Another Curious Decision

As hard as it is to believe, we are four weeks into the offseason for the NTT IndyCar Series. In those four weeks, I have already written two different posts involving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR). Today is the second time this week I’ve written about the team operated by the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and the three-time CART champion. One might think I am either obsessed with RLLR or have a vendetta against the team. I’ll assure you that neither is the case, but they have been in the news lately – so I thought I would offer up my thoughts on the latest headlines generated by the team, if anyone is interested.

On Wednesday, the team confirmed what had been rumored for months – that twenty year-old Formula 2 driver Christian Lundgaard will be joining the team for the entire 2022 IndyCar season. This comes on the heels of the team’s confirmation last week that Jack Harvey would be joining the team as well.

I understand why the team parted ways with Takuma Sato, who will turn forty-five in January. Yes, he was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner that brought the team its second 500 victory in 2020. Age and a loss of sponsorship conspired against the popular Japanese driver.

I also understood why they had an interest in Harvey. He’s a driver that showed a lot of potential on a relatively new team that bounced between affiliations with Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in mostly part-time seasons. Harvey was expected to have a breakout season in 2021 that never really materialized. Was it his fault or the team’s?

What I have yet to understand is the sudden infatuation with a mostly unproven young driver that has driven an Indy car once.

It seems the media is drooling all over themselves at the prospect of Lundgaard racing fulltime in IndyCar next season. Maybe I’m missing something here, but don’t count me among those that think Christian Lundgaard will be the next great thing in IndyCar…not yet, anyway.

The team also put Santino Ferrucci and Oliver Askew in their third car this season, supposedly as auditions. Ferrucci drove the car in five races this season. In those five races, Ferrucci had four Top-Ten finishes, including a sixth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. The one finish not in the Top-Ten? An eleventh-place finish at Nashville.

Askew did not fare as well in the three races he drove the car, but he did earn a ninth-place finish at Laguna Seca.

Lundgaard spent one weekend in the car – at the IndyCar/NASCAR double-header in August. He practiced in the car on Friday, qualified in the fourth starting spot late Friday afternoon and kept his nose clean for a twelfth-place finish in the race on Saturday afternoon. Yes it’s impressive that Lundgaard qualified fourth, but he continued to slowly drop during the race. Was that enough to warrant choosing the young Dane instead of Ferrucci? Lots of people seem to think that’s more than enough, as Lundgaard has now officially become the new media darling.

I don’t claim to have this pool of trusted sources, but I do have a few friends that either work for a team, work for the series or work in IndyCar media. I was texting one of my friends on Wednesday, and he indicated that Lundgaard brought an unbelievable amount of cash to the table. That explains that. No matter how well Ferrucci drove in his five-race audition, Lundgaard exhibited a bit of driving expertise that Ferrucci couldn’t touch. Lundgaard was able to drive the Brinks truck right up to RLLR headquarters and back it right up o the door. Ferrucci couldn’t match that driving skill.

My father was a very wise man. He had a saying that applied in all facets of life, but it certainly applies to racing also. He said if a situation didn’t look quite right, or if things just didn’t add up – never overlook the money trail. It will usually reveal most of the answers you’re looking for.

Maybe my friend was just assuming that was the case, or he may have had concrete evidence that made him say that. But it makes sense. Why else would RLLR pass on a proven commodity like Ferrucci, to put a kid that most had never heard of before this past August, into one of their cars after just two days of driving an Indy car?

I realize I am in the vast minority here. Most in the paddock and in the media are touting Lundgaard as a sure thing. I haven’t heard this much praise for a soon-to-be rookie driver since, well…last season when it was confirmed that Scott McLaughlin would be moving to Team Penske for 2021. McLaughlin was touted as can’t miss future superstar, who would win immediately. McLaughlin is very likeable and a very good driver, but he struggled on his way to finishing fourteenth in points with no wins and one podium.

Personally, I like McLaughlin. He wasn’t making any boasts about how well he would do in IndyCar this past season – the media did that for him. All that did was saddle him with a lot of unrealistic expectations. Once the media gave up on him and began to ignore him later in the summer, he actually turned in some decent results near the end of the season.

McLaughlin was more experienced and more seasoned compared to Lundgaard, who just left his teen years behind this past July. Other than winning the 2017 SMP F4 Championship and the Spanish F4 championship that same year; Lundgaard’s resume is not all that impressive. He is currently eleventh in the ongoing Formula 2 championship, with no wins and three podiums. He did score two F2 wins last season and finished seventh. He also finished second in the 2018 Formula Renault Eurocup season. All in all, Lundgaard does not appear to be just a can of corn, but I’m not sure his resume was good enough to land the ride over Ferrucci after one decent drive.

I may be proven wrong. I was proven wrong when Dale Coyne hired an unknown and unproven Alex Palou for the 2020 season with a similar resume. I criticized that move and ended up eating crow, when he won the championship just one season later. This may turn out to be a brilliant move on Bobby Rahal’s part, but on the surface at this moment – it looks like this was a decision based on cash, and that proven talent was secondary.

I would not pretend to know what the books look like at RLLR. Lost sponsorship is ultimately what cost Sato his ride there, just as they were looking to add a third fulltime car. Assuming what most people think is true, and Lundgaard is bringing a ton of cash with him – this may have been the only way a third car was feasible. At the very least, it would help the bottom line of the entire organization.

One thing I wonder about though…was the whole audition process involving Ferrucci and Askew something of a sham? Did they know all along that they were going to sign Lundgaard, assuming he didn’t just make a fool out of himself in his one race with the team? If that’s the case, I can’t be too mad if I’m one of those drivers. It gave them the opportunity to race and show their skills to other prospective car owners. It just seems like an awfully expensive charade, if that was the case.

I’m hoping that three years from now, I’ll again be proven wrong. The hype he’s getting, says I’ll be wrong. I’m hoping that Christian Lundgaard goes on a tear, winning races and competing for IndyCar championships. In the meantime, I still maintain that this was a very curious decision. But hey, it’s not my money.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Another Curious Decision”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Lundgaard’s sample size of Indycar starts is small, but he at least acquitted himself well at the IMS road course and has done the same in his career overseas. Personally, I would have preferred to see Askew because I like Askew, but it’s not my financial neck Rahal is risking. Much as I might have gone a different direction, I don’t feel that putting Lundgaard in the seat was really a bad decision from a competition standpoint. Frankly, I think it is a more interesting one than bringing in Jack Harvey.

    Now, is it too much to ask that we get a Danish driver whose name ends in the proper -sen? Mike Thomsen knows what I’m talking about…

  2. I think Indycar needs to be careful not filling up with lesser talents.

    Christian Lundgaard does have a good track record of winning or at least beating his teammates until this year when he has been comprehensively beaten by Pourchaire who is only 18 years old. Reckon CL and his backers decided it was time to be out of the F1 feeding series ladder. Piaster and Pouchaire plus Zhou are F1 bound and Ticktum, CL plus maybe Lawson and a few others will move over cash and seat willing. Ilott already read the tea leaves. These are all excellent drivers but those going to F1 are perceived as the best with these guys 0.1% lesser talents. They are however quicker than Devlin or Dalton K.
    Herta and Palou may well go the other way. O’Ward I think would loath the F1 environment and be back pretty quickly if he went but presently no vacancy at McLaren.

    Personally I really wish that both Santino and Oliver Askew get a seat in 2022. Santino did a really good job in terms of points for RLL and the additional funds for the winners circle. Askew I reckon needs some commitment from a team for a minimum of one season to b3 able to relax and deliver. I’m sure Andretti sees his potential but no cash behind him.

  3. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    Come on George good books or not, no owner is going put his own money into a car and driver without any return, he has to atleast break even. Either they have their go to sponsor (resident sponsor like Mi-Jack) that they could tack on, so that brand gets an exposure and they could charge against that brand’s exposure, otherwise how is a owner to make money without a sponsor. If they dont have a sponsor for Takuma, that would be the end of it. And I did see Mi-Jack was on Takuma’s car atleast in a few races, so they already probably covered the expenses that way in 2021 anyway

  4. Nearly all race driver and team decisions are based on bringing money like Lundgaard here (might also bring some F1 tech support), or marketabilty like when Penske snatched up Newgarden a few years ago. Its a fact of life in the racing business, sure a driver must have talent too, but money talks and its a business. I loved Santino Ferrucci in the car with the results he got and hoped he would get the seat, and don’t think that his time was wasted at RLLR because it served to repair his Indycar reputation and raised his driving profile. My advice in 2021 for any out of work drivers is pound the pavement and work the phone/email/internet for sponsor $$ as much as walking the paddock looking for a ride.

  5. James T Suel Says:

    It’s a tuff call, money iam sorry to say makes the racing go. The day of talent getting you a ride are unfortunately gone. This kid may be the real deal I just don’t know.

  6. Vic Lovisa Says:

    I view it as a positive thing. Without Lundgaard’s money, RLL would still be a 2-car team. Instead, they’re a 3-car team. Penske is downsizing by one car. Carlin is reportedly for sale and I’d guess won’t be on the grid this season. The new Juncos full-time entry and this Rahal 3rd car make up those losses on the grid.

  7. wow…that was an excellent estimate.
    a Brinks truck usually carries ~$2M
    which weighs 1.1 tons. good job!

  8. From a sporting perspective, the combination of Rahal/Sato/Ferruci sure looks a lot stronger than Rahal/Harvey/Lundgaard at this point in time. Here’s wishing to the team that the risk they take by hiring a rookie will work out for them. It’s been a while since this team participated in the Rookie of the Year competition.
    We’ll see where the free agents among the proven talents will be driving next year.

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