Pato O’Ward felt at home behind the wheel of an open-wheel car once more.
The native of Monterrey, Mexico, drove a Team Pelfrey Dallara IL-15 Mazda during the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires portion of the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Oct. 21-22, as he eyes a return to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires development ladder.
O’Ward took the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires by storm in 2016, winning six of the first seven races on his way to finishing runner-up to teammate Aaron Telitz for the title. Unable to secure full-season sponsorship for 2017, he drove in four early-season Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires races for Team Pelfrey before turning full-time attention to sports cars. O’Ward and teammate James French won seven of eight Prototype Challenge races to easily win the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in that category.
But the INDYCAR development ladder is where O’Ward’s heart lies. The 18-year-old has been working hard to secure a drive for the 2018 season.
“I’d love to do Indy Lights,” O’Ward said. “That would be what I would’ve done if I had the funding behind me this year, but I obviously didn’t and I did the IMSA stuff.
“I’m still looking around. I don’t want to leave open-wheel because that’s my passion. At the end of the day, I really like racing it. As of right now, my goal (for 2018) is to do the four IMSA endurance races in a Prototype car and (a full season of) Indy Lights, but I don’t have anything yet.”
O’Ward tested Team Pelfrey’s Indy Lights car at Sebring International Raceway for two days before going to Indianapolis for the Griffis test.
“Before we came here, I had two test days at Sebring to get back into the rhythm because the Prototype Challenge car is quite different,” O’Ward said. “Sebring went really, really well.”
For O’Ward, testing comes at a premium. Before this year’s Indy Lights season, he had only one day of spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway. O’Ward turned 81 laps across two test sessions before heading to the first race weekend of the year on the streets of St. Petersburg, where he scored a third and a fifth.
“There’s nothing like testing,” said O’Ward. “Last year, we were behind the ballgame in St. Pete. It’s difficult to compete with teams that have been testing and drivers that have been testing the car. I just did one day before St. Pete and (going) straight into a race weekend on a street circuit is not easy.”
“We were in contention for pole so I thought that was pretty good. At Barber, we struggled (finishing eighth and 15th in the two races). We just weren’t on pace and we seemed to be struggling right now here but I hope our solution was that we messed up the (setup) pad.”
O’Ward turned 130 laps at the Griffis test. He recorded the fourth-fastest lap of the weekend at a time of 1 minute, 16.0900 seconds (115.395 mph) on the 2.439-mile permanent road course.
He hopes the performance gives an indication of what he could do in an Indy Lights car for the entire 2018 season, but that remains dependent on sponsorship that, he added, sometimes come through in the most unlikely times and situations.
“For some reason, sometimes things just get together and happen and you don’t believe it,” O’Ward, “so I hope that’s the case next year for my championship.”