Young Guns Ready for the Next Step

One of the main themes coming out of the double-header weekend at Road America was how well the young guns performed, especially during Race two on Sunday. Six out of the Top-Seven at the end of Sunday’s race had less than a season and a half of IndyCar experience, while some were only in their fourth race ever.

Granted, they did very well – for one race. But which ones are truly ready to ascend the ladder when Father Time dictates that it is time for the veteran drivers to move on?

Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward no longer carries rookie stripes on his car, like teammate Oliver Askew. But he is hardly considered a seasoned veteran. He drove in his first NTT IndyCar Series race at the 2018 season finale at Sonoma. He drove in a total of seven races with Carlin in 2019, before leaving for Japan to race. Some wondered if he would ever return to IndyCar, but when McLaren took over Sam Schmidt’s team – a door opened.

He won the pole for Sunday’s race and absolutely dominated. He drove like a longtime professional, but even longtime professionals have a hard time keeping a car competitive when the tires are going away. That tire strategy wasn’t on O’Ward, but his McLaren team. Although he was very disappointed with second, he had plenty of reason to hold his head high. I like seeing a young driver being disappointed with second-place. That generally means a win is not too far off. I think Sunday proved that with O’Ward. But until He gets that first checkered flag, he will be hungry. That’s the way it should be.

Of course, the person who did end up taking the checkered flag on Sunday was another you driver. Felix Rosenqvist won in only his twenty-first start. He had shown potential many times before, but couldn’t close the deal for one reason or another. His debut at St. Petersburg last year was impressive, as were several other starts. At Mid-Ohio, he gave teammate Scott Dixon a run for his money, before backing out of a late passing attempt. He had already incurred the wrath of team-owner Chip Ganassi for a few boneheaded moves. He knew taking out his teammate on his way to a certain win could cost him a spot on the team – so he backed off.

Rosenqvist has continued to make the occasional blunder, like he did this season in the season-opener at Texas. He was running second late in the race, and thought he had a shot at catching Dixon. But he lost his patience and tried an ill-advised move on the outside in Turn Two, where the slick traction compound had been applied months earlier. The result was a torn up race car, with Rosenqvist settling for eighteenth place and a earful from Ganassi. Before Sunday, he had not posted good results this season. Aside from his mistake at Texas, he finished fifteenth in the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course. He also finished eighteenth in Saturday’s race at Road America.

Although he is now a race winner, I think there are a few more brain fades in Rosenqvist’s immediate future. But I also think we will see many more wins from him, possibly as early as another win this season.

His other Ganassi teammate and fellow Swedish countryman, Marcus Ericsson has also seemingly found his rhythm. Although he had a few decent races last year at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, I was not overly impressed. He finished a forgettable seventeenth in points last year and I thought was very underwhelming in the process. But he has improved in every race this season with Ganassi, and I think a race win is in his near future. After a bad finish at Texas, he has three Top-Ten finishes in a row and finished fourth in Sunday’s race at Road America.

Colton Herta is in his second full season, and won early last season at COTA, the followed that up with a beatdown at Laguna Seca. He finished fifth in Sunday’s race at Road America. Though he hasn’t really challenged for a race win this season, he has finished in the Top-Five for the last three races, after posting a season-low at Texas of seventh. That consistency has placed him second in points behind Scott Dixon. But he wants that third career win to show that last season was no fluke. I think he will get it at some point in this abbreviated season.

Alex Palou has been extremely impressive in his four IndyCar starts for Dale Coyne. The scorecard says he finished twenty-third at Texas, but that’s because he was taken out by another IndyCar rookie – Rinus VeeKay. He had driven an error-free race to that point, in his oval debut. Road America seemed made for Palou, who has an extensive background racing in Europe. He got his first podium finish on Saturday at Road America. He started Sunday’s race third on the grid and finished with a solid seventh-place finish. I’ll be curious to see what he does in this weekend’s double-header at Iowa.

Although I still consider Santino Ferrucci a second-year driver, many forget that he also had four starts for Dale Coyne in 2018 before embarking on a full season last year as teammate to Sébastien Bourdais. But he still only has twenty-five IndyCar starts to his credit. This year, Ferrucci is the veteran teammate to Palou. After a bad finish at Texas, he has reeled off three Top-Ten finishes – including two sixth-place finishes at Road America this past weekend. He is developing a reputation for bold moves that he is able to pull off. He put a textbook move on veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay in Saturday’s race, heading into Turn Five. Just watching Ferrucci at a race is sometimes worth the cost of admission alone, he’s that entertaining and is proving to be no fluke.

Rinus VeeKay is showing flashes of brilliance and consistency, after a disastrous beginning to his NTT IndyCar Series career at Texas. He acquitted himself nicely with solid fifth-place finish in the GMR Grand Prix over the Fourth of July. Although his finishes of thirteenth and fourteenth respectively over the double-header weekend at Road America were not anything to write home about, his pass on the outside in the Carousel at the start of Saturday’s race was spectacular.

Oliver Askew raised eyebrows, when he posted a ninth-place finish in his IndyCar debut at Texas. He was looking good in the GMR Grand Prix, until he crashed coming onto the main straightaway in a move that could only be explained away by lack of experience. He did not have a good weekend at Road America. He qualified poorly in both races, and had only a fifteenth-place finish on Saturday and a twenty-first place finish on Sunday to show for it. Askew needs a good result. Maybe he can repeat his oval prowess he showed at Texas, in the double-header at Iowa this weekend.

Dalton Kellett is not off to a good start to his IndyCar career. Is that a reflection of his ability or the AJ Foyt team he is driving for? In three starts (Tony Kanaan drove the car at Texas), Kellett has a twenty-first place finish at the GMR Grand Prix and two twentieth-place finishes at Road America to his credit for his entire IndyCar resume thus far. Let’s just say the jury is still out.

If you look at Race Two at Road America as your barometer, the Young Guns are everything that people are claiming they are. But no matter how well of how poorly their seasons have started, I don’t think you can make any comment on the true rookies. Four races is just not enough to judge anyone’s abilities. It’s also hard to rate Pato O’Ward at this point in his career. He was impressive in his very first start with Harding Steinbrenner in the 2018 finale, but had a tough go of it in a partial season with Carlin last season. He has finished no worse than twelfth this season, but I need to see more before declaring him ready for the next level. I would also keep an eye on Marcus Ericsson.

Keeping that in mind, the three Young Guns that I think are ready for that next level, and will truly give the veterans a run for their money each and every week are, in no particular order; Santino Ferrucci, Colton Herta and Felix Rosenqvist. Herta already has two wins in his young IndyCar career. Rosenqvist won IndyCar Rookie of the Year last year and now has a race win early in his second year. Ferrucci won the 2019 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors and is exciting to watch every time he climbs nto the cockpit. He is the only one of these three without a race win, but I think it’s coming.

The rest of the drivers mentioned still have something to prove, before being considered ready for prime time.

Are these Young Guns ready to pack up Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi and send them off to the retirement home? Maybe for a couple, but most of them – not so fast. Dixon is defying all odds by continuing his current pace. Rahal, Newgarden and Rossi are still in their prime. Power is still showing speed at times. But Sato and Hunter-Reay may be seeing the twilight of their careers.

But those coming up through the ranks appear to be poised and ready for the next step, once any of the veterans decides to call it a career.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Young Guns Ready for the Next Step”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Some of Indycar’s “young gun” drivers are younger than others, both in age and in racing experience.

    Ericsson – 29 with nearly 100 F1 starts
    Rosenquist – 28 with Formula E and European experience
    Kellett – 26 with so so so many Road To Indy starts
    Palou – 23 with Superformula and GP3 experience
    Askew – 23 and has only been racing above karts for about 5 years
    Ferrucci – 22 with European experience
    O’Ward – 21 !!
    Herta – 20 !!!
    VeeKay – 19 !!!!

    In any event, I am excited to see what all of these guys can do. Okay, maybe not Kellett… but I do appreciate that he races respectfully even as he isn’t all that quick.

  2. I think the fight for the lead we saw Sunday will be the “regular” veterans battling for the top every weekend in 2022. Sunday was a sneak peek of the future. What next year looks like is still uncertain.

  3. I have so many favorites of the younger set that it is hard to not root for them all. Those last laps in Race 2 were so damn exciting. I am curious how the newbies to ovals will do in Iowa this weekend. The future is bright for these drivers.

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