The results are starting to come for rookie Marcus Ericsson, and it has him resetting expectations as the second half of the NTT IndyCar Series season begins this weekend at Road America.
The 28-year-old Swede endured a rocky start transitioning from Formula 1, with only one top-10 finish (seventh at Barber Motorsports Park) through the opening seven races of 2019.
The promise of his qualifying pace, though, finally brought results as he claimed an IndyCar career-best runner-up finish in the second race on the streets of Belle Isle; then backed it up with a seventh-place run at Texas Motor Speedway — only his second start on an oval.
With eight of 17 races remaining in the 2019 season, the driver of the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is elevating his goals.
“They’re getting bigger and bigger for sure,” said Ericsson. “It’s been a lot to learn this year for me. Being a new series, new cars, new tracks — everything. It’s taken a bit of time to get used to everything, to get into everything. But now I’m starting to feel more comfortable.
“For sure, we want to raise our game. Obviously, the last couple of races, we’ve been running up front, and we want to keep doing that, keep qualifying well in the top 10, and fighting in the top five, top three in the races.”
Race engineer Blair Perschbacher has been on top of Ericsson’s timing stand since the start of the year, and has witnessed his driver’s progression through his maiden campaign in North America’s open wheel championship. While the expectations may be daunting to some with a first-year driver learning the nuances of the series, the pace is proving it is “realistic.”
“As a team, we’ve had good races [but] hadn’t been able to finish it off early in the season,” Perschbacher said. “So that’s realistic. Our goal is to qualify top 10 every weekend. That’s been our struggle, but I think it’s a struggle for any new rookie coming in, to learn the reds (Firestone’s alternate tire compound) quickly compared to guys who’ve been here for 10 years. We’re still working on that, but our expectation coming in was always try to win Rookie of the Year. And that’s still our goal.
“I don’t think that really where we expect to run every weekend has changed a whole lot. We’re just getting there now, compared to where we weren’t at the beginning of the season.”
Given his experience in F1, Perschbacher wasn’t worried about Ericsson’s race craft, but more about his ability to drain every last tenth of a second on flying laps while getting on-the-job training. However, at the mid-point of the year, it’s his acclimation to the ovals that has “been really good and surprising.”
Ericsson gets something of a return to normalcy this weekend at the 14-turn, 4.014-mile majestic wonder that is Road America. It is about as close to a European circuit as they come, with teammate James Hinchcliffe even calling it a “Midwest Spa” in reference to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
“This track has its own really challenging corners. Obviously the one that stands out is the Carousel (Turns 9-10); it’s a very unique corner,” said Ericsson.
“It’s going to be interesting to tackle that and see how it feels. The other thing that is sort of similar to Spa is the elevation changes around the track and it being a long lap as well — for sure, quite a lot of things that remind each one of the other.”
Ericsson never put down a lap around the Elkhart Lake circuit prior to Friday’s on-track action, where he struggled with oversteer and finished 22nd overall at 1m45.0633s (137.540 mph) in the combined results after two practice sessions. But overall, he is taking away a positive impression from his newest challenge this weekend.
“I personally love the old-school tracks,” Ericsson explained. “I’ve always said my favorite track was Suzuka, which is one of the most old-school-type track left on the [F1] calendar. We never want to be in the wall or damage the cars, but we also want to have tracks that [are] difficult for us drivers and that penalize us when we do mistakes.
“That’s one of the problems with all the modern tracks: The way they build them, you can run pretty much anywhere on and off track without anything happening. On this place, that’s not going to be possible. I personally think that’s good. Obviously, we need to always look for safety first; but also find ways that you, as a driver, need to be building up to it and not go over the limit, and then sort of bring it back.
“Here, it’s a track you need to build up to every corner. You need to be working the brake. Can I brake a bit later? Can I go a bit faster? Because if you overdo it, you’re going to be pretty much in the wall. I like that sort of approach and the skill it requires, and I think that’s something — yeah, it’s a bit different on a lot of the modern tracks today.”