IndyCar’s rookie class should shine bright in 2019

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AUSTIN, Texas – When Robert Wickens arrived in the NTT IndyCar Series as a 28-year-old rookie in 2018, the term “rookie” was hardly reflective of his skills. He was already an accomplished driver for Mercedes in the German DTM Series. When Mercedes ended its DTM program, Wickens returned to his racing roots by rejoining his boyhood pal from Canada, James Hinchcliffe, at ARROW Schmidt Peterson Racing in IndyCar.

Wickens proceeded to set the bar rather high for all rookies to follow. He was fast from the start, won the pole for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, nearly won the race before he was spun out as the leader by Alexander Rossi during a restart with two laps to go, and was fast for the rest of the season before his horrendous crash at Pocono Raceway on August 19.

Wickens, continues to make remarkable progress from his spinal cord injury, but the standard he set for first-year drivers is being felt by this year’s rookie class in IndyCar.

Ask the rookies if they can be, this year’s Robert Wickens in terms of speed and performance, and they believe they can.

But three of the six drivers considered rookies this season stand out.

The first is Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, who will drive the No. 10 NTT Data Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing. Rosenqvist is a 27-year-old driver who most recently competed in Formula E for Mahindra Racing and Super GT for Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s. He is the only driver ever to win the Macau Grand Prix (twice), the Masters of Formula 3 (twice), the Grand Prix de Pau and the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.

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He won three races and six poles in Formula E and is equally adept racing internal combustion engines as he was in the electric engine series.

Rosenqvist was among the front runners in IndyCar’s “Spring Training” at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and finished Tuesday’s session fourth on the timing sheet, with a fast time of 1:48.0451 around the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course. That was faster than his five-time IndyCar Series champion teammate Scott Dixon, who finished fifth at 1:48.0474 (113.674 mph).

“I’m here to win, I’m not here to play around,” Rosenqvist said. “I’m here and I’m here to stay.”

Rosenqvist is familiar with Chip Ganassi Racing because he tested for the team at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2016 and 2017.

“It’s getting more real every day and after these two days, we’ll know a lot more than we do now,” Rosenqvist said. “I always aim to win races, wherever I go. I’m not here to play around. I have high expectations of myself. I know I’m with probably the best team with Chip Ganassi.

“I have all the right preparations going for me and that is probably more important than anything. I’m here to win. It’s not a question of if I win, but when I win.”

Dixon believes his rookie teammate can be this year’s Robert Wickens and has confidence Rosenqvist will be fast from the start.

“Absolutely,” Dixon said. “He can do the same thing this year that Robert did last year.

“Felix is doing a great job. We have fairly similar feedback already. It’s been going really well and he’s a fantastic guy.”

After Tuesday’s full day of testing at COTA, Rosenqvist was pleased with his performance, but believes there is more speed left in his Honda.

“I love the way it’s been going with the team and with me and Scott,” Rosenqvist said. “This track is more what I’m used to racing than anything else.”

Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull has confidence in Rosenqvist’s ability but wants to temper any lofty expectations until the season starts.

“We just have to be careful going forward as we race together with somebody who hasn’t raced in IndyCar,” Hull said.

Next on the rookie list is a driver with 97 Formula One starts, Marcus Ericsson. The 28-year-old from Kumla, Sweden was with Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 and had a trio of ninth-place finishes as his best finish for 2018.

Ericsson joins Hinchcliffe and the recovering Wickens at ARROW SPM. The team has Wickens No. 6 reserved for the injured driver if he is able to continue his racing career. Ericsson will drive the No. 7 ARROW Honda.

Despite his lack of statistics from Formula One, Ericsson earned the respect of the Formula One paddock and has experience on street and road courses that can benefit him in IndyCar.

Is he this year’s Wickens?

“I believe so,” Ericsson said. “I’m not coming here to be P20; I’m coming here to fight at the top. That’s my goal.”

Ironically, Ericsson has the most experience of any driver at COTA, having competed in every United States Grand Prix at this facility since 2015.

“All the tracks we go to this year will be brand new to me, but this one is my track,” Ericsson quipped. “It’s one of my favorite tracks on the F1 calendar and I think it’s great that IndyCar races here.

“I can’t wait. This is a fresh start for me and after five years in Formula One, this is something completely new. I’m going in with an open-mind and humbled with the challenge ahead.”

Ericsson believes the Indy car is completely different than Formula One, but it is more fun because the car slides in the corners. In F1, the high-downforce keeps the cars stuck to the racing surface.

“I want to stay in the highest category of racing and outside of Formula One, it’s IndyCar,” Ericsson said. “I think the cars are impressive and also the series as a whole. There are a lot of talented drivers with different types of tracks. It’s a one-spec series and as a driver you can either win or be P20. In Formula One, only a few cars can win every weekend.

“In Formula One, you are only as good as the car you are in. In IndyCar, it’s more of a driver’s championship. A driver can make the difference and I’m excited about that.”

And finally, there is 18-year-old Colton Herta of Valencia, California, who was the fastest driver in both sessions on Tuesday and in the first session Wednesday. Herta’s fast time in Tuesday’s combined session was 1:46.6258 (115.132 mph) in the No. 88 Honda. He was the fastest in the first of two sessions on Wednesday at 1:46.6401.

Herta was supposed to be part of an all-rookie driver effort at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, but before the test ever began, 2018 Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward announced he was leaving the team.

Despite the confusion that ensued, Herta has kept his focus throughout this week’s testing and it has paid off with more speed than any of the 25 drivers on the track.

“I’m super happy with how the day went,” Herta said Tuesday. “We did some great things to the car and I’m very happy with how the boys got everything together in time for this test. Everyone did a fantastic job and there were no issues with the car, it was perfect. We kept chipping away and kept finding time, by the end of the day we were quickest by quite a margin.

“We still went quickest. I’m super proud about it. Not really surprised, I guess, because I knew if I could put the lap together, it would be quick. To be quickest is pretty cool.”

The son of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta has been trained well in the early days of his career. Although this week is just a test session, Herta is living up to his promise as one of the top rookies in the series, hoping to start the season fast, just as Wickens did in 2018.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).