MONTEREY, California – Though he is mathematically eligible in the battle for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship, Marcus Ericsson of Sweden realizes he is a long shot to win the title.
He is fourth in points, 39 points behind the leader, Will Power, in a title battle with a maximum of 54 points per race.
“We go into this weekend with the aim to win the race, maximize the points, and if we do that, that’s all we can do to try and win it,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “We can’t do more than that. That’s our mindset to go in here and win and see how things shake out.”
Facing long odds, the driver of the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Dallara-Honda is still in the fight in the last race of the season, Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.
“We’re still in it,” Ericsson said. “It’s a bit of a long shot. Things happen. We’re still in the mix. In IndyCar, anything happens and so much happens all the time. We go into the weekend, want to win the race, and see what happens. If anything happens to the other guys, we can still win this thing.
“I’m positive, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Even if the likable driver from Kumla, Sweden, does not deliver the 2022 IndyCar championship to Chip Ganassi Racing, he already has won the biggest prize of the season.
Ericsson won the 106th Indianapolis 500 on May 29, holding off a charging Pato O’Ward in the closing laps of the race to give team owner Chip Ganassi his first Indy 500 win since Dario Franchitti in 2012.
“The 500 is the biggest race obviously and to win that is bigger than anything,” Ericsson said. “It’s been a tremendous year since then. To be in the fight going into the final race is great. I have a bit of a feeling that I have nothing to lose now and I’m already a winner this year.
“It’s a good way to go into the final race of the year.”
Ericsson came to the IndyCar Series in 2019 after a five-year career in Formula One. He had 97 F1 starts but never finished on the podium.
The term “team orders” has been widely used this week because of the five drivers left in the fight for the championship, three are from Team Penske and two from Chip Ganassi Racing.
Ericsson’s teammate, Scott Dixon, is 20 points out of the lead and Ericsson may have to serve as Dixon’s wingman in the race.
But Ericsson is comfortable with the concept from his experience in F1, where team orders more widely are used.
“In a way, F1 is even more in the hands of the team,” he said. “Quite a few races they would swap positions and let your teammate go. That was a common thing even in Race 1 of the season. Let him by or whatever.
“Here in IndyCar, it’s a lot more everyone for themselves. Every team within teams, they have their own sponsors, their own groups. It’s a lot more for yourself. F1 is a lot more about team performance. In a way, that’s why I’m probably more used to that anything.”
In the 2017 race at Baku, Ericsson was ordered to give up a spot to Sauber teammate Pascal Wehrlein — sacrificing the only point he would have scored during that season.
“I’m not very happy about it still,” Ericsson said. “I was in P10 and gave it up to my teammate because the team said it and said they’d swap it back, and they didn’t swap back, and he finished 10th, I finished 11th.”
Tired of the F1 politics and enticed by the tremendous competition of IndyCar, Ericsson joined what was then Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019. In just his eighth race of his rookie season, Ericsson finished second to race winner Scott Dixon in the 2019 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 2.
Beginning in 2020, Ericsson and Dixon were teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing. He scored his first career win in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and claimed Indy win No. 2 in wild fashion in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville on August 8, 2021.
This year, he became just the second driver from Sweden to win the Indy 500, joining Kenny Brack, who won the 1999 Indianapolis 500.
“Coming in here, after five years I wasn’t super successful in Formula One,” Ericsson said. “It took a while for me to establish myself in IndyCar. But I think my progression throughout the year has been very good. I’ve taken steps every year. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come here, to show what I could do. I developed a lot in Formula One.
“The problem in Formula One, if you’re not on a team to show that. If you show the same results your first year as your last year, that’s all people look at. I believe I developed and was a better driver.
“That’s the biggest reason I wanted to come to IndyCar to show that I can compete at this level, and I can be fighting for wins and championships. It’s been good to do that the last few years.
“We’ve been in the mix. Especially this year, it’s been an incredible year.”
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?