Three years ago, Ricky Davis and his crew at Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team were at Mid-Ohio about to test some kid from Sweden with a funny last name. “We’d never heard of him so we googled him and up pops this amazing résumé of all the cars he’d driven and the fact he’d finished on the podium 90 percent of the time.
“Then he goes out in the test and runs as quick as Dixie (Scott Dixon) on a track he’d never seen. Were we impressed? Hell yes, how could you not be?”
Well, Felix Rosenqvist’s first IndyCar race Sunday at St. Petersburg just missed ending up on the podium but it was hard to imagine a more impressive debut.
Starting third in his NTT Data Honda, the 27-year-old busted around Josef Newgarden in the first corner and then stalked Will Power for 17 laps before putting on a bodacious move braking for Turn 1 to take the lead on Lap 18 (pictured, above).
He led 31 laps and was never passed on the track but wound up in fourth place because he got beat in the pits. His stops were good but twice he overshot his pit box and once had trouble getting his car into gear, and those little mistakes cost him a win.
“Some pit stops didn’t really go as planned but the car really good,” said Rosenqvist, who is now competing in the 10th series of his young career. “I think it was a good enough package to win the race.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t end up on the podium but it was a good start to the season.”
Davis is a racer to his core who drove sprint cars at Manzanita and for the past 24 years he’s worked as a crew chief for Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar program. He’s won with Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya so he knows talent and he knows what this team has for the future.
“Felix is amazing,” said Davis, who hasn’t been to victory lane since 2013 but figures that’s going to change this season. “We couldn’t have asked for a better job and it’s so damn exciting to have him in our car.
“And he’s so professional. He was cool all day on the radio and asked a couple times, ‘Am I doing OK?’ Can you imagine that? His first race, he passes Power and never puts a wheel wrong in the lead and wonders if he’s doing OK.”
As mentioned, nobody passed this kid all afternoon. Not three of the best in open-wheel racing that have 90 wins, seven championships and 42 years of experienced between them.
Eventual winner Josef Newgarden wasn’t surprised with what happened in Turn 1 on the start.
“I thought he was just perfect — not too aggressive and not too timid and he wasn’t overzealous,” said Newgarden. “He’s very, very good and very, very talented. I’ve watched him in DTM, Formula E and (Indy) Lights. He was quick with just the right amount of aggression and that’s what got him the lead.
“He’s a rookie but he’s a very experienced driver.”
Stefan Johansson, the former F1 and IndyCar regular who represents his fellow countryman as well as Dixon, began touting Rosenqvist a year before he captured the Indy Lights race at St. Pete in 2016. He said this kid was one of those rarities that comes along once or twice a decade and hoped somebody in IndyCar would snap him up.
But DTM, and Formula E came calling first, so the IndyCar move had to wait until Ganassi pulled the trigger last fall.
“I enjoy driving all types of cars and I think it’s helped me,” said Rosenqvist, whose also driven Formula Renault, German F3, European F3, Japanese Super Formula, Super GT, Le Mans, the Rolex 24 at Daytona and twice won the Macau Grand Prix. “That was the hardest car I’ve ever driven today and I’m worn out, but it was fun and I’m looking forward to COTA in a couple weeks.”
It was the COTA Spring Training test last month that really sealed it for Davis.
“He goes out on a green track and sets quick time and it holds up for almost the whole session. That cinched it for me. You know, we were sitting on the golf cart before the race today and he looks at me and says: ‘It would be cool to win’ and I told him if that happens and I’m not in victory lane it’s because I had a heart attack.”
It wasn’t far from being a reality on Sunday. I predicted a few weeks ago that Felix would win at least one race in 2019 but now I’m thinking maybe two or three. And to be on the safe side Davis needs to pack a defibrillator for the trip to COTA.