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Pato O’Ward upbeat despite winless season amid ‘gnarly, savage’ competition in IndyCar

IndyCar: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey - Practice 1

Sep 8, 2023; Salinas, California, USA; Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward (5) of Mexico during media availabilities before free practice at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Pato O’Ward has signed a contract extension with Arrow McLaren (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

MONTEREY, California – Pato O’Ward has had an outstanding season except for the most important category in the NTT IndyCar Series.

He hasn’t won a race.

The Arrow McLaren driver has seven podiums out of 16 races in 2023, including four second-place finishes.

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But unfortunately, the driver from Monterrey, Mexico hasn’t been able to crack into Victory Lane.

He leads an impressive list of former winners (2022 IndyCar Series champion Will Power, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Felix Rosenqvist and Rinus VeeKay) who haven’t won a race in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2023.

Because of that, O’Ward expects Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will be wild.

“It seems like the driving keeps getting more gnarly by everyone,” O’Ward said, responding to a question from NBC Sports in Friday’s media bullpen interview before practice. “It definitely has gotten out of hand at times in my opinion.

“I’ve had to back out significant amounts this year. It was to the level of the savageness that was going on at the beginning of the year. I’ve had to back out of a significant amount of moments, otherwise I would have ended up in the wall with somebody else. The moves and the way some people are racing is pretty gnarly. I would expect that.

“I don’t expect it to be calmed down the last race of the season. Everybody wants to win, especially the guys that haven’t won.”

Palou listed his reasons why he thinks the racing will be even more intense (or in his frequently used descriptor, “gnarly”) at the 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course that overlooks the beautiful Central California Coast.

“It’s repaved. Super high speed,” Palou explained. “It would be easy to make mistakes and easy to get impatient. It’s a completely new surface so the race is going to fall completely different to what it has been in the past.”

O’Ward ran into some trouble during Saturday morning practice when he touched the while line on the outside curb, sending his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet into the Turn 3 tire barrier.

“Just a driver mistake,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “It doesn’t seem to be be banged up, just some front-left damage, so we should be OK for qualifying.”

It was a rare error for the Monterey, Mexico, native who has enjoyed his most consistent season after being pegged a championship contender. The 24-year-old is the most popular driver in the series and was one of the key drivers featured in IndyCar’s “100 Days To Indy” docuseries.

He began the season with two second-place finishes including the street course at St. Petersburg, Florida, in the season opener and the big oval at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2. He could have won both races — losing the lead to Marcus Ericsson on an engine blip with three laps left at St. Pete and then getting edged at the line by Josef Newgarden just before a final caution at Texas.

After a 17th-place in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, O’Ward scored a fourth at Barber Motorsports Park and second in the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 13.

O’Ward was racing for a victory in the 107th Indianapolis 500 before crashing because of contact with Ericsson in Turn 3 on Lap 192.

Though O’Ward rebounded at Road America in June for one of his career-high seven podiums this year, he was unable to find the path to Victory Lane as a race winner in 2023.

Would he have been surprised to be told in March he still would be seeking a victory six months later?

“I would have been very surprised,” O’Ward admitted. “You know what? We haven’t had a win, but we have been very consistent. We have seven podiums. I get it. We haven’t won, but we have four or five second places. We have made a step forward. We keep running in situations where one car does a better job than we do.

“We have to make sure we are that one car this week.”

The Arrow McLaren driver believes in any other year, he would have been stellar. But he graciously gave credit to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, who clinched his second NTT IndyCar Series championship with a victory in last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

“It’s not surprising they have dominated the series this year,” O’Ward said. “Apart from Alex Palou dominating, the second one dominating was his teammate, a six-time champion (Scott Dixon).

“Ganassi has definitely been on a different level. Maybe not so much in performance but doing everything correctly. They hit the bull’s-eye on strategy calls, never make a mistake in the pits, never have a mechanical failure. All those little things add up to so many points at the end of the year. That’s why they have had the year they have had.”

O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist were a duo at Arrow McLaren in 2021-22. In 2023, Alexander Rossi joined the operation to make it a three-car team with Tony Kanaan driving a fourth car in the 107th Indianapolis 500.

“We had Rossi join and he was a great addition to the team,” O’Ward said. “He brought a lot of experience to the team. Very different atmosphere.

“McLaren is in its own island how we work and do things.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are adding another driver, everybody has their own way of driving a race car, so everybody lands on their own island over the weekend.

“For me, that’s not really going to do anything.”

Though there are many benefits to increase from two to three cars, there were some growing pains.

“We’ve expanded big-time this year,” O’Ward explained. “We are a way bigger team than in the past. That takes a toll on the whole program in certain areas. Even with that, we have handled it very well.

“I would be lying if we all didn’t say, ‘Wow, we haven’t won a race.’

“I’m the only car other than a Penske or Ganassi that has a chance at being top three in the championship. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish.

“We still need to take another significant step to really bring it next year.”

Next year, 21-year-old David Malukas replaces Rosenqvist, who moves on to Meyer-Shank Racing in 2024.

“We raced karts when we were younger,” O’Ward said of Malukas. “We’re not best friends or brothers or anything, but I’m sure we are going to get along just fine.”

O’Ward promises he’s going to race as hard as possible because it’s important to get a victory in his final opportunity this season.

He knows the competition is going to be “Gnarly, bro.”

But, if he doesn’t finish first, he knows 2023 was a job well done as far as his racing career.

“These are long races,” O’Ward said. “You have to be patient. If it doesn’t come this year, then it isn’t going to come this year. I’m not going to leave wining about it and crying about it because I have maximized a lot this year. I feel like as a driver for me personally, it’s hard to find another year where I’ve been stronger.

“I’ve had my mistakes like any driver has had, but it’s been very few and in races where it doesn’t matter if we leave with an eighth or second, I always leave fulfilled with the job that I’ve done.

“We’ve almost had 50 percent of the podiums, and that is really hard to do. Then you look at the season that Palou has had this year, and we still need to improve. It’s rare, it’s rare when you see seasons like that. This year was his year.

“He absolutely maximized that, and he deserves the championship, and he deserves to clinch it the race before because that was the level of perfect that he and Ganassi produced this year.”

The key to success in 2024 is simple for O’Ward to explain. He wants to do away with the little mistakes, because those will accumulate to a lot of points.

“I think there are more gains to be done in not making stupid mistakes than wanting to increase performance,” he said. “The biggest things that brought us back have been the little mistakes that we have made; it really hasn’t been about performance.

“It feels like performance, but when you look at what took you backwards, it’s such a tight and competitive series. You aren’t going to be on the podium if you do something wrong. That’s not going to happen.

“I consider it a pretty good year so far, but if we cleaned that up and not have those issues, we would have had a stout year.

“It wouldn’t have been as good as Palou because he has won more than we have, but we would have been on more podiums and it would have been tighter for second, for sure.”

As O’Ward was making the rounds in the bullpen, he encountered Meyer Shank Racing Tom Blomqvist, an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship star who will be Rosenqvist’s teammate on Michael Shank’s and Jim Meyer’s team in 2024.

“You’re going to have fun with Felix, bro,” O’Ward said to Blomqvist. “He’s a great guy.”

O’Ward and Rosenqvist developed a tremendous friendship as teammates.

They termed it “a bromance.”

“I’ll be OK,” O’Ward admitted. “The bromance isn’t going to end; we just won’t be in the same room – the driver lounge and engineering room.

“You’ll probably catch us wrestling, even in different colors.”

Follow Bruce Martin at @BruceMartin_500