The Mexican youngster earned huge praise from rivals, fans and team owners for his first full season in the NTT IndyCar Series, having joined Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet with only eight IndyCar races to his name. The 2018 Indy Lights champion took a pole position, four podium finishes and clinched fourth in the championship, showing great pace while avoiding rookie-style errors.
However, O’Ward has already cited areas of potential improvement and areas that he and the team should prioritize – and admitted he has much to learn on the oval tracks.
“I think I’ve still a long ways to learn in superspeedways because they’re new to me,” he said. “You just don’t learn it from one night to another or from one race to the other. So I think that’s where I can see myself improving… I want to be better in just knowing what to expect a little bit more.
“Heading into one of those races, for example the Indy 500 [where he finished fifth] or Iowa [where he was robbed of a podium by a slow pitstop], it was like driving into a black hole! It was just like, ‘Let’s see what this has for us. I think that is somewhere where I think I can improve, and I will be working hard to try and learn as much as I can.
“I think it’s just a learning process. You don’t learn it all in one year or two years. It can take 10 years. But I just think the more you can learn, the faster, the better you’re going to be in your career.”
Improved qualifying pace, too, O’Ward has set as a priority.
“Man, I rewatched every race where we were in contention, both Iowa races, both Gateway races, Road America… Just from things that I learned last year, you qualify up front, you make your life so much easier.”
He later added: “If you’re starting within the first two or three rows compared to if you’re starting like 12th, 14th – man, the difference that it makes for how the car feels, strategy, fuel saving – your windows just open up so much more when you’re up front.
“It’s crucial, crucial. Qualifying is really important to have a good race day.”
For the race team, he said the focus needs to be on pitstops.
“Where we need to push this year, and we need to make sure if we have a mistake it has to be minimized, is in the pits, and me as a driver just do my job. I know that if we can accomplish that, we will get race wins because if the pace is there, just like last year but maybe even a little bit better, qualifying further up front should make it easier on us, every single pit stop, execute, execute, execute. I think that’s what’s going to make us be in contention by the end of the year.”
In other areas, O’Ward sounded comfortable that both he and the team have put in the work to maintain or better their 2020 level.
“I feel like last year we left a lot of unfinished business,” he said. “We were close to winning four races, and we didn’t get it done. There were tough pills to swallow, and I felt like that left everyone in the team so hungry.
“I can see it from the off-season, just how much work has been put into the development of trying to make the cars go faster at the speedway and road courses.
“Me as a driver, I truly don’t think I’ve ever been fitter, more ready to try and win the thing. I have lots of faith in the team. I have lots of faith in what we can accomplish as a group. It’s going to be ridiculously hard, but it is possible.
“I have lots of faith that we can make some great stuff happen this year.”