Former F1 driver stands tall after winning US motorsport’s most converted prize.
He was a journeyman in Formula 1, respectable but never likely to progress beyond Sauber – especially as he carried the toxic label of ‘pay driver’.
That’s why after 97 grands prix, initially with Caterham and then over four seasons with the middling Swiss team now known as Alfa Romeo, he was right to look west to the land of opportunity.
Four seasons in and amid his third with Chip Ganassi Racing’s crack IndyCar team, Marcus Ericsson has hit the pinnacle by becoming an Indianapolis 500 winner. His life will never be the same again. On the same day and on the other side of the Atlantic, Sergio Perez out-performed Max Verstappen and made the most of Red Bull’s sharp pitstop strategy to win the Monaco Grand Prix, the race most Formula 1 drivers covet more than any other. But while joining the Monaco club is special, F1 racers desire a world championship above it.
In the US, the opposite is true: give drivers a choice of an Indycar title or a win at the Indy 500 and it’s just not a question, for any of them. Drinking the traditional quart of Indiana milk, slipping on the ridiculously oversized winner’s ring and getting your face moulded on to the giant Borg Warner Trophy… it’s like winning the Masters in golf, the Grand National in horse racing or an Olympic gold medal. People look at you differently after you’ve conquered the 500.
No one is immune to pressure
In a way, Ericsson’s was a typical under-the-radar Indy win. Overshadowed even within his own team by Scott Dixon and Alex Palou, the 31-year-old Swede quietly kept himself in the game, lapping among the frontrunners without looking like an obvious threat.
For the first 150 laps at Indy, the key is not to try and win the race but rather to avoid losing it. Dixon and Palou worked together at the front of the field, attempting to save fuel in the way peloton riders save energy in cycling. They looked tough to beat – only for both to be undone in a blink by pitlane transgressions.
Palou’s downfall was pure bad luck when an ill-timed accident for Brit Callum Ilott meant the reigning IndyCar champion needed fuel at exactly the moment the pitlane was closed. His emergency stop, breaking the brief service ban, relegated him to the back and dropped him out of contention. Dixon’s loss, at his last pitstop on lap 175 of 200, was far harder to take – because it was all his own doing.
He braked too late on the way in, locked up and broke the pitlane speed limit. A rookie error, from a 41-year-old sixtime champion considered among Indycar’s all-time greats. Yet he’s only won the Indy 500 once, way back in 2008. This race is an obsession for the Kiwi, his friend Max Chilton on pundit duty in the Sky TV studio pointing out Dixon would likely swap all those titles for another Brickyard victory ring. In the heat of the moment, even one of the best proved fallible. Without that small slip, he was odds-on.
Dark horse emerges
Now, out of the pack came Ericsson, hot Ganassi pit work lifting him to third and the Swede then going to work to demote countryman Felix Rosenqvist and firebrand Mexican Pato O’Ward, teammates at Arrow McLaren SP, sister squad to the F1 team. In those moments Ericsson found underneath him what every racing driver desires: a fully hooked-up racing car powered by a potent Honda engine that just had the legs on McLaren’s Chevrolets. He stretched away and his family’s excitement behind the pitwall began to spill into celebration.
But wait: this is the biggest race in the world. Victory doesn’t come that easy.
A sting in the tail
On lap 194, just six from home, Ganassi’s own Jimmie Johnson lost control and slammed hard into the wall.
The seven-time NASCAR champion had just created Ericsson’s idea of hell. Determined to finish the event under racing conditions, Indy’s officials did what Michael Masi failed to do in Abu Dhabi last year and threw a red flag.
Victory had been almost in touching distance; now Ericsson trundled down the pit road for the longest 10 minutes of his life, his advantage gone and facing the prospect of a frenzied restart with O’Ward, Rosenqvist and another Ganassi hero, 2013 winner Tony Kanaan, breathing down his neck.
Ericsson was fuming – but after calming words from wise old heads on the pitwall, he refocused and prepared himself for what would be a two-lap dash for glory. O’Ward, at 23, is IndyCar’s most exciting young talent and perhaps destined for a McLaren F1 seat – maybe sooner rather than later if Daniel Ricciardo doesn’t pull his act together.
But before F1, O’Ward is desperate to win Indy and at the restart gave it everything. Ericsson weaved violently down the long straights in his attempt to break the tow, for a second looking destined to smash into the end of the pitwall. Still O’Ward came, edging alongside on the way to Turn 1 – only to back out.
On the outside line, he knew Ericsson, intentionally or otherwise, would have edged him into the wall. The race was over even before Sage Karam crashed in the final seconds, meaning the race finished under caution anyway. Ericsson shot across the yard of bricks – the last vestige of Indy’s original track surface laid for the first 500 in 1911 – to begin his new life as an Indy winner.