by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series featured one of the more stellar rookie classes in quite some time, and the crop of rookies coming up this season also promises to impress. While the new kids get their feet wet, the group of second-year drivers will be looking to capitalize on what they learned while trying to avoid the Sophomore Jinx.
Felix Rosenqvist was one of the most highly-anticipated signings in recent memory. Chip Ganassi had been feverishly working to get the Swedish driver into his one of his IndyCars since 2016, when he was given a test in Scott Dixon’s car and impressed. His road to the IndyCar series featured racing, and winning, in a variety of disciplines including Formula Renault, Formula 3, Indy Lights, DTM, Sports Cars and Formula E.
Easily the most consistent of the 2019 rookies, Rosenqvist took home Rookie of the Year honors in a season that saw him take one pole, two podiums and sixth place in the final standings. He was responsible for one of the most exciting moments on the season, battling tooth and nail with his own teammate, five-time champion Scott Dixon for the lead at Mid-Ohio.
For 2020, Rosenqvist returns to the Chip Ganassi Team, driving the No. 10 car with NTT Data Sponsorship. He will be paired alongside Dixon once again, and the team will also add a third car for fellow Swede, Marcus Ericsson. While Rosenqvist is a natural on the road and street courses, his oval game was, understandably, a bit tentative. With a full season now under his belt, he looks primed to become the next first-time IndyCar winner.
Although he finished behind Rosenqvist in the standings, the rookie making the biggest 2019 headlines was undoubtedly Colton Herta. He found victory lane in round two of the season, at COTA, becoming the youngest IndyCar winner in history. While he followed this up with a string of poor finishes, he returned to form in the later part of the season. Proving that COTA was no fluke, he put an exclamation point on 2019 by adding another win at the season finale at Laguna Seca.
Herta is a second-generation IndyCar driver, the son of Bryan Herta. The Valencia, CA born driver began his career in single-seaters, and honed his skills in Europe becoming a consistent winner in both F4 and F3 before returning to the States to run two seasons of Indy Lights.
He graduated to the IndyCar Series, along with team owner George Steinbrenner IV, partnered with Harding Racing and a technical alliance with Andretti Autosport. While most folks conceded that this was essentially an Andretti Team, it will be official in 2020 as Harding-Steinbrenner is now fully under the Andretti umbrella.
With the first-win monkey off of his back, four full-time teammates to lean on, his father in the fold, and considerable talent in the engineering department, Herta is a serious dark-horse candidate for a run at the title.
For Santino Ferrucci, a native of Connecticut USA, the 2019 IndyCar season was one of redemption. He began karting at a very early age and had his sights set on one day competing in Formula One. After competing in Europe for five seasons, climbing the ladder to F2, and obtaining a development contract with Haas F1, his dreams came to a screeching halt.
A hard-fought battle with his F2 teammate, Arjun Maini, at Silverstone in 2018 culminated with Ferrucci making contact with Maini on the cool-down lap. The fallout from the incident ultimately resulted in a four-race ban that saw him unceremoniously dropped from the team. Things only got worse as a number of other unsubstantiated accusations circulated.
Humbled, Ferrucci returned to the States where he brought his talents to Dale Coyne Racing. Teamed alongside four-time ChampCar champion, Sebastien Bourdais, he set about the business of driving a race car in an environment with considerably less distractions.
He was particularly quick on the ovals and showed that he had the cojones to mix it up at high speed. He took home the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, finishing 7th from the 23rd starting position. He also finished in the top five on the ovals at Texas, Pocono and Gateway.
2020 may be more of an uphill battle for Ferrucci as he will assume the position of team leader with Bourdais having been released during the off-season. Key losses in the engineering department in the form of Mike Cannon, Craig Hampson and Trevor Green-Smith all departing for other opportunities leaves a lot of question marks at Dale Coyne Racing.
Either way, team principle Dale Coyne and his partners, Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, have the utmost confidence in their young driver.
One of the 2019 rookies on the move this season is Marcus Ericsson. With McLaren buying into the Arrow Schmidt-Peterson Team, he saw the writing on the wall early on that his seat was in jeopardy.
A former Formula One driver that has always been fairly astute at securing finances, he was able to shop his talents to the Chip Ganassi Racing Team bringing along enough funding to get them to add a car to their stable. In addition to the funding from his personal consortium, he is also bringing along Sweden-based company, Huski Chocolate, as a new sponsor in the series. The company, that sells a hot chocolate product popular in hotel lobbies and ski lodges, has a US based arm that is run by Stanton Barrett, a former stuntman / race car driver that has driven in both NASCAR and IndyCar.
Ericsson’s 2019 season mirrored the 2019 season of the entire Schmidt-Peterson team. A few flashes of brilliance, but overall, nothing to write home about. He finished on the podium once, in Detroit, and cracked the top-ten at Barber and Texas. The rest of his season saw him mired in the bottom half of the running order.
The move to Ganassi should be an upgrade, although it is important to note the following. While Scott Dixon has racked up an impressive amount of wins for the team, the occurrence of other Ganassi drivers winning races has been fairly scarce since Dario Franchitti retired from driving. Add into the mix the fact that Ericsson is in a third car, and the odds get even worse. In fact, a driver has not won a race in a third Ganassi car since Charlie Kimball won Mid-Ohio back in 2013.
Pato O’ Ward
2020 will actually be the first full season of IndyCar competition for Mexican-born driver Patricio O’Ward. However, eight previous series starts between 2018 and 2019 means that he is no longer considered a rookie. Of all the drivers mentioned above, O’Ward is likely most in need of better fortunes, as his 2019 season was one of broken promises and dashed hopes.
After winning the 2018 Indy Lights Championship, he took his scholarship prize money to Harding-Steinbrenner Racing where he was announced as being signed to a full season alongside Colton Herta. This began to unravel nearly as quickly as it came about when the team back-pedaled and only promised him four starts.
After splitting amicably, O’Ward was able to sign a part-time deal with Carlin, sharing a seat with Charlie Kimball. He had a nice run to eighth place at COTA, although it must have been difficult to see Herta take the Harding-Steinbrenner car to victory. The rest of his season was downhill from there with the lowest point coming at the Indianapolis 500, where he failed to qualify. He then had a brief stint as a member of the Red Bull Junior Team and was able to run a few F2 and Super Formula races.
The disappointments of 2019 have led him to a fantastic opportunity as the lead driver at Arrow McLaren Racing with Schmidt-Peterson in 2020. He will be teamed with Oliver Askew, the 2019 Indy Lights Champion and the team will benefit greatly from the addition of Craig Hampson as head engineer.
Opinions are split as to just how well AMSP will perform, although everything looks great on paper. The real story will unfold the weekend of March 15 when the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season gets underway on the streets of St. Petersburg.