O’Ward, Harding Steinbrenner Split; Pato has Limited Options for 2019

Above:  Pato O’Ward speaks to the media at Sonoma last September

In a statement released this morning Harding Steinbrenner Racing announced that the team and driver Pato O’Ward have agreed to part company. O’Ward’s statement:

“The Harding Steinbrenner Racing team supported my decision to seek a new opportunity by releasing me from my contract and allowing me the opportunity to find a new team before the start of the 2019 season,” said O’Ward, the 2018 Indy Lights champion who strongly impressed in his IndyCar debut with HSR late last season. “Now, I am fully focused on finding the right opportunity and how I will use my scholarship from Indy Lights for 2019.”

O’ Ward raced for then Harding Racing in the 2018 Indycar finale at Sonoma. He qualified fifth and finished  ninth in a spectacular debut.  O’Ward was projected to team with Colton Herta in a two car effort for the merged Harding Steinbrenner Racing this upcoming season. Herta will be the sole full time entry for the team, which switched to Honda power in December.

The 2018 Indy lights champion has $1 million in scholarship money to put toward a ride. Rumors about financial woes at Harding Steinbrenner have been circulating for a while. This close to the beginning of the season it may be difficult to find a ride. There are some part time possibilities, however. I’m pretty confident a seat for the Indianapolis 500 will be available to him. O’Ward was projected as one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year this season.

Possible landing spots-  This is strictly conjecture on my part. I have no idea what talks are going on, but I am looking at what little is available right now.

Juncos?- As of now, Kyle Kaiser will drive in the 500, but nothing else is confirmed. The team is looking for a driver with funding.

Carlin 2nd car?- Charlie Kimball has just 5 races set and R. C. Enerson has been testing with the team. There is speculation that he will fill in when Kimball isn’t driving, but I’m not sure he can run all 12 of the other races.

Coyne 3rd car?- Dale Coyne has brought out a third car from time to time. This may not be the best option for O’Ward to showcase his talent.

6th Andretti car for Indy?- O’Ward won the Indy Lights title in 2018 driving for Andretti and Andretti was giving some assistance to Harding Steinbrenner. Michael said at the Conor Daly announcement that a 6th car didn’t look good, but the cash infusion might change things.

Additional track time for Dragonspeed- Ben Hanley has a 5 race schedule planned as the team dips its toe in the Indycar pool this year. O’Ward could allow them more time to develop.

Meyer Shank more races? Jack Harvey will be in 10 races as the team expands a bit from last year. Could O’ Ward get them closer to a full time schedule?

It would be a pity if O’Ward doesn’t race this season. He is a great talent whom I was looking to seeing on track.

 

The Early, Early Line

Happy New Year and welcome to another year of The Pit Window. Thanks to everyone for making 2018 a record year for this site.  Here are are some early predictions for the 2019 Indycar season. I may revise these after the Spring Training sessions at COTA next month.

2019 Champion– Alexander Rossi. Rossi made some mistakes that cost him the title last season. He seems to learn quickly and I don’t expect those errors to be repeated. Dixon has never won consecutive titles, which is why I am not picking him. Look for strong competition from Will Power and Josef Newgarden, as usual. Ryan Hunter-Reay rediscovered his groove and may gave his teammate a challenge as well.

Rookie of the Year- I’m  giving a slight edge to Felix Rosenqvist, mainly because of the team he drives for. Patricio O’Ward will present a strong challenge, especially with Harding Steinbrenner Racing receiving some technical support from Andretti, but Rosenqvist will provide strong support to Dixon in his title quest.

Indianapolis 500– Will Power. If any driver is gong to be the next back to back winner of the 500, Power is the one. He has become a master of ovals. Look for his dominance of May to continue. I can imagine the Victory Circle celebration if he returns there. Last year’s will seem tame.

Race Wins-  In 2018, four drivers each won three races. I think we will see a similar situation this season, although I look for Rossi to win a fourth race to give him the edge he needs for the title. Dixon will creep ever closer to the 50 win mark, but will need another year to get there and possibly two to pass Mario Andretti’s 52 victories.

A Brief Survey

I would like to hear from you. What stories did you enjoy the most last year? Which type of column did you not like?  Anything you would like to see more of, or less of? Please let me know.

The Roar

I will be heading to Daytona Saturday for The Roar Before the 24. Look for my coverage on Wildfire Sports. I may have some news regarding Wildfire soon.

Some Off Season Thoughts

The first week of the off season brought the exciting news that Harding racing will partner with Steinbrenner Racing in 2019. The new Harding Steinbrenner Racing team has signed rookies Pato O’Ward, 2018 Indy Lights champion, and Indy lights runner-up Colton Herta. Very few details other than the driver announcements are known at this time. There is a technical partnership with Andretti Autosport which will provide shocks, dampers, and engineering help.

The big question is which engine will Harding Steinbrenner use? Harding had Chevrolet power in 2018, and Andretti is a Honda team. For these teams to work together, the engine needs to be the same. If HSR goes with Honda, would that rule out a possible third car at Rahal letterman Lanigan Racing?

One of the greatest things about this new team is that the two team owners come from outside of racing. My friend Steve Wittich wrote an excellent article for Trackside Online about how Indycar needs diversity in its ownership. I hope we see more owners from outside racing. they should provide a fresh perspective on the business of racing.  You can find his article on Trackside Online.com. It is a site worth subscribing to.

New Title Sponsor?

There has been no word on a new series title sponsor. Things have gone rather quiet about who it will be. That could mean it’s wrapped up ready to be announced, or Indycar is still searching. It would have been good to have an announcement at Sonoma, and have some sort of handing over ceremony to thank Verizon for their sponsorship.

The Mysterious Third OEM

Is there someone ready to jump in for 2021? There has been some talk of one or two manufacturers, with one name mentioned more than others, but again, things seem very quiet on the new engine front right now.

McLaren News in November?

We may not know Mclaren’s plans until November. It would be great to have McLaren in Indycar, but this is turning into racing’s version of General Hospital. First Honda says they will not help Mclaren, then reports have come out saying yes they still might. Alonso has not made a decision. My guess he is in for the 500 only. Stoffel Vandoorne, considered a candidate for the seat when Alonso doesn’t drive, is rumored to be close to having a contract in Formula E. That could mean McLaren will be here for the 500 only as well.   Stay tuned.

Coyne’s Car 19

Dale Coyne has talked to some former Formula 1 drivers about driving the 19 car next year. he continues his quest to have one driver for the entire season in that ride. Apparently neither Zachary Claman De Melo or Pietro Fittipaldi will return. Too bad. They both have some potential to be decent drivers.

October Coming Attractions

Next month I have several columns planned for here and on Wildfire Sports.

A review of Born Racer.

A book review of Gentleman, Start Your Engines.

Look for  another month of May review via the official program for that year.

Commentary on off season news and the big announcements that could be coming will be posted as needed. In addition to a title sponsor, I am most interested to see which races will be on NBC network. I’m guessing there will be a lot in May and very early June. They didn’t ask me (again) but I think one Detroit race would be enough.

Look for a column on things Indycar might want to change for 2019.

2018- Passing Grade for New Aero; Close Points Battle; Talented Rookies

St.Pete set the tone. The racing was going to be better with the new kit. It was going to be a competitive season. A rookie star emerged and would captivate fans. 2018 was all that. That rookie, Robert Wickens, unfortunately didn’t get to complete the year.  Younger stars made a bold statement that they arrived, but the established stars rose to the top at the end, It was one of the most enjoyable seasons. I’ve seen.

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Robert Wickens at Mid Ohio. He finished second in what would be his last complete race of the year.

The Meteor

Robert Wickens stole the pole at the opening race in St. Pete and dominated the race until a lap 108 collision with Alexander Rossi knocked him out of the race. Indycar fans suddenly had a new star to root for. Wickens followed up with a second place finish  at Phoenix after leading the late stages of the race. Five consecutive top tens, including three top fives followed. Then everything came to a horrendous halt in the accident at Pocono. Whether Wickens gets back into a car again is still undetermined. He may miss the entire 2019 season. Despite missing the final three races, Wickens still finished tied for tenth in points and won Rookie of the Year. One of the highlights of last Sunday’s Sonoma finale was seeing a video of Wickens talking to the fans.

The New Aero Package

Two goals of the new aero package were to improve the racing and put the car back in the hands of the drivers. It definitely accomplished the second aim. There was better racing for the most part. Ovals definitely need some more work. Street courses showed the most improvement and road courses had more passing than last year. There is still an aero wash that needs to be tweaked. It’s fun seeing the cars slide through the corners.

A Tight Title Fight

Six different drivers swapped the lead eight times through the Texas race. Scott Dixon took the points lead with his win at Texas and led the rest of the way. His lead ballooned to 62 after Toronto but shrunk to 26 after Gateway. Alexander Rossi was third after Toronto, 70 points behind, but won two in a row at Mid Ohio and Pocono to cut into the lead. Rossi’s last chance to catch Dixon ended in the second turn at Sonoma when he clipped Marco Andretti, cutting a tire and damaging his front wing.

While Dixon’s 57 point final margin seems large, it was not an easy title to win. Dixon, Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power won three races each, and Ryan Hunter-Reay won twice. This concentration of big points days among a few drivers kept things close.

Dixon’s fifth title puts him into rarefied air. Only A. J. Foyt with seven championships has more than Dixon.

It was a strange route to the championship. Dixon did not win a pole and didn’t lead a lap until the first race in Detroit in June. He had the fewest bonus points of the four main contenders. Dixon dodged two bullets late in the season. He narrowly missed the spinning tub of Wickens’ car at Pocono. At the start of the Portland race, Dixon was involved in a scramble with four other cars, but he suffered no damage and fought back to a fifth place finish.

New teams

Carlin and Harding Racing joined the series full time. Meyer Shank Racing and Juncos Racing had part time entries. All four new teams will return next year with expanded programs. The biggest change for 2019 will be Harding, now Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Carlin is planning on adding a third car. Meyer Shank hopes to participate in ten races next season. Juncos bought a second car but is unsure if it will race during he season.

I will talk about the Harding Steinbrenner team in a post next week.

Rookies Impress

In addition to Wickens, Zach Veach had a string of four consecutive top tens at Toronto, Mid Ohio, Pocono, and Gateway. Veach had run well at times in other races but was plagued by mistakes. He was instrumental in setting up the Andretti cars in testing.

At Sonoma, Indy lights champion Patricio O’Ward got his first Indycar ride with Harding Racing. He got people’s attention with the third quickest lap in Friday’s second practice. He backed that up by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth in the race. O’Ward and Colton Herta will be full time next year for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Final Thoughts

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Alexander Rossi at St. Pete. He showed amazing ability to pass anywhere and also had some controversial moments.

Rossi put some spice into several races this year with his charges from the rear. He started 32nd at Indianapolis and finished fourth. At Phoenix he went to the back because of a penalty and came back for a third place finish. At Sonoma he used a timely caution to fight back to seventh and keep second place in the final standings.

Rossi also created some controversy with some moves where contact was involved. the most notorious was was his collision with Wickens at St. Pete. I liked the way he didn’t apologize and just went on driving. Rossi has an old school attitude I really enjoy.

I admire Mike Harding for fielding a team all season on a limited budget. Next year the team should be stronger with added resources.

Thanks to Verizon for their series sponsorship the last five years. I appreciate that unlike other series sponsors, they completed their entire contract length.

Finally, I will continue to send good healing thoughts to Robert Wickens. I hope to see him race again.

 

 

Quick Thoughts- Sonoma Grand Prix and Championship

 

The championship ended before the first lap was over.

Sounded like NBC fumbled the coverage. I hope this isn’t an indication of how next year will be.

Scott Dixon definitely has a place among racing’s legends. Only A. J. Foyt had more championships.

Patricio O’ Ward continued his amazing weekend with a top 10 finish.

Alexander Rossi can pass almost anyone on any track. He might won the title next year.

The race reflected the youth ve. veterans theme of the entire year.Look for my full race recap later this week on Wildfire Sports. I will also have a season review here on Friday.  Thanks for following along this  year.

Hunter-Reay, Newgarden Lead Day 1 at Sonoma

Ryan Hunter-Reay had the fastest time of the opening day of practice for the Grand Prix of Sonoma. He lead the first session with a lap of 1:17.5742. Josef Newgarden had the quick time in the afternoon session of 1:17.8156. Seven of the ten fastest times of the day were turned in the morning session.  This doesn’t happen often since the red tires are allowed in the afternoon. Newgarden did not turn a lap in the morning session due to a fuel system isdue.

Several drivers talked of high tire degradation, getting just two good laps out of their tires. Shifting winds also factored into the lap times.  No one was overly concerned about today’s times.

The biggest surprise of the day was rookie Patricio O’Ward with the third fastest time in session 2 of 1:18.0073. He set the time early in the session on black tires. It was the sixth best time overall.

Besides Newgarden, the other championship contenders ended the day on the combined charts third (Scott Dixon), fourth (Will Power), and eleventh (Alexander Rossi). Rossi was sixth and eighth in the two sessions.

The 2019 Indycar Schedule; News and Comments

Some thoughts on the Indycar schedule released today:

I like that the huge gap between the first and second race is gone. Having three weeks between Long Beach and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is probably more appropriate. It allows for testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a time closer to the 500.

I hope the three weeks between Portland and the Laguna Seca final is just a one year arrangement. IMSA races at Laguna Seca September 15.

Team members have two three week stretches of races plus the four week grind of May and the Detroit doubleheader.

Will Barber return to its traditional date next year? Easter falls on the usual Barber weekend necessitating the change.

I’m excited that Indycar is going to Circuit of the Americas. My first though when I went there for the inaugural Formula 1 race was  that it would be a good track for Indycar.  My concern is attendance. COTA is a huge property. Like IMS, what would be a decent crowd at most places will make the track seem empty. F1 is the only series that has had good attendance in Austin.

While I’m sad to see one less oval on the schedule, I’m happy that Iowa will again be a Saturday night race. That track was made for Indycars on Saturday night.

Attendance at Laguna Seca could also be a concern with IMSA holding an event the weekend before. These two series need to work together and hold joint events.

Television Schedule Still to Come

We know all, the races will be on an NBC network. The question is, which race on which network? I will go out on a huge limb here and say the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Seven other races will appear on the big network. My guessses:

St. Pete- season opener; introduces audience to Indycar

Long Beach- historic track and event

Indycar Grand Prix- prelude to the 500; promotes the 500

The 500

Road America- another classic track; spectatcular scenery

Iowa- Saturday night racing showcases Indycar roots

Pocono- another 500 race; usually one of the best races of the year

Laguna Seca- season finale allows season recap and promotes 2020 season.

I’m sure I have one correct. I left off the Detroit doubleheader. With a limited number of network appearances, putting half of that schedule in a four week span creates a large gap until the next network race.

Harding’s Future?

Last weekend at Portland Harding racing announced that 2018 Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward and Lights runner up Colton Herta will drive in the Indycar finale at Sonoma. Herta tested with Harding earlier this season and O’Ward will test with the team Thursday.

We might be seeing the future of Harding Racing begin. Gabby Chaves, who began the year with Harding and has a contract for next year, may be out of a ride.

Talk still is going on about MclAren taking over harding and some uinvolvement with Andretti Autosport. Both O’Ward and Herta drove for Andretti in Indy Lights.

However this situation turns out, I admire Mike Harding for putting a team together, hiring good experienced people, and running the entire season with older equipment. This was a low budget operation. Small teams like this are what the series needs more of.

Fred Watch

On Wednesday, weather permitting, Fernando Alonso is scheduled to test an Indycar at Barber Motorsports Park. He will drive an Andretti Autosport car, the one Carlos Munoz drove in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Alonso has not announced where he will drive next year. The Indycar schedule has no conflicts with his WEC commitments for 2018. The WEC opener for 2019 is the same weekend as Portland.