow McLaren outfit that had not taken the chequered flag in this same two-year period - it was gratifying to have commenced IndyCar’s hybrid era with a pure on-track victory.


“This feels like the first win of the season,” O’Ward said. “I know St. Pete we were P2 and ultimately ended up getting the win because Penske cheated and the [Indianapolis] 500 was two corners short. But we really pushed it. I was pushing so hard. 


“Watching [Alex] Palou trying to run away with it in the first stint, I said: ‘No way, no way.’ I’m super stoked. I’m so proud of the team. All my No.5 guys, they’ve been working so hard. It just feels like we’ve had heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak. I know they’re as happy as I am today. And we earned it. No one gave it to us. We had to earn it.”


Only six weeks prior, O’Ward had suffered the anguish of being passed by Josef Newgarden in the penultimate corner on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 to finish second for the second time in three years. He again presented himself as a serious contender for victory at the Speedway but again suffered the desperate pain of falling just short.


The scene in pit lane post-race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was nothing short of gut-wrenching as O’Ward lifted himself slowly from his cockpit, head bowed, as tears flowed.


It has not been the easiest year for O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren team despite the heights they have reached on occasion. 


Finishing second in the Indy 500 is a significant achievement but the most painful outcome of any in the immediate term in the great race. That sorrow, which naturally diminishes over time, only compounded what had already been a trying early part of 2024 to that point.


After a strong start to the season in St. Pete - eventually being awarded the win somewhat of a redemption story after a plenum event caused a minor engine cut that lost him the victory on the Floridian streets the year prior - there were a rocky few rounds leading into May.


O’Ward headed into the Indy 500 joint-sixth in the standings but 64 points adrift of the lead of the standings after only four races.


“I would say it started well and then it quickly fell apart for not just one race but for a few,” O’Ward said. “Then the 500 gave us a breath of fresh air in a weird way. It was pretty devastating to just be two corners short but ultimately gave us that boost that we were just a hair to win it. 


“This year it’s been more of a tough battle, I would say, in road courses, which usually have been our strong suit.”


Long Beach saw O’Ward misjudge a check-up and run into the back of teammate Alexander Rossi, prompting a race on the back foot, 16th-place finish and post-race tweet suggesting he owed Rossi a beer. 


Barber was not much better as O’Ward finished 23rd after an early-race spin and contact that sent Pietro Fittipaldi out of the race, earning a drive-through penalty. Events of Long Beach then repeated themselves as he instigated late-race contact with then-teammate Theo Pourchaire, again seeing him penalised and dropped behind the French driver.


The Indy GP then resulted in O’Ward finishing outside the top 10 for a third event in succession as he dropped back from a starting position of fifth. He struggled for speed as Arrow McLaren continually endured a “tough battle” trying to figure out the more durable tyre compound this year in anticipation for the hybrid system being introduced at Mid-Ohio.


Things have recently started to improve for O’Ward though, with top-10 finishes in all five races since the Indy 500 marking a return to the consistency seen in the latter part of the 2023 season. And becoming the maiden victor in the hybrid era is a reward for his and his team’s persistence.


“Now with the hybrid, with the extra weight, I just think the way we worked together to really extract the most out of this new package was very refreshing,” O’Ward said, with a sense that the struggles with getting used to the 2024 tyre had reduced at Mid-Ohio. 


“It’s a great boost for all of us to drive us forward. We barely got over halfway - there’s still so much racing to go. I know I’m very strong on ovals and there’s a lot of ovals left. I have a lot of faith in the team that they’re going to give me a good car to battle it out in those.”


It is no doubt taxing when things are not going your way. Even with his perceived recent upturn, O’Ward had qualified no better than ninth and finished no higher than seventh in the three-race stretch following on from the Indy 500 and heading into Mid-Ohio.


But he remained crucially resolute.


“I feel like athletes and maybe teams in general around the world, whether it’s basketball, soccer or football, racing, whatever, you build this skill to turn cold when things don’t really go your way,” O’Ward said. “You always just move forward, move forward, move forward, move forward, turn the page, turn the page, turn the page. 


“At some point it will weigh down on you because there is so much sacrifice and energy and money and a lot of stuff that goes into this. It made me so happy seeing [the team’s] faces at the podium. I could really tell that they know I drove my ass off because they can tell in the telemetry.


“Honestly, that’s what they should expect because that’s what I expect from myself and, ultimately, there’s nothing like having a team of people behind you that truly trusts you 100 percent. They know when you do have that chance, you will make it happen for them and that’s always been what I strive for and what I want to give to them.”


O’Ward described the Mid-Ohio weekend as “very smooth” from qualifying onwards. A front-row start - only 0.0024 seconds from pole-sitter Alex Palou - was execution not achieved since three Fast Six appearances in the first three races of the season. It was a first front-row feature since Nashville last year.


“As soon as we were done in Practice 2, I told the guys: ‘This is the best car that you’ve given me all year, I have something to battle with, I have something to challenge with and to execute in qualifying without feeling like I have a knife up to my throat.’ We showed that. Then in the race we maximised where our car was stronger and that’s how we got it done.”


It was a physical battle, enhanced by a recent repave at Mid-Ohio; O’Ward is not a driver to wear a cool suit, only adding to the warmth in the cockpit. And while there were elements of fuel saving through the race, O’Ward said it still “felt like a full push” to the finish. 


“It feels like such a hard-fought race,” he said. “Every lap was just all about not making any mistakes because Palou wasn’t making any mistakes. I knew we had to be pretty much perfect to have an opportunity.”


The lack of cautions, barring an extended pace-lap period after a breakdown for Scott Dixon ahead of the start, amplified the physical nature of the race. And not having aiding yellow periods made it an even purer feeling that O’Ward got to the front without any “roll of the dice” courtesy of in-race stoppages.


It was ultimately the middle stint, run on the red alternate tyres, that won the race for O’Ward. He knew he had to make the difference at a stage where Palou had built a lead of close to 10 seconds during the initial primary tyre stint.


“For some reason they are so quick on the primes, the Ganassi cars,” O’Ward said. “They’re in a different stratosphere. But I knew as soon as we got the reds on, that was my chance to close the gap and ultimately beat him. I knew that was the objective and just tried to keep him at a somewhat manageable distance.”


By the time O’Ward peeled into the pits for his second stop, he had closed to within half-a-second of Palou. The Ganassi driver stopped one lap later but engaged first gear too early on his launch, losing him a crucial second as O’Ward overcut him to take the lead - pivotal given O’Ward was on his less favoured primary tyres and overtaking was tough. 


“I’ll tell you exactly what I was saying in my head,” O’Ward said. “Coming out of [Turn] 13, I saw him launching from the box and then I said: ‘I got his ass.’ Yeah. That was it.”


Palou’s pit stop bobble may have lost him the lead of the race but it was his own admitted error and ultimately evened things out after O’Ward was held on his first stop to allow David Malukas to enter his pit box. And the job was hardly done for O’Ward at this point.


“The hard part is to get by the guy,” he said. “After that, then it turns more into a battle within yourself, just like really hitting your marks all the time, not making any mistakes. They were so strong on primes - I knew that he was going to be really putting on the pressure the last stint.”


It was an impressively mature and measured drive from O’Ward through the third stint to the flag - a contrast to his often full-attack approach. He was forced to defend from Palou and contend with traffic from the back end of the lap, which he could not get past, but he kept calm under this duress.


“It’s become so tough to get by people,” O’Ward said. “And when you’re up at the front and you don’t really have much of an advantage to another car, you can’t get by them. You saw ending the race that we were stuck behind Kyffin [Simpson] and [Agustin] Canapino. No matter if you catch them by a few tenths a lap, once you get there, you can’t do anything. 


“It definitely made me sweat a little bit more for sure, just because we were basically stuck in line and Palou was on my bumper, I was on Kyffin’s. It was just all about not making mistakes and pedalling it to the end.”


O’Ward has now reignited his season. He has jumped a spot in the standings and to within 70 points of Palou. 


“We beat him on the same strategy, same everything, which makes it feel obviously that much sweeter because that No.10 car has been the car to beat all year,” O’Ward said. “They’ve been very, very strong - very strong driver with extremely strong team. That’s who we’re chasing at the moment.”


A swing of ovals - six of the final eight races of the season - now marks a run of types of track that O’Ward has been notably stronger than Palou on. He has finished on the podium in three of the last four Iowa Speedway races and has four World Wide Technology Raceway podiums with a worst finish of fourth. 


While the Milwaukee Mile doubleheader and Nashville Superspeedway season-ender are unknowns as they return to the calendar, Palou’s singular short oval top-five finish is a stark contrast to O’Ward’s. There may be an outside route into the title fight for O’Ward if he can prove a match for the Team Penske cars on ovals, including Will Power 22 points ahead.


One thing is for certain: O’Ward is relishing fighting at the front and going toe-to-toe with Palou. 


“That’s how you want to win,” O’Ward said. “That’s how I want to win. In my career, I’ve had six wins. There’s been one of them that’s been ultimately handed to us, I would say, and that was Iowa when Josef had a failure because he’s truly been the king there. But all the other ones I’ve had to fight so freaking hard to win.


“It feels so sweet. Like [if] Palou got an MGU fault or whatever and we just took the win, that is not the same. I was excited to have this challenge and truly prove it to all of us and just do it.”


It was satisfying to repay the legions of fans that follow him race by race.


“It’s definitely been frustrating lately because I haven’t given them that reason to go crazy,” he said. “The 500 was obviously the closest that we’ve been but it feels really special to see such a group of people that’s behind me. Whether it’s good or bad, a good chunk of them are always behind us. And that’s very special.”

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