By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
What’s already been a dynamic off-season in the NTT IndyCar Series, one storyline that’s going to be quite the tale is the Rookie of the Year battle, consisting of five full-time drivers, two more from last season, all with something to prove.
Each have their own tales, with some coming out of the world of Formula One, a re-branded squad featuring Indy Lights alumnus and another that’s given the biggest opportunity of his racing career.
This crop of rookies have the potential of providing an intense battle that could come down to the finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 22.
Santino Ferrucci – No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing
Fans across the pond that follow open wheel racing knows the story of Santino Ferrucci of Woodbury, Connecticut, and have already made up their mind about the ex-Rich Energy Haas F1 Team testing driver, and it’s not all positive.
Now replacing Pietro Fittipaldi, who’s now that very F1 team’s testing driver, Ferrucci is eyeing on fixing his image and prove why he was considered to make motorsport’s elite sanctioning body. Compared to the other rookie drivers, his quest to be the sport’s top young gun will be difficult because history has been against the second Dale Coyne Racing entry.
Since the late Justin Wilson was let go by DCR after the 2014 season, the No. 19 Honda has had 10 different drivers with only one driving the entire season (Ed Jones in 2017). Ferrucci is the sixth rookie to run the car and hoping to be the second to complete the season.
The 20-year-old’s IndyCar debut was indeed in DCR’s No. 19 Honda at the dual races in Belle Isle, filling in for the then injured Fittipaldi. In those races, Ferrucci finished 22nd and 20th respectively.
After what went down in a Formula 2 sprint race at Silverstone, Ferrucci was still able to race in the final two IndyCar races at Portland and Sonoma. This time around, he was driving a third DCR car, and put on great runs in those races including a potential top-10 run in his return race before fuel problems took him out of contention. He followed it up with an 11th-place finish at Sonoma, his best to date.
Regardless on people’s views, there’s no doubt he has a promising career in open wheels, but any mess up could change that real quick.
Felix Rosenqvist – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing
One of two Swedish competitors running for ROTY is the 2015 Formula 3 European champion Felix Rosenqvist, who’s spent the past few seasons racing all over the world, such as Indy Lights, DTM, Super Formula and Formula E.
In the latter sanctioning body, he finished third in the 2016-17 championship standings as a rookie, scoring five podiums including his first of three career wins at the Berlin ePrix.
Rosenqvist’s talent blossomed in the states in 2016 when he ran a partial Indy Lights schedule for Belardi Auto Racing, scoring three wins in 10 starts. Most notably, a clean sweep at the Toronto Grand Prix, which turned out to be his last race weekend in the states for a period of time.
That’s when his road to IndyCar started to take off as Chip Ganassi caught eye on the now 27-year-old, and gave him a testing opportunity. Rosenqvist made the absolute most of it at Mid-Ohio. Fast forward a few years later, the dream of racing in America came true for Rosenqvist, as he’s replacing Jones to become teammates with the defending series champion Scott Dixon.
It’ll be interesting how the former Formula E competitor fares in the sport’s top team. By having Dixon, it’ll be amazing what he learns from the five-time champion, but it does give him an favorable advantage as an early favorite for ROTY honors.
Rosenqvist may surprise some fans, but after what Robert Wickens showcased last season, his performances set the bar for those coming to IndyCar with a European racing background these days, and he’ll be no different.
Marcus Ericsson – No. 7 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Due to unfortunate circumstances, the Sam Schmidt led team were put in a tough spot as what to do with their second entry after the aforementioned Wickens’ season ended early at Pocono, and courageously on the comeback trail ever day. Last season’s ROTY still has a ride if and when he ever returns, but for now, the future falls at the hands of another Swedish, former Sauber F1 driver Marcus Ericsson.
Outside of being a punchline by Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean and fans alike, Ericsson struggled his entire career, more so last season when he couldn’t match the raw talent and speed of Charles Leclerc, who’ll be running for Scuderia Ferrari this season. This whole time, Ericsson has been one F1 driver that had some potential, if the ride was competitive which he never had, scoring 18 points in five seasons (nine each in 2015 and 2018).
This opportunity he’ll have in IndyCar could be what he sorely needed, and prove that he is a high caliber competitor.
Already, Ericsson has enjoyed the extraordinary world of IndyCar competition, and he’ll have a strong teammate in James Hichcliffe on his side. With a new brash of confidence, the 28-year-old may surprise some people, so I wouldn’t count him out in that battle, but that’s easier said than done as there’s a pair of teammates that have their compelling road and perhaps on the rise.
Colton Herta – No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing
IndyCar’s first-ever driver born in the 21st Century has a lot of expectations mounted on his shoulders. Not just because he’s Bryan Herta’s son, but he’s one driver from the My Road To Indy program that fans have looked him as the sport’s future.
In his two seasons in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport, he scored six career wins including the Freedom 100 last season. Herta also scored 14 other podium results, nine of which being runner-up.
His stellar results led the young Herta making his IndyCar debut at Sonoma Raceway last September. Although he scored a 20th-place result, he put on consistent pace.
Now entering this season, George Steinbrenner IV’s support led to the revamped Harding Steinbrenner Racing, and will now powered by Honda instead of Chevrolet, could bring new light. Additionally, they’ll be aligned with Andretti Autosport, putting themselves in a phenomenal position of becoming a new competitive team that can contest for podiums, and maybe some wins.
The 18-year-old already has a win this season as he was part of the GTLM winning class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona Jan. 26-27, co-driving the No. 25 BMW Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry.
Perhaps the only guy that can stop Herta is his long-time teammate and last season’s Indy Lights championship rival, who’s also moving up the ladder.
Patricio O’Ward – No. 8 Harding Steinbrenner Racing
Last season’s Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico came into the national open wheel scene with tons of buzz after winning the paddock over at Sonoma, where he qualified fifth and finished ninth in his IndyCar debut.
What’s more fascinating about his debut was in fact its a straight from the ground up, second SHR entry that had the better weekend. With this in mind, sky’s the limit for the young driver who’s been a trailblazer in any car he’s strapped into.
Before making his name in Indy Lights, he and James French were a part of Performance Tech Motorsports’ Prototype Challenge at IMSA in 2017. The duo’s ORECA PC were the class of the field, winning the opening seven rounds and a third in eighth and final round, giving them the class championship with ease.
That professional experience at a very young age has been the driving force of becoming a can’t miss talent in North America. The ultimate goal for the charismatic 19-year-old is to become the next great Mexican open wheeler, to the point of hoping one day the series makes a stop at his home country.
Already showing what he can do in one race, it’ll be intriguing how he’ll do in a season-long campaign and if there’s a guy that could get a race win, O’Ward may do so and no doubt, a favorite of possibly beating Rosenqvist for Rookie of the Year honors.
Ben Hanley – No. 81 DragonSpeed
New team, new driver and a partial schedule is the name of the game for the sixth rookie, but those entities are doing it together. Ben Hanley of Manchester, England and DragonSpeed will make the transition from sports cars to open wheels, which Hanley has had previous experience.
At 34, Hanley is the oldest IndyCar rookie competitor and has spent the past few seasons competing in European sports cars, including his current run at the FIA World Endurance Championship, driving for DragonSpeed since 2016.
Before his racing career bounced back, Hanley competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, where he was the series runner-up finisher in 2007. Once he made the jump to GP2, Hanley didn’t have the results needed of becoming Formula One material and faded a way from the racing spotlight a few years later.
Hanley would bounce back and now he’ll be facing the biggest challenge of his racing career. Not just him, but DragonSpeed, which begs the question.
Can they make those five races, consisting of the season opener at St. Petersburg, Barber, the Indianapolis 500, Road America and Mid-Ohio, count and hopefully lead to a long-term stint?
Time will tell, and while he’s not running the full 17-race schedule, it can’t be ignored and kudos for them willingly of making the jump.
This crop of rookies we’ll see at the track have their own extraordinary tales. Ericsson and Ferrucci have a lot to prove after their time in Europe wrapped up in unsubtle ways. The trio of Rosenqvist, Herta and O’Ward, are out there to be the sport’s future in quality equipment, and showcase the MRTI ladder is the best in the world of motorsports as we’re pushing the Double 20s.
Their new chapter of their racing careers takes off at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in Florida March 10.