PRUETT: A battle of the ages

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PRUETT: A battle of the ages

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: A battle of the ages

Obvious statement alert: I can’t wait for the 2019 IndyCar Series to get under way.

And that’s less to do with to the long offseason ahead and the inevitable racing withdrawals that set in, and more because of the second consecutive crop of wicked rookie talent that will breathe more life into America’s old open-wheel darling.

We were spoiled in that regard last season. Robert Wickens set a new standard for rookies in the modern era as the ex-Mercedes DTM driver asserted himself as an immediate title contender. In Wickens, the entire IndyCar paddock was put on notice by a newcomer who was ready to win races from the outset for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

After the Canadian, Zach Veach rose to the challenge at Andretti Autosport; Brazil’s Matheus Leist showed flashes of promise at a rebuilding A.J. Foyt Racing; England’s Jordan King made people take notice in qualifying at Ed Carpenter Racing; and more part-timers, namely Zachary Claman De Melo, Pietro Fittipaldi, Kyle Kaiser, Jack Harvey, and Santino Ferrucci, showed they belonged on the grid.

It was a rich year with an unusual amount of new blood for IndyCar. The volume of rookies will be lower in 2019, but the overall quality contained within that group is higher. This is where my true joy is focused.

It started with the confirmation of Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and his runner-up teammate Colton Herta signing on to lead Andretti’s satellite outfit, Harding Steinbrenner Racing. O’Ward’s debut at Sonoma, where he qualified fifth and finished ninth, still stands as one of the great ‘where the hell did that come from?’ performances in recent memory. Herta’s debut wasn’t as strong, but I’m not concerned. In reality, Pato over-delivered and Colton had a normal encounter at his first IndyCar dance.

I’ve watched at least a hundred rookies come into the series, and if the young Mexican and young American haven’t earned at least one IndyCar title over the next decade, I’ll be shocked.

Felix Rosenqvist. Image by MRTI

O’Ward and Herta would have been easy picks for 2019 Rookie of the Year, but then Chip Ganassi Racing went and secured the driver of their dreams. In an instant, the rookie balance shifted in favor of Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist, CGR’s soon-to-be 27-year-old world traveler. Where a win in 2019 for either of the Harding Steinbrenner duo feels like it would require perfect circumstances, picturing Rosenqvist atop the podium at least once does not involve the same leap. He’s that good.

Following Wickens’ example of racing throughout Europe in high-level series to polish his supreme talent, Rosenqvist joins five-time champ Scott Dixon while carrying a massive amount of mileage in the sport. From his partial Indy Lights season where he won three races, to stints in Formula E, DTM, the FIA WEC, and all manner of junior formulas, Rosenqvist has all the markings of a driver who will be spoken of as a “rookie” in the same way air quotes were used with Wickens’ 2018 campaign.

Like Pato and Colton, Felix should have one or more IndyCar championships in hand in the next five to 10 years. And in Rosenqvist, CGR also has an eventual successor for Dixon, provided the New Zealander doesn’t pull a Mario Andretti and race into his 50s.

In all that IndyCar has lost – hopefully only temporarily – with Wickens, we have three incoming rockets to rally behind in 2019.

Take O’Ward/Herta/Rosenqvist, bring Veach into the equation as a sophomore, the potential of Foyt’s improvement and how that could help Leist show more of the pace he demonstrated in Lights, the simmering promise of Ferrucci at Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Jones landing a good drive at ECR to complement Spencer Pigot, plus the established next-generation stars in Newgarden and Rossi, and we have a damn exciting core of under-30 drivers – along with two under 20 in O’Ward and Herta – to push the veterans.

Marcus Ericsson makes his first visit to IMS. Image by IndyCar

We also learned this week that five-year Formula 1 man Marcus Ericsson will fill Wickens’ void at SPM. Despite the F1 experience and coming in at the age of 28, he definitely ranks as a rookie, and from what’s been shared by a few friends in F1, SPM’s new driver should thrive in North America.

If Rosenqvist has the feel of Wickens 2.0, the Swede could mirror Alexander Rossi’s experience. The American, stuck swimming in the same distant waters as Ericsson during a brief spell with tail-end grand prix teams, found happiness and fulfillment after switching to IndyCar. I’d expect a similar outcome this time around.

It’s hard to say exactly how much talent Ericsson has to offer. Dixon or Newgarden probably haven’t lost any sleep since the announcement, but I also think most of the dismissive comments that accompanied the news of his arrival are ill-considered. Just as we had no clue what Rossi would bring to IndyCar after accomplishing very little in F1, judging Ericsson at this stage – who was so enthused by the series, he signed with SPM without turning a single lap in testing – is plain silly.

O’Ward, Herta, Rosenqvist, Ericsson, and a few more rookies on the horizon will continue IndyCar’s gradual march towards a more youthful driver base, and that’s an important change from only a few years ago when veterans held most of the available seats in the series. Among the inbound quartet, I’m confident at least three are destined for big things. Get Wickens back in the No. 6 SPM Honda, and we have a fourth future champion.

Our established stars and all-time greats are still here, ready to defend their territory. And a growing number of monsters-in-training are ready to send them off into early retirement. The battle of the ages is going to be awesome once 2019 arrives.

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