Christian Lundgaard qualifies impressive fourth for his IndyCar debut at IMS Grand Prix

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INDIANAPOLIS — While testing at Barber Motorsports Park last month ahead of his IndyCar debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Christian Lundgaard experienced some Alabama culture shock.

Never mind the Southern accents and rabid Crimson Tide fandom, just everything about the American road course itself was fresh for the Danish prospect who has designs on racing in Formula One.

“It’s just exciting to see the different culture and feel it and be a part of it,” Lundgaard, 20, told reporters this week. “I’ve heard from some guys in Europe that came over for just one race that it’s so different, and that I’d enjoy it. So far, I have enjoyed it.

INDYCAR PRIMER: All the details for Saturday’s IMS Grand Prix

“Showing up at Barber, I had my brother with me, and we just looked at the track, and it’s, ‘How is this a pit lane?’ because it’s so different. Everything is so different for us. I’m just excited to get a feeling and see how everything will pan out and just enjoy myself. That’s the most important is to enjoy and have fun.”

The native of Hedensted, Denmark certainly had fun Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he qualified a stunning fourth for the first IndyCar race of his career.

Lundgaard’s lap of 1 minute, 10.7433 seconds (124.116 mph) in the No. 45 Dallara-Honda put him well ahead of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates Graham Rahal (16th) and Takuma Sato (17th).

“Let’s just say I didn’t expect to be here now when I left home,” Lundgaard said with a laugh. “I know my family is asleep right now. I guess they will have a heart attack when they wake up in the morning.

“I’m definitely happy with P4. I didn’t expect that so I’m happy. Yeah, I’m just super happy to be here. I’m enjoying every second of it.”

Christian Lundgaard qualified fourth in the No. 45 Dallara-Honda (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

Lundgaard was in awe wandering around a Brickyard crowd jammed with thousands.

“It’s so different to Europe; just seeing fans is amazing,” he said. ” We’ve had one or two races this year in Formula 2 where we’ve had fans. It’s only half capacity. So to come here and see so many people near us is just awesome.

“Honestly, when I’m down at the paddock, I’m just confused because it’s so different. Obviously F1 and F2, we’ve got garages and so on. But here the people just are walking around the cars. It’s amazing to see. I think every second I spend here I like it more and more.”

Lundgaard’s first start on American soil will happen amidst an influx of European racing drivers who have been drawn to the highly competitive but parity-driven environment in America. The NTT IndyCar Series seems to be re-emerging as the international destination that it once was in the 1990s (when big names from F1 such as Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya migrated to racing in the States).

Nashville winner Marcus Ericsson, F1 veteran and likely IndyCar rookie of the year Romain Grosjean and Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist are among those who have found happiness and a home in IndyCar the past few years after traversing a similar European career path to Lundgaard. IndyCar’s trio of first-time 20something winners this year — points leader Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay – also have reaffirmed IndyCar as a fresh hotbed for talented foreign-born rising stars.

With Lundgaard under contract to the Alpine F1 Team (which fields most recent Formula One first-time winner Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso in its top series), Saturday’s race at IMS very likely could be a one-off. Lundgaard is in his second full season of the FIA Formula 2 Championship (a leader series to F1) after two victories, seven podiums and a seventh-place points finish as a rookie.

Formula 2 Championship - Round 4:Silverstone - Sprint Race 1
Christian Lundgaard of Denmark celebrated after finishing third in the first sprint race of Round 4 at Silverstone in the Formula 2 Championship (Joe Portlock – Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images).

“If it goes well, yes, (IndyCar is) an opportunity, but the dream for myself has always been to race in F1, and I’m extremely excited to have this opportunity and show what I can do in America in a different car and just expand what I can do to different people,” he said. “The dream is the same, which it’s always been, but (IndyCar) is an option.”

Formula 2 Championship - Round 3:Baku - Practice & Qualifying
Christian Lundgaard before Formula 2 Championship practice at Baku (Joe Portlock – Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images).

In barely more than a week after the Silverstone round in mid-July, the test at Barber quickly was organized by the Alpine F1 Team (formerly branded as Renault), which added Lundgaard to its driver academy four years ago. He won two Formula 4 championships in 2017, finished runner-up in the 2018 Formula Renault Eurocup and sixth in the 2019 Formula 3 standings.

With Alpine brokering the deal, Lundgaard’s IndyCar debut is a tacit endorsement of the top U.S. single-seater series by the world’s largest racing circuit.

“IndyCar is a brilliant, competitive series with very strong contenders and we are excited to see how Christian converts this opportunity,” Alpine F1 Team racing director Davide Brivio said in a release. “Christian remains an important part of the Alpine Academy as he has shown huge promise throughout his junior career. Now, two seasons into FIA Formula 2, we are evaluating different options for the next stage, but for this particular moment we are just focusing on the present; enjoy a different type of car and environment, work hard and deliver on track.”

Though he hasn’t talked with any of the European drivers he will race Saturday about their American experiences, Lundgaard say he’s watched all of the IndyCar races this season and likes what he sees from a car that is similar to his F2 car but more physical with slightly less downforce.

With more tire durability in IndyCar, Lundgaard also will be able to drive at the limit in a race twice as long as his normal job (F2 typically races three times per weekend).

IndyCar Christian Lundgaard debut
Christian Lundgaard drives in the main event at Silverstone in Round 4 of the 2021 Formula 2 Championship (Bryn Lennon – Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images).

“I think what I like about IndyCar itself is that it’s fairly similar to F2 but a bit of mix of F2 and F1,” he said. “It’s the big league, but it’s the same cars. It’s a very competitive series. There’s no power steering. The cars are physical to drive. And it’s proper racing.

“Where F1, we’ve seen over the past many years that it’s been kind of the same. For me, I like the unpredictability in that you see the race in Nashville with Ericsson going airborne in the beginning of the race and ended up winning. Yes, you need some luck, but it’s possible. I’m not saying it’s not possible in F1, but I like the racing here. It’s different, and you really have to fight for it. You push every lap. Where in Europe, it potentially can be a lot of tire management and strategy that needs to work out.

“Here it’s more up to the driver to make a difference, and everyone race hard.”
Lundgaard will be in a car that has been driven in five races this season by Santino Ferrucci but could be full time next year if Rahal Letterman Lanigan decides to expand. In a release, team owner Bobby Rahal said the expectations are modest for Lundgaard (“do a steady job and go from there.”).

With only an hour of practice Friday before qualifying and then a 30-minute warmup Saturday before 85 laps on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile layout, Lundgaard literally will be learning IndyCar on the fly.

“You can never be 100 percent prepared before you’ve done it in terms of expectations,” he said. “I know what to do. I have a great team behind me. I have the experience of driving the car. I think it’ll be very cool to try something different because we know America is very different from Europe. I don’t know exactly what to expect in terms of that, but I’m super excited to try it out.”

If the race goes well enough to consider an IndyCar ride, Lundgaard will face the same circular questioning as all European drivers who cut their teeth racing exclusively on road and street courses but are required to make the transition to ovals in IndyCar. Grosjean will make his oval debut next week at World Wide Technology Raceway in preparation for an expected full-time move to IndyCar next season.

Lundgaard recently made a few laps for fun around the more famous 2.5-mile layout at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on his home simulator and is intrigued about trying oval racing in the future but isn’t sure it’ll be in 2022.

“I think all options are open,” he said. “It depends. There are options in Europe. There are options in America. With the right amount of budget, you can do whatever you want. It’s also up to us to decide what’s best. Bit too early to say. I’d be happy to race whatever car is competitive. I feel Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has a competitive car.

“I don’t need to think about anything but just drive and do my best. And then opportunities will come. For me on the future, it’s way too early to say the direction we go (until) after this race and later in the F2 season.”

IndyCar Christian Lundgaard debut
Christian Lundgaard waits in the cockpit of his ART Grand Prix entry at the Circuit de Monaco during Round 2 of the Formula 2 Championship (Joe Portlock – Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images).