IndyCar emerges as an attractive midcareer destination for Formula One drivers


INDIANAPOLIS — Marcus Ericsson considered racing the NTT IndyCar Series in America even before his Formula One contract expired.

The 2017 Indianapolis 500 debut of Fernando Alonso intrigued the young Swedish driver, and when he started watching, he saw a tight, entertaining open-wheel series where anyone could win.

So when Ericsson, 30, became a free agent, he moved from F1 to IndyCar for the 2019 season with Sam Schmidt’s team. He wasn’t retained after McLaren became a partner but landed at powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing.

Today, Ericsson couldn’t be happier, and he sees growing interest from other Europeans. Romain Grosjean moved to IndyCar this year. In his third start, he won the pole and finished second.

“I think Europe is more interested in this series with me, Alonso and Grosjean coming here,” Ericsson said. “More people are talking about it, watching it. There are still some questions in the paddock about the ovals, but the interest is definitely growing over there.”

It’s showing up at the races, too.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marcus Ericsson answers questions from a young fan during the Indy 500 qualifying (Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports).

Eight of the 33 starters in last weekend’s Indianapolis 500 had F1 experience, including Ericsson (who logged 97 starts overseas) and Simona de Silvestro, a former test driver. The list also includes two-time Indy 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Takuma Sato, 2016 race champ Alexander Rossi and Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time Indy 500 winner and two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

The younger Fittipaldi first raced in IndyCar in 2018 when he started six times for Dale Coyne’s team. Fittipaldi spent the next two seasons working for Haas F1 alongside Grosjean and eventually replaced his injured teammate for the final two races last season. So when Coyne offered Fittipaldi a chance to reunite with Grojsean and drive IndyCar’s oval races this season in the No. 51 car, Fittipaldi quickly signed up.

“It’s a very pure form of racing, very raw racing,” he said. “In testing Indy cars during the preseason, you have to find things in the suspension to make better, and there are so many different strategies, you just race.”

Grosjean seems right at home in the U.S., too.

After claiming the Indy Grand Prix pole in early May, his first on a major circuit in 10 years, the French driver told reporters he was thinking about moving his family to the U.S. The next day, Grosjean made his first major podium appearance since 2015.

Interest in American open-wheel racing waned after the 1995 split between CART and the IRL, with many thinking the two competing series had become watered-down versions of an already inferior racing product, despite the attractiveness of winning Indy.

For most of the next quarter-century, F1 drivers came to America because they were out of options.

Not anymore.

“In my opinion, and you’re never going to get a clear or satisfactory answer, but I think everybody – whether it’s F1, IndyCar or NASCAR – the top talent is the same,” two-time IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden said. “Yes, we do different disciplines, but I think the talent level is the same.”

Alonso’s results helped change the image, too.

International race fans weren’t surprised when the two-time world champ from Spain qualified fifth in 2017 and contended for the race win until an engine failure knocked him out with 21 laps to go. Alonso then failed to qualify for the 2019 race and he finished 21st in last year’s race.

“I am a racer, and the Indy 500 is the greatest race in the world,” he said afterward.

Still, his participation was a reminder of the long, rich tradition of drivers shuttling between the two series.

From 1950 to 1960, the international governing body awarded points toward the world championship based on their Indy performances. Though many declined, Alberto Ascari and his Ferrari-powered entry in 1952 and five-time world champ Juan Manuel Fangio at Indy in 1958 emerged at the forefront of a new trend to race at Indy.

Over the next decade, F1 stars became a prominent feature each May.

Two-time F1 champ Sir Jack Brabham finished ninth in 1961. The march included Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Sir Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt – all world champions. Clark drove to victory in 1965, and Hill followed suit in 1966. Hill remains the only driver to win auto racing’s triple crown – the 500, Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix.

A new generation of attempts began in earnest after the elder Fittipaldi won at Indy in 1989. Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell each made two starts between 1992 and 1994, and when Fittipaldi picked up his second Indy win in 1993, Mansell, the 1992 F1 champ, finished third and was named the Indy 500 rookie of the year.

Occasionally, the migration has gone the other way.

Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy winner, made 131 F1 starts and won the 1978 world title. His son, Michael, made 13 starts with McLaren’s F1 team in 1993 before returning full time to Indy cars the next season.

Other Americans who competed in F1 include Dan Gurney, who is credited with starting the champagne celebration after spraying A.J. Foyt following their win at Le Mans in 1967; two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward and 1972 Indy winner Mark Donohue, Roger Penske’s first Indy winner; and 1985 Indy champ Danny Sullivan.

AUTO: MAY 22 INDYCAR - The 105th Indianapolis 500 Qualifying
Marcus Ericsson poses for a photo after qualifying ninth for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Alonso’s attempt to match Hill’s triple-crown feat helped make IndyCar seem cool in Europe again.

“I think when Fernando came over was when they started watching,” IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti said. “I think they enjoy what they’re seeing because when you’re a racer, you know what good racing is. In F1, it’s mostly about the car and if you’re behind, it’s hard to catch up. But here you can be 25th one week and still win the next. They see that.”

Grosjean and Fittipaldi acknowledged they know of other F1 drivers who might make the jump.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see more F1 drivers looking to come here,” Ericsson said. “I prefer racing an Indy car. But if I had an empty track on a test day, I prefer an F1 car because the speeds in the corners are just crazy.”

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500