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Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward relish new Rolex 24 relationship: ‘We always push each other’

The Rolex 24 at Daytona always promises superstar mixes of drivers, and 2022 is no exception, as the DragonSpeed team recruited young IndyCar rivals Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward to drive the No. 81.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The Rolex 24 at Daytona pairing of IndyCar stars Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward is intriguing in giving two championship rivals an inside peek at each other’s superstar talent.

During driver debriefs and data downloads at Daytona International Speedway, Herta and O’Ward should gain a fuller appreciation of the trade secrets in their driving styles – though they already had a fairly good idea.

As Andretti Autosport teammates in the Indy Lights series four years ago, the two drivers who both have been mentioned as prime candidates for Formula One learned much about what makes the other so good.

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“I probably already know most of what’s going to happen,” Herta said about the dynamic lineup during a news conference last month, immediately drawing a laugh from O’Ward. “Pato’s going to want a much looser car than everybody else, and then we’re going to have to meet somewhere in the middle.”

Could Herta handle a car tailored to O’Ward’s famous preference for a level of twitchy oversteer that requires razor-sharp reflexes through the corners?

“I could if I had to, but I don’t think I’d want to for 24 hours,” Herta, 21, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “But if that’s the general consensus of the team and that’s what most of the guys want, you just have to suck it up and do what’s better for the team.”

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Especially with a Rolex trophy potentially in the grasp of the No. 81 ORECA.

The DragonSpeed USA car finished third in the LMP2 class last year after consecutive victories in 2019-20 at Daytona. Devlin DeFrancesco and veteran amateur Eric Lux will return from the 2021 podium team, and Herta (GTLM with BMW in 2019) and O’Ward (Prototype Challenge in ’17) also are class-winning Rolex 24 veterans.

Though a whirlwind deal to form the lineup was completed in only a few weeks (and was brokered in part by George Steinbrenner IV, who once co-owned the IndyCar team that had planned to team Herta and O’Ward in ’19), there’s optimism about winning the LMP2 category with a bright yellow and orange car that O’Ward has dubbed “Team Highlighter.”

“The Steinbrenners reached out to my dad, and I said, ‘Yeah, if Colton is going to do it, count me in,’ ” O’Ward, 22, told NBC Sports. “I truly think we have a shot. And I think more than that, it’s just going to be really enjoyable. It’s going to be really enjoyable with guys that I compete against on a regular basis in IndyCar. And it’s just a different atmosphere. It’s very laid-back, very chill compared to what we’re used to.

“The team has proven to be race winners here, and I think the driver lineup ain’t too bad, either. I think if we all do our job, not get too ahead of ourselves, just go through our plan, we’ll be in good shape.”

Said Herta: “It did come together quite quickly, really fast. Devlin asked me if I wanted to do it. They had extra seats, and I was super interested. It was super cool once I learned that Pato was doing it as well. I hadn’t been teammates with him for a long time, and it would be cool to reconnect.

“I’ve been racing against him since 2010 in go-karts, and I’ve always kind of followed his career when we were doing different things. So it’s cool that we’ve come back on the same path. I got to know him really well in Indy Lights. I think we both learned a lot off each other that elevated our performance as we jumped into IndyCar, so it’ll be cool to continue that.”

GoKart podium

It’s also a reunion of sorts with DeFrancesco, who will be a rookie teammate to Herta at Andretti in the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series. The trio has fond recollections of racing together in national go-kart events dating to 2008, sometimes sharing podiums.

“I have great memories with those two,” DeFrancesco told NBC Sports. “We’re childhood friends and now to be not only teammates for the Rolex 24 in a competitive team and a great car with a shot, but to race against each other in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s kind of crazy how things have progressed since then.

“It was always a dream back then, and the dream has now become a reality. I think it’s great and definitely a special time in my life, and I’m sure theirs as well.”

The return to sports cars is special for O’Ward, who notched seven victories in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2017, because of the chance to team with Herta on the same car for the first time.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#81: DragonSpeed USA, ORECA LMP2 07, LMP2: Devlin DeFrancesco

LAT Images

“For Colton and I, it’s always been push each other,” O’Ward said. “Push each other, push each other, push each other. Keep pushing each other. I feel like that naturally raises both of our games. Both of you have to step up every single time if you want to beat the other guy, and I feel like that’s elevated us in our careers and the way we do things, the way we extract things from the car. It’s probably the best way in order to speed up or make yourself better. Just have someone who is really, really pushing you and testing you in every aspect and seeing where you can get better and seeing where you’re stronger. And where he might catch up and get better, then you need to find different ways to beat him.

“Yeah, this this is awesome, because for me, this is like joining forces. So everything that we’ve been pushing each other, now we get to join in together, and I feel like that’s going to make a really strong team. It’s going to make everything so much more enjoyable and competitive but a very friendly and very healthy way of being competitive and truly, at the end of the day, you want your teammates to win, because that means you’re winning, too.”

O’Ward also fully expects that he will be making as many setup compromises as his teammates, meaning they might not be wrangling a loose car around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course throughout the night.

“Honestly, I always let my teammates set up the car and drove whatever I was given,” O’Ward said of his IMSA experience. “I really enjoy trying to adapt myself into things that maybe aren’t what I specifically want for that fast lap, and I think that just makes you better. You exercise the craft of adaptability and exercise the different ways that you can drive the car. You figure out and learn different ways of driving a car to the limit and extracting the lap time out of it.

“So for me, I’m just looking forward to having fun with the guys, giving my input on what the car is doing, but I’m not going to be picky. If it’s going to be understeer-y, I’ll drive it understeer-y and find a way to go fast, and if it’s oversteer-y, I’ll find a way to go fast, no problem.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#81: DragonSpeed USA, ORECA LMP2 07, LMP2: Patricio O’Ward, Elton Julian

LAT Images

Herta, who has driven the past three Rolex 24s in the GT classes, remains contracted to BMW, which could have him in its plans for the new LMDh premier class next season. That means gaining prototype experience this year is crucial, which he expects will mean leaning heavily on O’Ward’s expertise in a class that also will include an entry co-driven by IndyCar winner Rinus VeeKay.

“(The prototype) has a lot of unknowns for me from driving-wise, and it’s different because we’re not actually competing directly against each other,” Herta said. “We both want each other to do good, whereas when you’re teammates (on opposing cars), you definitely want to beat them. So that was the goal at Andretti when we were in Indy Lights. It’s very different now, going over data, talking about the car and deciding what’s actually best in a different manner than when you’re teammates that are competing against each other.

“It’ll be cool to see how much he’s grown since Indy Lights driving-wise and feedback-wise. Obviously he’s a very quick driver, so we’ll see that in the data and be able to compare against him in my driving, but also just to see all the elements of what’s changed in between the last few years we haven’t been teammates.”