After four races of the IndyCar season, all five of the returning 2019 rookie class are in the top 10 in the points standings.
The season may only be a few races in, but every single one is vital this year in the context of surging coronavirus numbers in America, which appear to show no signs of slowing down and could threaten future races.
In the second race of the last weekend’s Road America double-header, second-year drivers Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta led the field away from the front row, while another of the class of 2019 – Felix Rosenqvist – won the race.
The result meant Ganassi man Rosenqvist was the first of the 2019 rookies to win this year, and he was rightfully praised for his arduous journey through the all-too-familiar fight with budget struggles to finally get a break in a top team, in a top series.
But while Rosenqvist stole the headlines, he hasn’t made the best start to the season and others in that 2019 class have performed better overall during the first four races.
Such a strong performance from second year drivers last weekend demanded further analysis. The Race breaks down the group and their performances so far to reveal some trends and things you may not have noticed so far.
Team: Andretti Steinbrenner Racing
Herta’s rookie campaign was explosive in 2019, yielding a win in the second event of the season to make the second-generation driver the series’ youngest-ever winner at 19. Further standout performances followed with pole at Road America and another win at Laguna Seca, but ultimately the campaign just lacked consistency. It was either hero, or zero.
The upside was clear in 2019 though, and that made Herta an attractive proposition on the free agent market. Andretti Autosport ultimately decided to bring the Harding Steinbrenner outfit fully in-house, having backed the team with a technical alliance last year, to make sure it maintained Herta’s services.
With that move, Herta appears to have answered The Race’s ultimate question posed of him in 2020: could he pair the flashes of undoubted pace with consistent performance?
He missed out on the rookie of the year title to Rosenqvist last year because of that lack of consistency, but he’s opened 2020 with a seventh, fourth, and a pair of fifths.
Ultimately, yes, it was disappointing to not convert the front row start in race two at Road America into a podium. But the Andretti regulars have struggled massively so far this year – just take Alexander Rossi, down in 18th in the points. Herta lies second in the championship behind three-time race winner Scott Dixon heading into this weekend’s Iowa double-header where Herta was a top 10 car all day before a broken shaft meant 18th.
Herta has turned a rocky period for Andretti and its other drivers into four top 10s to start the season, the only driver to do so in the whole series, extending his run to seven straight top 10s including last season. When Andretti ultimately starts firing on all cylinders, Herta will be in prime position to benefit over his team-mates. That’s exactly what Herta needed to start his year and it marks him out as the most impressive sophomore.
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Finally, the long-awaited win! Extremely popular, being such a nice guy, Rosenqvist has consistently delivered throughout his career despite fighting funding and, at times, sub-par equipment. He’s impressed in Formula 3, Formula E, Super GT and endurance racing, and while that IndyCar win eluded him in his rookie year, he pipped Herta to the rookie of the year honours based on his consistency.
Ultimately, Rosenqvist deserves plenty of credit for that Road America win, which coupled with Dixon’s preceding three, means Ganassi is unbeaten this year. But Rosenqvist is eighth in the points, behind his two team-mates.
Let's look at @FRosenqvist's pass for his first @IndyCar Series win again.
What'd you think of the race? pic.twitter.com/KtM2IkihTx
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) July 13, 2020
A stall in the pits and a genuine lack of pace made Indianapolis a weekend to forget for Rosenqvist, while in the Texas opener he had more pace than Dixon in the closing stages as he hunted down his team-mate but crashed in traffic.
That win will provide momentum for Rosenqvist, who has always believed that first win was on the way and that he would become a title contender. But now he must not slip into a win-or-bust mentality. His consistency earned him plaudits last year, when the eventual champion Josef Newgarden finished outside of the top 10 three times in 17 races. Rosenqvist had already achieved that in the first three races this year!
All credit for the victory, but I rate Rosenqvist so highly that I’m holding him to higher standards, and the start of the year’s results haven’t been good enough. The ingredients are all there. He just needs to put them all together consistently to become a proper leading light in this series.
.@FRosenqvist never lost faith.
Finally, the @CGRTeams driver wins as Chip Ganassi Racing has won the first four @IndyCar races of the season. pic.twitter.com/CJL1XAPUdx
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) July 12, 2020
Team: Arrow McLaren SP
One year ago I was sat in the MP Motorsport truck sussing out Pato O’Ward for the first time. He’d been sold a dream by Red Bull, that Formula 1 was a possibility, and he’d believed that enough to call time on his maiden IndyCar season for the opportunity to race in Formula 2 while finalising the finer details of what would happen next.
Ultimately that weekend was never going to go to plan in a sub-par F2 team and with the series’ tricky to learn tyres. Replacing Dan Ticktum in a team struggling to get the most out of a new Super Formula car was the next nigh-on impossible task, in what must have been one of O’Ward’s most tricky seasons of his career. That would be enough to destroy some drivers mentally, especially at such a young age.
Luckily, Arrow McLaren SP handed O’Ward an IndyCar lifeline for 2020 and despite being the second-youngest driver on this list – and missing over half of last season in IndyCar – he’s returned buoyant and hungry. With a supportive team behind him, the likeable Mexican driver has proven he was worth his chance with a strong start to the year.
OK, Texas yielded only 12th, behind his rookie team-mate Oliver Askew, but strategy played its part and it’s easy to forget it was O’Ward’s first oval IndyCar race too.
Since then, he’s quietly gone about his business. While Askew stole the headlines in Indianapolis qualifying, O’Ward didn’t crash in the race like his team-mate did and took eighth. He added another eighth in the first Road America race after being involved in a few wheel-banging incidents on track that perhaps were hyper-risky, but sometimes those kinds of things are necessary – as much psychologically as for the result on a sheet of paper.
The second race, however, proved Arrow McLaren SP and O’Ward are a threatening combination as they dominated from the front until the closing moments.
Only slightly higher tyre wear cost them the win against the bulletproof long-run pace of the Ganassi outfit and Rosenqvist, but O’Ward can be happy with his performance. Clearly when he and AMSP put the package together, the result is a frontrunning car capable of winning, and that’s just a few races into the new partnership with McLaren.
You have to rate O’Ward right up there with the man he beat to the 2018 Indy Lights title, Herta, in terms of how impressive he’s been in 2020, with less experience and in a much smaller team. That first win doesn’t feel a million miles away and he’s already stuck his career back together, which hasn’t always been an easy for other Red Bull exiles.
Team: Dale Coyne with Vasser Sullivan
Whatever your opinion of Ferrucci off the track, he’s proven much more successful on it in IndyCar than he did in Europe. And things are looking up in 2020, as he’s scored three top 10s in a row already, something he didn’t manage in his rookie year in 2019.
A pitstop issue at Texas meant a 21st-place finish, while he was sent to the back of the grid in the second Road America race last weekend for clipping Jack Harvey, but recovered really well to complete a pair of sixths for the weekend. He’d bagged his first top 10 of the season at Indianapolis the week before.
Ferrucci is now tasked with leading the team once headed by the brilliant combination of Champ Car dominator Sebastien Bourdais (now doing a part-time schedule with AJ Foyt Enterprises) and Bourdais’ ace engineer Craig Hampson (now at Arrow McLaren SP), plus Ferrucci’s own engineer Michael Cannon has left and played a major role in Dixon’s winning streak after he switched to Ganassi.
So, with all that, added to the prospect of being partnered with a rookie team-mate in Alex Palou, Ferrucci is suddenly tasked with leading his team unlike anyone else on this list. With his limited experience, he’s doing the best he can and has performed well considering. For example, Road America was a struggle with 19th last year – admittedly in part to an unusual strategy of pitting on lap five – so a pair of sixths at the venue this season has to be looked on kindly.
While most on this list are being evaluated as regular race winners and title contenders, you have to lower the bar for Ferrucci based on his surroundings, despite his pre-season comments of thinking that he was a title contender. Taking the lowered bar into account, it’s been a strong start to the year.
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
The kids might call this guy ‘low-key fire’ this year. Completely under the radar, but sixth in the points and it could have been much better for ex-Sauber Formula 1 driver Ericsson.
The season opener at Texas was derailed by having to qualify first of the whole field on a green track owing to the car being a new entry for Ganassi, which signed Ericsson from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. However, a top-10 looked likely before a fuel hose failed to provide any juice and he ultimately ran dry in the closing laps.
In a weekend where Rosenqvist struggled, Ericsson turned his car around to take seventh at Indianapolis, and then admittedly threw away seventh in the first race at Road America with an amateurish spin on the last lap to finish 10th. He made up for it with a strong drive to fourth in race two.
It was not an easy 2019 for Ericsson – coming from five seasons of less than ideal machinery in F1 – as SPM was only a small outfit and lacked the pace of the frontrunners. This meant another year winless for the Swede, who was tagged with the expectations attached to an F1 driver, but not given the machinery to match for his first year in the States.
However, with a move to Chip Ganassi, Ericsson has the chance to prove he can repeat something he did last on July 6 2013: win a motor race!
Ericsson was epic for a rookie on ovals last year – better than his new team-mate Rosenqvist, for example – and we’ve only had one of those so far, so there’s chance for things to improve. He’s by far the oldest and most experienced driver on the list, so he’s another I’m holding to high standards. But he’s barely been talked about this year and is only 26 points off Herta in second as he settles into a new team.
Not a perfect start, but as he beds in to a proper frontrunning outfit in IndyCar, it’s easy to see his stock rising and more good performances on the horizon.