Ericsson Has Had His Eyes On Indy A Long Time

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 23 2019
Marcus Ericsson hopes to join Kenny Brack as Swedish winners of the Indianapolis 500. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas _ Culture shock figures to reach its zenith for Marcus Ericsson on May 26, when the former Formula One regular from Sweden will take the command to start his engine, ideally, for 200 laps/500 miles around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 103rd Indy 500 will be Ericsson’s first oval-track race and the longest event in his motorsports career. The prospect has rekindled memories of watching fellow-Swede Kenny Brack win the 1999 Indy 500 while driving for four-time race-winner A.J. Foyt Jr., a bona fide “Legend of The Brickyard.”

“I watched Kenny when I was a kid, live on Swedish television,” Ericsson said during a break in his first oval track test at Texas Motor Speedway. “I remember watching it with my dad when I was a kid. Being in Europe, my sort of goal was always getting to Formula One, so I didn’t really think too much about it (INDYCAR). But I was always following it because it’s a series and type of racing I always got excited to watch. That’s why, when F1 didn’t work out, I was 100 percent keen to go to America and try INDYCAR because I thought it was going to be the best series to do. So I’m happy to be here.”

The odd-man out in a reshuffled lineup at Sauber F1, Ericsson signed with ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last November to run the full 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. The season’s first four events, evenly split between two street and two natural-terrain layouts, have produced modest results. Ericsson’s best start was 16th at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas; his best finish was seventh at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Last Friday’s test on TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval was a prelude to Wednesday’s INDYCAR open test from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the 2.5-mile IMS layout, a session that will see all teams hot-lapping with the sanctioning body’s new Advanced Frontal Protection piece. Count that windscreen as another element for Ericsson to sort through.

Team owner Sam Schmidt has hired former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson to drive one of his Indy cars.

“I’ve been on the Indianapolis Speedway and it’s such a really big track and everything, and here it feels quite a bit smaller,” said Ericsson, driver of the No. 7 Honda. “The banking (up to 24 degrees) looks very steep here so that was something that surprised me when I got here. So it’s definitely quite different from the Indy oval but I think it looks really cool and it was really fun to drive, as well.

“Obviously, I’ve never tried anything like it before so, for sure, I was a bit nervous this morning. But it was a good feeling, like nervous but very excited to try it. It’s been a long build-up since I signed my INDYCAR contract back in last year. The road and street courses is stuff I’ve done all my life but the oval is the one sort of big new thing for me, so it’s been a long build-up for that. We’ve been speaking a lot about it in the team, and also I’ve been speaking with James (Hinchcliffe) and Robby (Robert Wickens) about it a lot and they’ve been really helpful.

“I think it’s one of those things that before you actually experience it yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like. That’s why I’m really happy here today and managed to do my first laps.”

Ericsson, 28, has replaced Canadian Wickens, the 2018 series Rookie of the Year who was paralyzed from the waist down as the result of injuries suffered during a violent, multiple-car crash in the ABC Supply 500 on the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway oval on Aug. 19. Wickens, 29, continues to undergo physical rehabilitation with the goal of walking again.

Ericsson, who started his F1 career with the ill-fated Caterham team, spent the last four FIA Formula One World Championship seasons with Sauber. He was teamed in 2018 with Frenchman Charles LeClerc. In what amounted to a seat swap, Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen _ the 2007 F1 World Driving Champion _ exited Scuderia Ferrari at season’s end and traded places with LeClerc at Sauber.  Ericsson was replaced by 24-year-old Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, runnerup to 2019 Red Bull Racing driver Pierre Gasly in the 2016 GP2 title race.

Ericsson made 97 F1 starts without scoring a podium finish. Still, he acknowledged that any driver toting an F1 resume into the INDYCAR paddock immediately is met with exceedingly high expectations.

“It’s something you get used to. In Formula 1, you always have a lot of pressure on your shoulders,” Ericsson said. “I don’t really feel anything different here. Always when you’re in the car there are expectations but the biggest expectations are coming from myself, I think. I don’t want to come here and make up numbers. I want to come here and do well, score podiums and wins. That’s my goal and I think we have all the tools to do that but I also have a lot of respect for the guys in this series. There are some very experienced drivers, super-skillful. It is a very tough series but I’m getting the hang of it and I’m enjoying it.”

Ericsson added he also is adapting to living in America. “It’s good. It’s different,” Ericsson said. “I moved to Indianapolis and it’s obviously different from where I’m from in Sweden but I’ve always liked America. Every time I’ve been over for different things I’ve enjoyed it. It was also one of the reasons I was happy to go fully committed and move over here and do it the proper way. That’s been good, not only the racing side but also on the personal side it’s been very good to have a team like ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports because they’ve been helping me a lot getting settled into living in America, and also with James. He’s always been there for questions out of the track, as well.”

James Hinchcliffe will be coaching new teammate Marcus Ericsson on the fine points of driving at Indy. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

Hinchcliffe said Ericsson has handled “a year of firsts” quite seamlessly. “He’s been a busy kid but he’s taking it in stride,” said Hinchcliffe, a 32-year-old native of Toronto, Canada. “I mean, living in the States, he’s committed full-time, moved to Indianapolis, getting used to the way of INDYCAR racing in general, the flow of our races, how to drive the car, to set the car up and then obviously the entire task of trying to master oval racing all in the span of about four months. He’s an ultimate professional. You know, five years at the Formula 1 level, you learn a lot. You come very prepared to this series and Marcus is no exception to that.

“It’s a big culture shock for him coming over to the States with some of the places we go. He’s embracing it. I love sharing that stuff with him because this was all new to me at one point.”

Ericsson said he especially appreciated having Hinchcliffe present for his first oval laps. “We went out to dinner last night and he was talking about it,” Ericsson said, “and this morning we went on-track with the rental car to show me the lines and everything. The team had a really nice setup there and I’m really lucky to have such an experienced team, like James, to lean on. And then, like I said, Robby has been very helpful with his experience because he went through the exact same thing last year learning everything from scratch. It’s been really helpful for me.”

Hinchcliffe, who turned a series of preliminary laps in Ericsson’s car, believes that working with Wickens as an oval-track rookie last year has made him a better mentor.

“I kinda know what to expect, what information is important and the things I, maybe, forgot to tell Robby last year because I just didn’t think about them,” said Hinchcliffe, who has made eight starts at TMS. “I think I’m a bit more prepared to help somebody out. Marcus has done a great job in the car so far. Obviously it’s completely different than anything he’s done. There’s a lot to take in so you’re not going to learn it all in one day, certainly. Luckily, he gets a taste of this track before we go to Indy.”

Hinchcliffe said his basic sage advice to Ericsson would cover any oval-track event, including the DXC Technology 600 night race at TMS scheduled for June 8.

“The faster you’re going in the car, the slower you have to go in the cockpit,” Hinchcliffe said. “The slower you’ve got to be with your input _ your hands, your feet, everything’s got to be a lot more deliberate, a lot more precise than you do on a road or street-course. And teaching your brain and your muscles, which are already programmed to react a certain way, to behave differently is very challenging. You can’t give it a bunch of wheel on turn-in, you’ve got to be slow and very precise with those inputs. Your throttle inputs, you have to roll on and off the throttle, you can’t stab at it. And for a lot of people, it’s just muscle memory. You’re used to operating a throttle pedal or a steering wheel in a certain way _ once you get to these speeds, you have to change all of that.”

Recall that “Hinch” was involved in an epic result in TMS in August 2016 during the weather-delayed Firestone 600. Seventy-six days after the race was rescheduled from June because of two days of rainy interruptions, Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal hooked up in a sprint that saw the latter prevail by 0.0080-seconds after 248 laps. It was the closest race in TMS history and fifth-closest in Indy car history. Rahal completed a dramatic last-lap pass to earn the win in an event that was restarted on Lap 72.

“Honestly, I’ve watched the ’16 race over a hundred times,” said Hinchcliffe, who finished fourth last June at TMS in an event won by Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. “You lose sleep over races where you made mistakes and cost yourself a win but there was literally nothing else we could have done different as a team and myself as a driver. Those last nine laps, whatever it was after that restart, I was trying to drive three cars at once. I was trying to drive Tony’s (Kanaan) car. I was trying to drive Graham’s car and I was trying to drive my own car.

“Like I said, I’ve done it a hundred times and there’s just no way that race played-out any differently unless it was one lap shorter or one lap longer, we’d have won it. But it is what it is so, yeah, we’re definitely looking forward to make some redemption for that one.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 23 2019
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