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.

Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”