PRUETT: Keeping the band together at Ganassi

As the prospects of finding a manufacturer to replace its outgoing partner Ford started to dim, Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull and the team’s leadership began thinking of talent preservation.

With a turnkey crew, one that won Le Mans, the Rolex 24, and 17 other races for the Blue Oval during the four-year GT program, ready to deploy on behalf of a new auto brand in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, CGR spent most of 2019 trying to keep its IMSA band together after Ford’s exit from the series.

Facing the official end of the Ford GT program at Petit Le Mans, Hull and CGR’s senior brass crafted a plan to retain as much of its IMSA team as possible by expanding its NTT IndyCar Series fleet.

There’s a self-serving motive to acknowledge; CGR wants to continue in IMSA as soon as another manufacturer is signed — once more with Ford, possibly, when the new 2022 DPis arrive — which places great value in having the personnel in place to offer.

And there’s also a less selfish motivation to recognize. Having pulled many of its IMSA crew members over from CGR’s former four-car IndyCar program, the Ford GT effort was staffed by a variety of team veterans who’ve remained committed to the outfit during major changes.

Where some teams prefer to save money by cutting their payroll the moment a season or program has come to an end (one IndyCar team fired a few employees minutes after the checkered flag last month in Monterey, ensuring they would not be included in a post-race meeting, much less able to say farewell when the survivors were alerted to the cuts…), CGR chose to keep fighting for its crew.

The result has come in the form of a third IndyCar entry for Marcus Ericsson. Just as numerous CGR IndyCar team members moved sideways to IMSA, plenty are headed back to IndyCar to run the Swede’s No. 8 Honda in 2020. Highlighted by the proven chemistry within Ericsson’s new crew, Hull is rather pleased with how smoothly the reassignment plan is working out.

“The biggest resource that you really have in racing is people, and I think it goes beyond that,” he told RACER. “It’s how people work together and how they support each other that makes the differences. Then you work to create momentum which then creates the success together. And you share that equally. And that creates the culture of who you are, whether it be in motor racing as a sport, or Major League Baseball, or whatever it is. That’s what makes the difference. That’s how you’re defined.”

Drawing back to the sizable achievements of the Ford CGR team, Hull says being able to offer an Ericsson, or a new potential IMSA partner, a ready-made group of winners has made a difference in the team’s fortunes.

“And that’s what partners appreciate about motor racing, our commercial partners,” he added. “The internal partnership then extends to the commercial partners, and you work really, really hard to get your group of people to appreciate each other and work hard for each other all the way through the process. And so when you have people like we’ve had work for us that have tenure, it’s really important to try to support that effort by continuing to have entries for them to work on, no matter what series it’s in.”

Although the entirely of the Ford CGR program will not remain with the organization, Hull spent time with each crew member, and later with the team as a whole, to identify those who wanted to stay and support its three-car IndyCar effort.

“Like so many things in racing, the process we’re going through is about timing,” he said. “It’s not a wholesale move where all of the No. 66 and No. 67 Ford people Are going to the No. 8 car. Some have said the timing is right for them to make a change, and we respect that. Some won’t go from IMSA to IndyCar; we have other roles within the organization that can be filled if there are opportunities, and that’s their choosing.

“And the No. 8 car won’t be an ‘IMSA’ team; it will be an IndyCar team that has people that are vocationally prepared to work with IndyCar people. But the reality is there’s a group here with a serious amount of IndyCar experience that has been in IMSA for us.”

Hull also anticipates some of Ericsson’s crew members, who joined the Ford project as new hires, will get their first look at IndyCar with the No. 8 entry.

“I think internal mentoring defines a vocational position on a race team, and that’s a long way of saying that what we would call a front end mechanic on a sports car is trained in the same way that a front end mechanic is trained on an Indy car at Chip Ganassi Racing,” he said.

“And we don’t look at having to totally retrain somebody when they move to a different kind of race car. The job list is very similar. The preparation in the building is very similar. The support system for that person is very similar, if not the same. So a wishbone is a wishbone for us, an upright is an upright for us, a transmission is a transmission for us. And the way it’s treated, the way it’s disassembled and reassembled is the same. The attention to detail is really the critical element, no matter what your position is on the team, and that’s how we look at it.”

Shifting gears to the drive in question, Hull says the conversations he and Ganassi held with Ericsson left them feeling confident about all that can be achieved by adding a new name to the mix with five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and 2019 Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist.

“I don’t know how to rate Marcus compared to what other people say about him,” he offered. “I only know about looking him in the eye and talking to him about racing. When you talk to a race driver, what you want to talk about is racing first. You don’t want to talk about sponsors. You want to find out what makes that person tick. And then you certainly have researched that person’s background, which we did. We looked at how he started, what he did when he started, what he did when he won in Formula 3, what he did when he won in other formulas.

“A person who drove for us was a guy named Kenny Brack, who originally was part of the initiative to get to Marcus to Formula 1. I called Kenny and I talked to Kenny about it, and it gave me a great understanding of who Marcus Ericsson is. And as I said earlier, it’s all about timing, and with timing then comes the match-up of what you have available at that point in time. And the fact that Marcus has run for an entire season — missed one race, but has run for an entire season — that part of the training program is taken care of, which is a big, big help. That’s a big bonus. He’s already gone to the racetracks. He’s already understand what it’s going to take to get to the next level for race craft.

“He’s proven that he’s fast. We just need to work on the rest of it with him. He’ll have two really good teammates, and we feel that he’ll be a good teammate in return. And it helps our initiative going forward with IndyCar, especially with the present landscape. Let’s face it, we’re racing against teams that have at least two if not three people on the grid. And it’s important to have teammates that support each other, in this case as a threesome, in order to gain maximum team results. This makes Chip Ganassi Racing stronger.”


Ericsson confirmed for third Ganassi IndyCar in 2020

Chip Ganassi Racing will double its Swedish driver roster next season with Marcus Ericsson, who joins five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and his countryman, 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist, in a three-car Honda-powered lineup.

“First of all, I’m extremely happy and proud to get the opportunity to join Chip Ganassi Racing,” Ericsson said. “It’s a team of winners and their history speaks for itself. I’m very thankful that they believe in me, and I will do everything I can to make 2020 another successful year for the team. I’m also very excited to work with two of the best drivers in the series in Scott and Felix. I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learned this year to use in my second year in the NTT IndyCar Series.”

Ericsson’s IndyCar debut season with the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports outfit had its share of highs and lows, and he finished 17th in the standings—teammate James Hinchcliffe placed 12th—as the Swede missed one of the 17 races while standing by to possibly fill in for Kimi Raikkonen at Alfa Romeo in Spa.

“I think Marcus brings a lot of unique experience with him having competed in several championships around the world,” said Ganassi. “When you have someone with that type of background, it gives him other points of reference that helps his ability to develop and add to the overall racing program. We’re looking forward to seeing what Marcus can do alongside Scott and Felix.”

With Ericsson’s signing, CGR has made progress in one of its bigger initiatives. As it’s Ford Chip Ganassi Racing IMSA team readies for its final race this weekend at Petit Le Mans, Ganassi and managing director Mike hull have been busy searching for additional IndyCar programs to run in order to keep its sports car crew employed.

Efforts to field a fourth entry for 2019 Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew continue to be explored.

This year’s rookie class ranks with the greats

There have been some great rookie lineups throughout the history of IndyCar, but the Class of 2019 must rank right up there. Pretty damn impressive.

Teenage sensation Colton Herta won two races and three poles; Felix Rosenqvist finished sixth in the NTT IndyCar point standings; Santino Ferrucci went from unknown to fan favorite; and Marcus Ericsson left the mediocrity of Formula 1 for some enjoyable, hard-nosed competition in America.

“Man, these kids and new guys are tough, and they’re going to be around for a long time,” said veteran Will Power after stalking Herta through the final 15 laps in the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca series finale and winding up second. “I tried everything I could to get him, but he never made a mistake.”

It’s hard to imagine how poised a teenager can be in a high-pressure environment that would seem to favor experience. But Little Hertamania is anything but your typical teenager. He became the youngest winner ever last spring at COTA after taking advantage of a Power technical failure. But the final weekend of the season was all Colton. He captured the pole position for the Harding Steinbrenner team on Saturday and then whipped Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport on Sunday — leading 83 of 90 laps in his Harding Steinbrenner Honda.

“It was a perfect race. Whenever you win, it has to be perfect with no mistakes,” said the 19-year-old Californian. “We were definitely the best today, and we deserved to win.”

No brag, just fact as the second-generation driver was flawless despite unrelenting pressure from Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Power.

“I didn’t feel threatened until the end when Will was all over me,” Herta said. “I felt I had things under control for 80 percent of the race, and I had a great car.”

The other drive of the day, though, came from Rosenqvist. The 28-year-old Swede started 14th and charged all the way to fifth in his Ganassi Honda while clinching the Rookie of the Year title.

“It was a fun day and an interesting race,” said Rosenqvist, who would very likely have started first or second had he not been penalized for impeding another competitor with a half-spin early in qualifying.

“It was not ‘aggressive all the time’; just kind of pick your moment and then try to save tires and fuel. We were really good on reds and only a little bit worse on blacks.

“It was a helluva year, and my crew was flawless all season,” Rosenqvist added.

The former Formula E, Indy Lights, DTM, Super Formula and Formula 3 competitor scored a pair of podiums for Chip Ganassi and just missed winning at Mid-Ohio.

While the well-traveled Rosenqvist’s performance was no surprise, Santino Ferrucci’s pace was — maybe the most pleasant surprise of 2019. Turning 21 midway through the season, the Connecticut native gave Dale Coyne a display of driving the enduring team owner never expected.

“I didn’t know anything about him,” said Coyne, who has probably given more rookies their first opportunity than any other owner in the paddock. “I certainly didn’t expect this. He did a great job all year.”

Three fourth places, a seventh at Indianapolis (which earned him Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors) and a fearless style on ovals made him instantly popular with the paying customers. He never put a wheel wrong until Sunday when he slid into Takuma Sato on a restart.

“We were having a good race, but then on the restart I forgot to put the brake bias back to the rear, and going into Turn 1 I locked the fronts,” he said. “I knew I was going to hit (Takuma) Sato, so I just tried to hit him square to do the minimum amount of damage. Sadly I ended up with most of it. I’m sorry to him and his team for messing up their race. It was my mistake.

“Looking back, I feel pretty good about our season as a whole. I feel it went exceptionally well. It’s just unfortunate because I think today is the only mistake I made all year. It’s not the way I wanted to end the season but overall we’ve had a great year and I think we can be proud of that.”

As for Ericsson, he left F1 after five years with mediocre teams, most recently with Sauber, before moving to North America and stepping in for the injured Robert Wickens at Arrow SPM, and he quietly impressed all season long.

The Swede finished second at Detroit and had many better drives than the final results showed, though he finished mid-pack (11th) at Laguna.

Raikkonen injury led to Ericsson’s Alfa call-up

Kimi Raikkonen has revealed a pulled muscle was what led to Marcus Ericsson being called up as a potential replacement for him in the Belgian Grand Prix.

Ericsson was due to race for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in his the NTT IndyCar Series race at Portland this weekend, but the Alfa Romeo reserve driver was then called upon to travel to Spa-Francorchamps. While SPM believed Ericsson is needed to race, Raikkonen hopes to be fit to take part in this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix but says he pulled a muscle in his left leg playing sport.

“I would say it’s been getting better so we will see how it is,” Raikkonen said. “I don’t know, we will find out tomorrow (in practice).

“If you want to put that it’s not one hundred percent, you can put whatever number you like. Obviously it’s impossible to try — we have simulators and that doesn’t tell an awful lot anyway, so we will see how it is. In my head it should be fine but you never know.

“Better the brake than the throttle. It should be OK. Honestly if it wouldn’t be I wouldn’t even try.”

Although he is confident he will be fit to drive, Raikkonen says it would have been careless for Alfa Romeo not to have Ericsson available given the circumstances.

“Obviously we need to have some back-up plans, it would be stupid not to have our third driver in case I couldn’t be driving in the worst-case scenario. There’s a reason why the team has a third driver if something happens. I think it’s a normal story. It’s a difficult situation for him also because he had a race but that’s how it is.”

Raikkonen also joked that: “Drinking is probably more safe than sport. You don’t get injured, only hung over.”

As first revealed by RACER on Thursday morning, SPM has hired Conor Daly to replace Ericsson at Portland this weekend.


Ericsson gets Alfa Romeo Spa call-up; Daly to race for SPM at Portland

Conor Daly will replace Marcus Ericsson in the No.7 Honda for the Arrow SPM team in this weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland as has learned the Swede will be racing at Spa in the Belgian Grand Prix.

Texts and emails to both drivers weren’t returned, but Ericsson is under contract as the third driver for Alfa Romeo, formerly Sauber, and spent 2015-2018 driving for that team before being replaced by Antonio Giovinazzi this season. Teamed with Kimi Raikkonen, Giovinazzi has only scored one point in 2019 compared to 31 for the former world champion.

Ericsson, 28, came to IndyCar this year and has scored one podium (second at Belle Isle) and a pair of sevenths (Barber and Texas) and ranks 17th in the NTT Series point standings, but his results have been belied by his performance, which has been surprisingly stout on ovals.

Daly is coming off another strong effort for Carlin Racing, where he ran as high as third at Iowa before finishing sixth after starting 18th. It will be the third team of 2019 for the 27-year-old American as drove for Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis and has made four starts at Carlin as Max Chilton’s replacement on ovals. He’s scheduled to run for Andretti again in the season finale at Laguna Seca next month.

Ferrucci, Ericsson top first Gateway practice

It was all about rookies in Friday’s opening practice period for Saturday night’s Bommarito 500 as Santino Ferrucci and Marcus Ericsson showed the way around Gateway’s fast oval.

Continuing to show his prowess at turning left, Ferrucci threw down a lap of 184.804 mph (24.3501s) in his Cly-Del Honda to lead all 22 runners.

“We didn’t test and I don’t have any sim (simulator) experience here but my team just gave me a great car,” said the 21-year-old Connecticut native who finished fourth last week at Pocono. “I was able to work on my driving in that session and I think we’ve got some speed. I’ve been looking forward to another short oval since we ran at Iowa.”

Ericsson, who had a seventh at Texas, was right behind his fellow rookie at 184.529 mph in his Arrow SPM Honda.

“I didn’t know what to expect about ovals,” admitted the veteran of Formula 1. “We’ve had some good runs on the ovals and I think we’ve got a good car here — but it’s only the first session.”

Five-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon was third fastest at 184.433 mph in Chip Ganassi Racing’s PNC Honda and point leader Josef Newgarden was fourth at 184.348 mph in Team Penske’s PPG Chevrolet.

Alexander Rossi, who trails Newgarden by 35 points with three races remaining, turned in the fifth-best lap of 183.685 mph in Andretti Autosport’s NAPA Honda while Pocono winner and reigning Gateway champ Will Power was sixth at 183.607 mph in Penske’s Verizon Chevy.

Simon Pagenaud, who sits third in the standings 40 points behind his teammate Newgarden, was only 14th among the 22 cars with a lap of 182.342 mph.


UP NEXT: Qualifying is set for 5:30 E.T. and airs live on NBCSN.


Where does the McLaren deal leave Arrow SPM’s current drivers?

A notable, intentional omission from the Arrow McLaren SP announcement involves its two-car driver lineup. Having confirmed its upcoming switch from Honda to Chevrolet, a complete year-to-year cockpit change could be possible when the current Arrow SPM outfit returns next season.

Canada’s James Hinchcliffe, currently completing his fifth season with Arrow SPM, has one year remaining on his contract with the team. Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson, entering the final rounds of his rookie NTT IndyCar Series campaign, has expressed an interest in returning to Arrow SPM, but is not believed to hold a contract for 2020.

Interest is known to be held for Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, and a variety of other drivers, including recent Arrow SPM test driver Felipe Nasr, could be in the frame to fill one or more Arrow McLaren SP Chevy seats.

With direct funding coming from Honda Canada, and a personal services contract that has the 32-year-old starring in national television commercials for the brand, Hinchcliffe could face a powerful dilemma if he wants to stay with Arrow McLaren SP when it parts ways with the Japanese manufacturer.

Among the various options for the six-time IndyCar race winner to consider, deciding on severing ties to Honda and staying with the team, or seeking an early termination to his contract and finding a Honda-powered home elsewhere in the paddock, would appear to be a pressing need.

“James Hinchcliffe is a great member of the team and has a contract through 2020, and we look forward to confirming drivers soon,” a McLaren representative told RACER. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown confirmed the team’s lineup will be chosen by the newly-formed leadership group contained within Arrow McLaren SP.

“As we now get into our review of what do we want to do together, drivers and long-term thinking, even beyond ‘20, is arguably one of the most – if not the most – important element of a successful IndyCar team,” he said. “And so, no decisions have been made yet. Experience is very important. And having a long runway.

Ericsson could find himself chasing some of the same seats as Hinchcliffe for next year. Image by Levitt/LAT

“If you look at what we did in Formula 1, we have two young drivers, one rookie, one quite experienced, and that’s working really well with Lando and Carlos . So, I’m not saying that’s exactly the same approach we’ll take, but I think it gives you a sense of the type of thinking that we think makes sense.

“And we’re going to do this very hand in hand with Sam . Drivers is something he knows a lot about. Moving forward, our decisions are not McLaren decisions or SPM decisions, they’re group decisions. We’re now one team.”

Representatives for the newlywed Hinchcliffe, who was unavailable for comment, are known to have taken meetings with a number of teams during the recent Mid-Ohio IndyCar event. Of the many Honda destinations to ponder, a departure by Herta from HSR could present an easy path for Hinchcliffe to resume his former relationship with Andretti Autosport, which supplies chassis technology and engineering support to the team owned by Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV.

Chip Ganassi Racing is not expected to have vacancies to fill, nor is it looking to add an extra entry. Dale Coyne Racing has Sebastien Bourdais under contract for 2020, but the status of his rookie teammate Santino Ferrucci is unconfirmed, which could make a solid entry available. Bourdais’ race engineer Craig Hampson worked with Hinchcliffe on his IndyCar debut in 2011 at Newman/Hass Racing, and again at Andretti Autosport, creating familiarity for both sides at DCR.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has Graham Rahal signed to a long-term contract, 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato is expected to return for his third season as Rahal’s teammate, and team co-owner Bobby Rahal believes a new, third entry is close to happening, which would seemingly fit any needs Honda has to place Hinchcliffe in a quality program.

Altogether, and provided Arrow McLaren SP’s shift to Chevy power leads to Hinchcliffe changing teams, numerous options are available for the series’ most popular driver.

Ericsson is known to have embarked on discussions with teams in addition to Arrow SPM regarding 2020, and could also vie for some of the same seats Hinchcliffe might pursue.