Red Bull GRC: Post-Dallas win, Sandell, Herta look for more in Daytona

Photo: Bryan Herta Rallysport
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Speed never eluded Patrik Sandell and the Kobalt Tools Bryan Herta Rallysport team in 2015, but luck often did.

But Sandell had both – plus a rocket start – to help launch him to his first win in 2016 in the third round of the Red Bull Global Rallycross season at Dallas a couple weeks ago.

The driver of the No. 18 Ford Fiesta ST launched strongly off the line and that was enough to break the early season run of success for the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team, which had dominated the first two races in Phoenix plus the various preliminaries in Dallas.

As Sandell explained, nailing the start was critical at Dallas given the lack of passing opportunities.

“The start is so critical and you have to make a good launch as part of the show,” Sandell told NBC Sports. “So we really tried to find the perfect launch. We failed in our semifinal, we went too far over edge. But in the final we made it perfect, and it was one of the best launches in the field.

“We tried to work with all the details all the time. These cars are so extreme; we tried to go down a road with a different diff setting to make the car go faster. But then in the past, we’d broke driveshafts after the jump. After that, we went with a better direction on the car.”

Sandell’s team only has the one car to work on now; the Herta rally effort has downsized from three cars down to one this year. Austin Dyne and Colette Davis, who ran out of the BHR stable last year, are under different teams this year in GRC Supercars and GRC Lites, respectively.

The single focus has helped Sandell early on in 2016, with final round finishes of second, fourth and first thus far in three races.

“It’s been good from the team standpoint. Last year, with it being the team’s first year in Rallycross, it was busy with three cars at same time. I think as a team, I think this is maybe what they should have done form the beginning. The feeling is we’ll do this thing, perfectly for one car now, to extend the program.”

Sandell also described the offseason tweaks he and the team have done to meld.

“We tried to go through everything to see where we could improve,” he said. “We have one year now together as a team. They know me better as a person and driver. They know what to ask for. We communicate much better.

“We tried to take some weight off the car, and try to find better balance. It’s just all small details. We were fast last year as well, but you have to find the small details.”

Sandell and Herta as a collective unit are on a bit of a hot streak at the moment, Herta’s driver Alexander Rossi having scored a famous victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500. Herta will be able to attend this weekend’s races in Daytona after IndyCar conflicts at both of the first two weekends.

Meanwhile Sandell was at his first Indianapolis 500 and related his experience.

“He’ll try to do most races doing forward,” Sandell said of Herta. “He had fantastic experience when it comes to asphalt and that part of the track. I know it on the dirt section! Bring more speed. He’s been proud so far. ‘Just keep winning,’ he said!

“I was there the whole race. It was the first Indy 500 race for me ever. To be there 100 years, and with Bryan and everyone winning, was incredible. It was fantastic first laps and last 50 laps… but the 100 laps in between was long! I’m used to such short spurts. The last 50 laps were just insane. But we saw Rossi back in eight or ninth. Then everyone had to refuel, and he came through; it was so cool to see him win.”

Sandell had a double DNF in Daytona last year so should undoubtedly fare better this go-around.

“It looks like all the asphalt sections more or less there in the same design,” he said. “The dirt section seems to be a bit faster. When you have the tight hairpins, it stacks up the whole field.

“The field then gets stretched out after the corner. This track should create tighter racing. Let’s see how we go, as it’s definitely a cool track to run on!”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”