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Pato O’Ward gets IndyCar win he can finally celebrate as drivers weigh in on hybrid debut

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio – IndyCar’s long-awaited hybrid engine is off and running, but Pato O’Ward’s victory in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 is proof how determination and guile can provide the winning edge in the NTT IndyCar Series as much as extra speed and horsepower.

In O’Ward’s own description, “I drove my ass off” to track down and defeat two-time IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou.

O’Ward made the race-winning pass during the final round of pit stops. After chopping Palou’s lead to 0.4 seconds, O’Ward dove onto pit lane on Lap 54 of the 80-lap race. Palou stayed on track to complete another circuit before coming onto pit lane on Lap 56.

Palou tried to engage first gear too early during the pit stop and the gearbox didn’t engage for about a second or two. That was enough of a delay for O’Ward to stand on the throttle out of Turn 13 and blow by Palou’s No. 10 Honda as it left the pit.

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

“The hard part is to get by the guy. After that, then it turns more into a battle within yourself I would say, just like really hitting your marks all the time, not making any mistakes.”


Pato O’Ward speeding to victory at Mid-Ohio — INDYCAR Photo by James Black

From that point on, the push-to-pass became more valuable for both drivers in the final battle because it provides a much bigger boost of energy, but it is limited. The hybrid engine can provide additional power and can be used as often as a driver chooses.

“Oh, I was ripping through it,” O’Ward said, referring to push-to-pass and not the electric boost provided by the hybrid. “(Palou) was, too.

“Push-to-pass is more powerful because it lasts longer, but I was using both.” asked the top three drivers their thoughts on what was more important in the closing stages of Sunday’s race, the hybrid engine or the push-to-pass option.

“Well, you have more advantage with the push-to-pass,” Palou said. “Like it gives you more horsepower and you also have more seconds. Like you can put 50 seconds in one lap or 40 seconds. You can really use it a lot more than the hybrid.

“I was thinking both. I could see where Pato was using it. I was trying to use it at different places to see if I could get an advantage somewhere. But I think both are important. If you forget about the hybrid, I think you lose a tenth and a half, that it’s for free, maybe a little bit more, and if you lose track of the OT, it’s a ton more.”

O’Ward scored his sixth career IndyCar Series win by 0.4993-of-a-second over Palou in a head-to-head battle. Both of those drivers had to decide whether to use push-to-pass and/or the hybrid in the battle to the checkered flag.

Palou explains his costly pit stop at Mid-Ohio
Hear from Alex Palou after the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on Sunday, in which a costly delay during a pit stop made the difference vs. Pato O'Ward.

But 16 seconds back was Scott McLaughlin in third place. He was also eight seconds ahead of the fourth-place car driven by Colton Herta, so there was really no need for him to use either horsepower-enhancing device.

“I was in no man’s land, so I turned everything off and just drove it home,” McLaughlin said.

For the most part, the first race in IndyCar’s hybrid engine era gave the drivers another tool to utilize in competition, but in a race that went flag to flag without a caution period, it’s way too early to determine how much impact it had in determining the outcome.

But it did doom one star driver before his race began.

It was six-time Mid-Ohio IndyCar Series race winner Scott Dixon, who is also a six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion.

The engine in his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda failed on the parade lap, leaving his car stalled on course without any power. Apparently, the hybrid device was completely drained and didn’t have enough energy for him to restart the engine.

IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team towed Dixon’s car back to the garage so Chip Ganassi Racing team members and Honda Racing Corporation, USA engineers could assess the situation.

After recharging the system, Dixon’s car returned to the race 22 laps down. He continued in the race before pulling in for good with 15 laps left when he could not gain any more positions.

According to IndyCar, the series is evaluating what happened to Dixon’s hybrid device that caused it to fail.

Dixon's car stalls before green flag at Mid-Ohio
Scott Dixon's car had a mechanical failure and stalled on the pace lap before the green flag in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

“It was kinda weird, there were no alarms but when I looked down, something started discharging the capacitor immediately at an excessive rate,” Dixon said. “Some kind of failure there with the power side of the hybrid.

“Definitely not a great way to start up for the first time. Didn’t even make the warmup lap.

“A lot of unknowns right now. Honda and everybody else will try to figure out what the issue is and try to get it re-fired to at least go back out.”

Later in the race, when Romain Grosjean’s No. 77 Chevrolet spun out, he was able to use the hybrid device to re-fire his engine. Without the unit’s ability to restart the engine, the IndyCar safety team would have had to tend to the car during a caution period, so that allowed the race to conclude without interruption.

“The performance of the new IndyCar hybrid power unit at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was impactful and highly encouraging,” IndyCar officials said in a statement released afterward. “All stakeholders in the IndyCar paddock share in the pride and excitement for the future that this milestone has generated. It is the result of a truly unique collaboration between Chevrolet and Honda and the culmination of hundreds of hours of engineering, preparation, testing and execution.

“IndyCar looks forward to the continued evolution of the hybrid power unit as teams and drivers fine-tune the system to optimize performance beginning with the first use of horsepower assist on an oval next weekend at Iowa Speedway.”

The hybrid engine creates a larger gain on the street- and road-course races than on the ovals. According to IndyCar drivers and teams, the hybrid engine can improve speeds by one- to two-tenths a second a lap on a road course, but only six-thousandths of a second on an oval.

Six of the final eight races of the season will be on oval tracks, including next weekend’s Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend at Iowa Speedway – a Saturday night/Sunday afternoon doubleheader on a seven-eighths mile short oval.

“I would say the hybrid really doesn’t do anything on ovals,” O’Ward said. “It does more on road courses and street courses. It obviously has added the weight; how is the tire deg going to be.

“I was surprised to see the deg, how good it was today. There was really no deg. You were as quick at the end of the stint with the first part of the stint, which I feel like has been very hit-or-miss all year. You don’t really know what to get.

“Yeah, that was very good to see for this weekend and at Iowa, I know we tested with I believe more downforce than what we’re actually going to race, if I’m not mistaken, so that’s going to be a new challenge even for everyone, just really seeing where everybody stacks up.”

McLaughlin: Felt in 'no-man's land' at Mid-Ohio
Scott McLaughlin comments on the difficulty of learning IndyCar's new hybrid engine after finishing third in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

With a tire that did not degrade dramatically despite the additional 100 pounds of weight on the car because of the hybrid device, the Firestones held up very well from the beginning of the stint to the end.

“The degradation was fantastic,” O’Ward explained. “The tire behaved really, really well, both prime and alternate. The track was very enjoyable to drive.

“Even from the first practice, it’s changed the balance a bit with the new hybrid, but once you get it into tune, those annoying bumps that we had just magically disappeared, obviously, with the new repave. It’s just a very beautiful track. It’s a very flowy and enjoyable place to come to.

“I was determined to have a good race here because I’ve had very strong qualifying here. I’ve been very quick. But been out of the running for one thing or another.

“Yeah, this year I was determined to just get back to my normal form because it really hasn’t been there.”

There remains much to learn about this new device and how to properly utilize it to make a difference. That will send the engineers back to their computers to figure it out before returning to action on Friday with practice at Iowa Speedway.

“I think it’s going to differ to some ovals,” McLaughlin said. “I think there’s going to be parts where you can use it, and in Milwaukee and Gateway where there’s probably more decel, you’ll use it differently than Iowa where it’s really quick now and you really have to be off the gas.

“Ultimately, when we were testing there, we were really focused on car balance and then sort of got into the hybrid in the afternoon. It’s boost. It’s going to help us at some point. You’ve just got to use it at the right moments.”

Palou has become one of IndyCar’s best drivers because of how quickly, and how easily, he is able to formulate solutions.

The hybrid engine is simply the latest challenge for an IndyCar driver to analyze.

“We all know that the amount of energy you can deploy per lap, it’s a lot less than what we had here, like almost a third, so the advantage, it’s not as much on an oval,” Palou said. “But at the same time, you do so many laps that I bet if there’s one guy that doesn’t use it in the race, like you would see that he loses probably 10 seconds or something.

“It’s good enough. The series is so competitive that if you give up one-tenth just because you’re lazy or something, it’s not going to help you.”

The IndyCar Series is a thrilling form of competition because it combines high-speed racing, bravery, technology and skill, testing a race driver’s limits to think and react quickly in the ultimate risk-versus-reward proposition.

But it also showcases the human element of overcoming challenges and obstacles.

O'Ward proud of 'hard-fought' Honda Indy 200 win
Pato O'Ward reacts to his victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, saying he's proud of his team and his car after just edging out Alex Palou.

That clearly defines O’Ward.

He was credited with winning the season’s opening race in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10, only after the driver who finished first to the checkered flag in that race, Josef Newgarden, was disqualified two months later in what has since become known as the “Push-to-Pass Scandal.”

O’Ward didn’t get to celebrate that win in victory lane; the winner’s trophy was put on the back of his truck when the team arrived at the next race following the disqualification announcement.

Pato was basically “O’Warded the victory.”

“This feels like the first win of the season,” O’Ward said at Mid-Ohio. “I know St. Pete we were P2 and ultimately ended up getting the win because Penske cheated.

“Today, that’s how you want to win. That’s how I want to win. In my career, I’ve had six wins with this one. 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 have been so — I’ve had to fight so freaking hard to win, and it feels so sweet because it wouldn’t have been the same, like 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 like truly prove it to all of us and just do it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500