The Arrow McLaren SP driver held a 10-point advantage into last week’s Portland race, but Palou’s victory on a day when O’Ward could only muster a 14th place finish has transformed the landscape of the title battle with two rounds to go.
O’Ward is one of three drivers seeking to dethrone Palou, with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden 34 points behind the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, while six-time champion Scott Dixon also has an outside chance – but is 49 points behind his CGR team-mate.
Dixon confirmed on Friday that he would be happy to support Palou at next weekend’s Long Beach finale if he is counted out of title contention in this weekend’s Laguna Seca race.
Speaking to Autosport, O’Ward said that as the series reaches its business end, he was even more determined to return to victory lane for the first time since Detroit in June.
“I think we’re in a position where we’ve just gotta send it!” the 22-year-old said.
“For me, it’s no different if we’re second or third in the championship, I want to win.
“We’re up against some of the best teams and some of the best drivers in IndyCar history and it ain’t gonna be easy. I know we can do it – but I also know we need to execute in every session.
“It’s going to be tough. Every little extra point that you’ve gotten this year is going to make a difference.
“I need to outscore [Palou], that’s what I have to do. If he outscores us this week, he’s pretty much going to lock it for Long Beach. He’ll just need to finish, right?”
Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
This year, O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP team has favoured a set-up philosophy that trades tyre longevity for ‘instant’ grip, quickly switching on the tyres for qualifying and on restarts, but using the Firestone rubber harder than most of the rival teams.
With Laguna Seca being notoriously hard on tyres, O’Ward is wary of the challenge he’ll face in Sunday’s 95-lap race.
Asked if he and the team had found a set-up compromise that is a little easier on rubber, O’Ward replied: “No – I wish we had! I think that’s going to be one of the biggest battles in the race for us – having a car to help me take care of the tyres.
“I can’t do everything. We’re just gonna have to try and find the best balance we can.
“We’re going to have a good qualifying car. We had a good test here a few months ago and I was very happy with it.
“So I hope the balance hasn’t shifted too much and then we’ll have a shot at pole. And then we just have to look after the tyres in the race. It’s going to be a tyre-destroyer for sure!”