PRUETT: Why are this year's IndyCar rookies so good? Ask their engineers

Image by Galstad/LAT

PRUETT: Why are this year's IndyCar rookies so good? Ask their engineers

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Why are this year's IndyCar rookies so good? Ask their engineers

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Felix Rosenqvist has never met 99 percent. Colton Herta is a chameleon. Patricio O’Ward is a hunter/killer. Santino Ferrucci lives for the minutia.

If you want to know the things that make a driver special, speak to their race engineers and driver coaches. It’s through the men and women who work the closest with the best in the NTT IndyCar Series – and in this case, the shockingly good rookie class of 2019 – where one can unlock the codes to a rather special group.

Taking a step back from lap times and race results, it’s in the little behavioral traits and glimpses of extraordinary talent where the first hints of future success is being demonstrated.

FELIX ROSENQVIST

Julian Robertson has been Chip Ganassi Racing’s engineering anchor for decades. The byproduct of the Briton’s disciplined curiosity comes in the form of countless wins and championships, as everyone from Michael Andretti to Juan Montoya to Scott Dixon have benefited from his mechanical wizardry.

As the team’s longstanding technical director, and since 2018 in his return to race engineering, Robertson has appraised all manner of talent at CGR. In overseeing Felix Rosenqvist’s No. 10 Honda, he’s observed mannerisms familiar to him from watching the team’s greats.

Rosenquist is always on the attack, says engineer Robertson. Image by Levitt/LAT

“He drives absolutely on the limit, as they all do,” Robertson tells RACER. “Anybody at the front is driving on the limit all the time, and searching for those few extra tenths. And he’s one of those guys. He’s certainly paying attention to all the little details, particularly like tire management and all that kind of thing; he’s very switched on. He’s aware of how everything can affect the car, and making sure he maximizes everything he can do.”

Robertson describes the 27-year-old Swede as someone who does not differentiate between practice, qualifying, or the race when it comes to effort and exertion. On a basic level, drivers are always trying to lap as quickly as possible, but few are capable of finding and living on the limit for prolonged stretches. It’s bursts of blazing speed, surrounded by something more comfortable, albeit only a percent or two to the safe side of danger. But Rosenqvist operates in a constant state of attack.

“Like all the fast guys, he’s always on the edge, trying to put laps together,” Robertson continued. “So, he’s always trying to put the perfect lap together, and he always thinks he can go faster than whatever he just did. Which is one of the reasons we keep going faster. He’s always pushing for it. He’s our man.”

As the man charged with helping Rosenqvist to restore the 1-2 punch it last had when he was Scott Dixon’s teammate, Dario Franchitti has been gifted the closest thing to a finished product in this rookie class. He believes Ganassi’s reigning series champion and its newest driver are both crafted from the same hard-to-define ingredients.

“Felix has driven a load of different cars and that gives him a fairly unique perspective as a rookie,” says the three-time Indy 500 winner. “Each one of the guys I’ve worked with has been different in terms of personality, the way they drive the car, and what they want from the car – that’s from rookies to old Mr. Five-Time Champion (Dixon).

“It’s a bit of a cop-out to say it like this, but Felix just has a certain ‘something’ in terms of speed, feel and feedback that makes him a little different – just like Scott. He’s got the best teammate, because Dix is the benchmark. Not only does Scott have those traits to a ridiculously high level, but he works his arse off too, reminding Felix – if he ever needs it – that talent is not enough.”

COLTON HERTA

Colton Herta is authoring a new standard for don’t-call-it-a-rookie campaigns.

The brand-new 19-year-old could easily be mistaken for 16 or 17, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition of age and appearance. Outside the car, he’s clearly a teen. Inside the car, he behaves like a battle-hardened pro.

Strip the colors from his No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda and the paint from Herta’s helmet, and it would be hard to tell the Californian’s average performance from IndyCar’s most accomplished veterans. His fitting right in among the big names, from the outset, has been the greatest surprise.

It’s in this latter area where his race engineer, Nathan O’Rourke, whose talents have shipped plenty of drivers to Victory Lane, says Herta stands out from the rookie crowd.

Colton Herta is mature – and fast – beyond his years, according to engineer Nathan O’Rourke. Image by Levitt/LAT

“Well, he obviously has a ton of talent; that’s pretty clear, and everybody’s seen that by now,” he remarks. “But I think what’s impressed me most so far, and the quality that it takes some drivers a long time to develop, is adaptability. From the first run [at COTA in Spring Training], we put seven laps of fuel in the car, and said, ‘Work up to it, man. We know it might take you a while. You’ve never done this before.’

“And his fastest lap of his first outing in an IndyCar at COTA was his first one. He just kept running in the same time over and over and over again. So I figured there’s something going on here – maybe he doesn’t like the setup, because he wasn’t really improving on lap time? He was like, ‘No, I was really surprised, too. I just figured it out right away.’ That gave us a lot of confidence going forward. He found the peak immediately and stayed there.”

Where many rookies stumble when adversity strikes or an imbalanced chassis makes driving harder than expected, O’Rourke is astounded by Herta’s ability to avoid the traditional pitfalls and continue delivering the goods.

“That’s always what’s scary for rookies – it’s that things always change,” he says. “I think what makes champions good and what makes really good drivers is when things don’t go as they expect. The guys who adapt to that change the quickest are the ones who do the best job. As young as he is, at this age to have that type of adaptability, it’s scary.”

Despite working together for the first time just two months ago, Herta and O’Rourke have found instant chemistry as driver and engineer. It’s another area where the man in charge of Herta’s chassis setups gives credit to the second-generation phenom.

“Most of it goes to him, to be honest,” he says. “I think that chemistry, as we define it, comes down to them knowing that they need to go faster. That’s something that takes some guys a while, especially, a lot of times with rookies. IndyCars just understeer. You’re never going to get them to stop understeering. And a lot of times, rookies get so caught up in trying to fix that, they hurt themselves. They end up with a car that’s too loose, and they’re uncompetitive.

“Where with him, I think he’s been really aware of what he needs to go faster. When we give it to him, he goes faster. We haven’t, so far, gotten off track. That’s pretty cool.

“The whole chemistry thing is a lot easier when they know what they need to go faster, and that makes our job easier as engineers. It’s the kind of thing to expect from the veterans, not really from a rookie.”

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