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IndyCar Indy 500

Why Ericsson’s Indy 500 win is a significant mental turning point

Perhaps overlooked in the victory stakes for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500, Marcus Ericsson overcame a late red flag to take a famous win. The Swede's brilliantly executed triumph will undoubtedly boost the confidence of a driver who always had the talent to succeed

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda NTT Data Winner

At one point in Sunday evening’s media conference with the Indianapolis 500 winner, someone asked Marcus Ericsson a question about being the overlooked driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing team. It wasn’t a question without merit.

There’s six-time champion Scott Dixon – one of the pillars at Ganassi for more than two decades. There’s Alex Palou, the reigning champion, who everyone inside and outside the team seems to like as well as admire. There’s Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion who’s bravely living out his open-wheel fantasy on a very public stage and remains refreshingly candid about his efforts. And then, at Indy, there’s also Tony Kanaan, who at 47 is old and wise enough to say ‘no’ to a closing gap between cars on a racetrack, but young and hungry enough to say ‘yes’ to a hot ride in the Indy 500.

And then there’s Marcus Ericsson.

But if the 31-year-old with 97 Formula 1 starts to his name is overlooked, the fault lies with the media. Team owner Chip Ganassi, elated with his fifth Indy 500 win, pointed out the shy, polite Swede is certainly not neglected by his proud organisation.

“You say Marcus doesn't quite get the attention, that's not true at all,” said Ganassi. “He gets the same attention everybody else gets. His sponsor is not in the US a lot, so he doesn't have that push from his sponsors in terms of public relations and so forth. You don't see that push behind him that the other drivers get, whether it's NTT (Palou), PNC (Dixon), Carvana (Johnson), American Legion (Kanaan). These are all companies that are either here in Indianapolis or in the US. Huski Chocolate is not: you don't get that sponsor push.

“But like I say, it's one team. Everybody gets everything in our team, and they all know it. So it means a lot. It means a lot. The team came in here. We set out goals every year: win the Indianapolis 500, win the championship. We did the first one, now we got to do the second one.”

Chip Ganassi celebrates with Marcus Ericsson after the Swede claimed Indy 500 victory on Sunday

Chip Ganassi celebrates with Marcus Ericsson after the Swede claimed Indy 500 victory on Sunday

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

That lack of media attention, said Ericsson, doesn’t bother him.

“I think when you have Dixie, TK, JJ and Palou, the defending champion, I think it's easy that the focus will be on them, for sure,” he said, before adding with a smile: “Maybe after today it will change a bit.”

It will. The PR folks from Ganassi, BorgWarner, IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway will make sure of that over the next 12 months.

And it’s no more than he deserves. Ericsson has focused on making himself a better driver, from when he was first spotted by Sweden’s other Indy 500 winner, Kenny Brack, half his lifetime ago, but as a self publicist, he remains lacking – too quiet, too self-effacing – and he’s none the worse for that.

"I didn’t lift in the last 20 laps, including the last two laps. In my mind, I was not going to lift for anything!" Marcus Ericsson

He sounds tired but happy on Monday afternoon, and no surprise there: his personal fitness monitor revealed he had only two hours and 43 minutes of shut-eye between victory and his winner duties on the day after.

PLUS: How Ericsson achieve Indy immortality as Ganassi's main man stumbled

“I couldn’t fall asleep last night,” he tells Autosport. “Then when I did, I woke a couple of hours later because I was still so excited! I realised it was not a dream, it’s reality!”

A couple of years ago, it could only have been a dream. The Ericsson who first arrived in IndyCar with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (now Arrow McLaren SP) wouldn’t have been able to handle last Sunday’s race like the 2022 version of Ericsson, now in his third year with Ganassi.

He might not have been able to bide his time in the early stages of the race. He might not have kept his cool when he tripped over team-mate Johnson in a pitstop at half distance and dropped to eighth.

Ericsson worked his way to the front to prove a legitimate Indy 500 winner

Ericsson worked his way to the front to prove a legitimate Indy 500 winner

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

He might not have been able to save fuel and then deliver those great laps before his final pitstop. He might not have made that clinical charge to the front past the two Arrow McLaren SP cars of Pato O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist following his last stop, nor pulled away to a three-second lead and held it. And following the red-flag pause, he might not have channeled his anger in a constructive manner and kept his cool when O’Ward threatened his lead in the final two-lap shootout.

He could have done several of these things, but not all of them – and failing at just one would have tipped the result in another direction. Yet current-era Marcus Ericsson did not falter.

Just to recap, on lap 194, Johnson struck the Turn 2 wall which brought out the yellows, and then the red because Race Control wanted to try and ensure the race finished in green-flag conditions. The remaining 27 runners trickled into the pitlane to allow the track to be cleared.

“Those 10 minutes sitting there in the pit lane during that red flag was some of the hardest 10 minutes of my life,” says Ericsson, “thinking what to do, thinking that I'm leading the biggest race in the world, and I'm that close to win it.”

But between them, his race engineer Brad Goldberg and strategist Mike O’Gara convinced their charge to stop cursing his team-mate and instead focus on how to handle the shootout. In the previous restarts, the leader was a sitting duck at the drop of the green and had lost the lead by Turn 1. Ericsson had to not let that happen. So at the drop of the green, he snaked along the front straight on that penultimate lap, breaking the tow back to O’Ward so that he was unthreatened going into Turn 1.

Down the back straight, he did the same but in order to not compromise his line into Turn 3, he then stopped the side-to-side movement, suddenly allowing O’Ward to close up on him through the short chute, carry more momentum onto the front straight. Certainly the time loss wasn’t because the leader breathed the throttle through Turns 3 or 4.

“No, no, I didn’t lift in the last 20 laps, including the last two laps,” he smiles. “In my mind, I was not going to lift for anything! The snaking really helped but you can’t really snake through the turns because there’s just one line – or only one fast line – so Pato was closing up quickly through Turns 3 and 4, which was worrying for sure.”

A series of weaves helped Ericsson fend off a late assault from Pato O'Ward

A series of weaves helped Ericsson fend off a late assault from Pato O'Ward

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

On the plus side, Ericsson had gone into that two-lap shootout with the psychological boost of knowing that he had the car to finish off the job. In this final stint he had pulled a three-second lead – as big as anyone had held all day, barring pitstop cycles.

“I thought I had the race won when I passed [the Arrow McLaren SP cars] and drove away,” he says. “I was so strong in that last stint, and they weren’t closing on me, so I was just counting down the laps – until that caution.

“I was really upset because I knew how bad it was to be leading, especially on the start/finish straight because there was a big headwind, so that’s why every leader at restarts was being passed. I was really worried I was not going to be able to hold off Pato. But I had this plan in my head.

"I was running in fourth for the first 100 laps, protecting my racecar, looking after my tyres, saving fuel, and keeping the car balanced with the tools, and thinking long-game. Always thinking long-game" Marcus Ericsson

“The night before, I had dinner with Dario [Franchitti, three-time Indy winner and driver advisor at Chip Ganassi Racing] in the infield and we were talking about that exact scenario. He was telling me what to do and how to break the tow, and where to place the car. That’s what I was thinking about during the red flag – what Dario had told me, and now coming up with a plan how to do it. And I executed that plan to perfection and I’m happy that was enough!”

OK, so he had consulted the old Indy master on the team, and he then absolutely nailed it when the time came – but how on earth does a driver decide how much weaving is good, how much is too much? After all, a downhill skier reaches his goal a hell of a lot quicker than the guy doing the slalom… so at 220-230mph, it seems to be a very fine judgment call when trying to shake off a pursuer.

“I have no idea!” chuckles Ericsson. “I’d never done it before, so I was completely freestyling it! Even now, I don’t know if I did it too much or too little. I just had to try and do it as much as I can, but yeah, you’re scrubbing speed doing that.”

Starting the final lap Ericsson weaved so far left onto the front straight it appeared momentarily as if he was heading into the pits, and O’Ward followed him to stay in the draft, and he had momentum.

Ericsson's excellent final restart allowed him to get a gap on O'Ward

Ericsson's excellent final restart allowed him to get a gap on O'Ward

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Approaching Turn 1 for the final time, the irrepressible terrier pulled out and drew fully alongside Honda-powered Ganassi car - but on the vulnerable outside line. With Ericsson having to ease right, too, to take the racing line, it was O’Ward who had to breathe the throttle and concede, and Ericsson now had his winning margin. Even before Sage Karam crashed to bring out the final yellow, the win was in the bag.

As stated already though, it wasn’t all about those last two laps. Some crucial moves from both the #8 brain trust and from Ericsson himself had got him to the front. Through the first half of the race, the first three stints, the #8 car had run fourth, with its driver holding something in reserve. But these things are never that simple, and a hesitation at half-distance, when he and Johnson tried to occupy the same bit of pitlane asphalt, had meant he emerged from his third stop down in eighth.

“We had been strong all month, and I really felt like it was going to be one of the Ganassi cars that won the race,” says Ericsson, casting his mind back a couple of weeks. “I really felt like we had the car to do it and the drivers to do it.

“Starting from fifth, I had a gameplan and that was to just sit in the top four or top five for the first 130 laps and then start going from then on. I was running in fourth for the first 100 laps, protecting my racecar, looking after my tyres, saving fuel, and keeping the car balanced with the tools, and thinking long-game. Always thinking long-game.

“Then there was that third caution [for Romain Grosjean’s accident on lap 106] and that’s when we had that little issue with Jimmie coming into his pitbox when I was leaving mine, and I had to stop for him, and that’s when I dropped to P8.

That was a big blow because with the higher temperatures, the track had lost a lot of grip, so the extra dirty air, the downforce you lose behind seven cars, instead of three, makes a big difference. I thought, ‘Ugh, it’s going to be difficult to get back near the front and try and win this thing.’ But I managed to pick off a car [Ed Carpenter] at the restart to get up to seventh.”

Ericsson was one of the drivers who was able to go a full five laps longer than team-mate and erstwhile leader Dixon at the next stop and he got the hammer down, and emerged ahead of another team-mate, Kanaan, to slide into sixth. The next restart on lap 158, following Scott McLaughlin’s shunt, saw Santino Ferrucci of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing fall back so that meant fifth for Ericsson, and Rosenqvist’s early final stop on lap 172 promoted his compatriot to fourth.

Ericsson overcame the late red flag stress to drink the Indy 500's famous milk

Ericsson overcame the late red flag stress to drink the Indy 500's famous milk

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

He made his last fuel and tyre stop on lap 177, the same as O’Ward, and emerged behind the Mexican star. But two laps later he delivered his fastest lap of the race, two laps after was past O’Ward and two laps after that he was past Rosenqvist too and pulling away. And it was now the net lead, because Dixon had received a drive-through penalty for speeding on pitlane.

“[Ericsson] was running good laps there, especially when the other traffic ahead of him peeled off and pitted before we did,” said O’Gara. “We were able to turn up the fuel. The car was good enough that he could go quick when there weren't a lot of guys in front of him. We did a few extra laps.

“But when you're in the lead and other people have already made their last stops, you're leaving yourself really exposed. Almost every yellow today came around a pitstop sequence. We knew we were at risk staying out, but we were doing good laps. We were watching the cars that had already pitted and as long as we were doing laps as fast or faster than them, it was OK to stay out… but knowing we were risking a yellow coming out.

"I’ve developed a lot the last couple of years and got my confidence back. That’s a lot for me, knowing that you can do it, that you can win, and since that win at Detroit last year it’s like I’m a different driver" Marcus Ericsson

“We did a couple laps that were quicker than what O'Ward and Felix [Rosenqvist] did, so we decided to pit then. Marcus pushed and pushed. Like I told Chip, once he clicked the pit speed limiter off [exiting the pits for the final time] he held the throttle down and never lifted. Nothing was going to keep him from winning today.”

O’Gara’s point, that staying out longer before pitting leaves a driver exceedingly vulnerable because if there’s a caution he will get shuffled back behind his rivals who have already stopped, is not lost on Ericsson. But he had faith in the O’Gara/Goldberg pairing.

“The cool thing is that Mike and Brad and myself, we worked together since I came to Ganassi so we know each other well,” he says. “They could see that when I started to save big numbers of fuel in that second to last stint, this was going to help us overcut people, and they were planning for that while I tried to give them as much as possible to play with. This is the biggest race of the year, bigger than anything else, so it’s definitely worth taking that risk ahead of the last stint because that’s what helped to win us the race.”

When Ericsson first moved from Formula 1 to IndyCar with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport, he looked much as he had before – flashes of real talent but then annoying little falters during high-pressure moments that prevented him realising his potential. And even in his first year with Ganassi, he looked only OK – sometimes impressive, sometimes wallpaper – and rarely a threat to de facto team leader Dixon.

Ericsson accepted the risks of running longer into stints due to his trust in his Chip Ganassi Racing crew, who joined the traditional victory celebrations

Ericsson accepted the risks of running longer into stints due to his trust in his Chip Ganassi Racing crew, who joined the traditional victory celebrations

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

But last year, soon after his breakthrough win in Detroit, there came that weekend at Mid-Ohio where Ericsson outqualified and outraced Palou and Dixon. That made everyone take notice. Goldberg and O’Gara helped – and continue to help – fortify his self-confidence and dissolve some of those mental inhibitions that hurt him in the past.

And he’s taking full advantage of being in one of the greatest racing teams of all time. Some drivers can’t make that transition and get mired in the role of perpetual underdog as Ericsson was in F1, driving for backmarker teams. But Ericsson agrees that he’s a far better driver than the one who left F1 after five years wrestling recalcitrant or, at best, mid-grid cars.

“I truly feel like that, yeah,” he says. “I’ve developed a lot the last couple of years and got my confidence back. That’s a lot for me, knowing that you can do it, that you can win, and since that win at Detroit last year it’s like I’m a different driver. I feel like I’m at the top of my performance now, at a higher level than when I was in Formula 1, and I need to keep that going.”

With Indy being a double-points race, Ericsson has catapulted from eighth into the lead of the 2022 IndyCar Series championship. With six rounds down and 11 to go, can he take on the likes of Dixon and Palou from his own team, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin from Team Penske, Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist from AMSP, and Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and Alex Rossi from Andretti Autosport?

“I’m ready for it, absolutely,” he replies. “Last year was really strong, finishing sixth and winning a couple of races. And I feel like this year I’ve been even stronger. I had that costly mistake in Long Beach while running P3, and that was 30 points I threw away. Without that I would have been P3 or P4 in the championship even before the 500.

“But now I really feel like we have the chance to take the championship – and that’s definitely the goal now.”

The only surprise about Marcus Ericsson these days is that he still surprises us. Maybe it’s time to raise the judgment threshold on this quiet, studious and charming fellow from Kumla, Sweden, and accept that he’s very good. And, yes, accept he’s a title contender. Last Sunday he proved he can put a whole race together, overcome hurdles and win on the world’s biggest stage under the most intense pressure.

More important than proving anything to us is that he proved himself to himself. It should get easier from here.

Ericsson's Indy win will be a huge lift to his confidence as he seeks to go on and challenge for the championship title

Ericsson's Indy win will be a huge lift to his confidence as he seeks to go on and challenge for the championship title

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

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