O’Ward, Herta in contention for two-car Harding team in 2019
Harding Racing team president Brian Barnhart says the team’s aim for 2019 is to expand to two cars and would be prepared to run rookies Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta, who will both make their IndyCar debuts at Sonoma.
Following Herta’s test with the team at Portland International Raceway two weeks ago, O’Ward, the new Indy Lights champion, will test at Sonoma Raceway on Thursday.
He and Herta, who scored nine and four wins respectively in Indy Lights this year, will drive a pair of Harding Racing-Chevrolets in the IndyCar finale next week.
Said Barnhart: “At the moment, we’re doing it step by step, so we’re just focused on Sonoma in 10 days, running Pato and Colton, and not beyond that. But there is certainly interest in us changing things up a little bit.
“We’ve talked all summer long about how tough it is as a one-car team. Virtually impossible, in fact. But to expand, first you’ve got to find budget and to do that you’ve got to have something sellable and be able to demonstrate improved performance. We feel we’ve shown that, so we’re trying to put all the puzzle pieces together.
“So having Gabby [Chaves, 13 races] and Conor [Daly, 3 races] in the season so far, and then running two young guys in a pair of cars at Sonoma, should give us more knowledge to base any decisions about our future.
"But whatever our decision, it’s got to make sense from a business standpoint before we can think of growing the team to two cars.”
Should both Herta and O’Ward join Harding, it would mean the team entering the 2019 season with a pairing that has just two IndyCar starts between them. However, Barnhart denied this was as difficult as trying to run just a single-car team.
He laughed: “I can see that running a couple of rookies might not be a scenario that a lot of teams would lick their chops over! And yeah, there would be times where it would be difficult.
"But I think the future for both guys is incredibly bright and so having feedback from two very talented drivers, however much they lack experience, would be better than running just one car.
“Pato and Colton have somewhat different backgrounds before they reached Indy Lights, and Pato probably had more experience, but Colton is so methodical and so precise. When we ran him at Portland, I was blown away. I’ve been around this sport for a long time and he still really impressed me by how precise and how detailed his feedback was and how calm he was.
"So now knowing that Pato has been his teammate and just wrapped up the Lights championship, we’re excited to see what he can do at Sonoma on Thursday.”
Asked how Herta compared with Andretti Autosport’s rookie Zach Veach who attended that same test, and who qualified sixth for last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, Barnhart replied: “Zach did a really good job at the test, as he has all year long for Andretti, and I can tell you Colton was neck-and-neck with him – in fact, just a tick quicker at the end of the day.
"So I think if Colton had been in an IndyCar last weekend, I reckon he’d have been on pace right away.”
Asked how many test days IndyCar might grant Harding if it ran two rookies, Barnhart said: “IndyCar has literally just sent a first draft of a bulletin regarding testing rules.
"In the summer, the talk was of reducing testing as a whole to help teams to save money in a year where the aerokit was staying the same. But yeah, you’d think rookies might still get an extra day or two.”
Barnhart also moved to praise Harding’s technical director Gerald Tyler, who joined the squad a couple of races into the season, for the progress made in the squad’s first full season. Harding Racing made its first three starts at Indy, Texas and Pocono last year.
“I have to give Gerald a ton of credit because I’d say from July 1 forward, we’ve made some incredible progress considering some of the [old] technology we’re working with. We’re also understaffed and shorthanded in the engineering department.
“Conor provided a little different feedback for us from Gabby but we’ve still shown progress. We had a good car right off the trailer at the last two rounds, Gateway and Portland, two very different types of track. So we’ve made strides in the right direction, although we’ve still got a long way to go.”
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