There have been some great rookie lineups throughout the history of IndyCar, but the Class of 2019 must rank right up there. Pretty damn impressive.
Teenage sensation Colton Herta won two races and three poles; Felix Rosenqvist finished sixth in the NTT IndyCar point standings; Santino Ferrucci went from unknown to fan favorite; and Marcus Ericsson left the mediocrity of Formula 1 for some enjoyable, hard-nosed competition in America.
“Man, these kids and new guys are tough, and they’re going to be around for a long time,” said veteran Will Power after stalking Herta through the final 15 laps in the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca series finale and winding up second. “I tried everything I could to get him, but he never made a mistake.”
It’s hard to imagine how poised a teenager can be in a high-pressure environment that would seem to favor experience. But Little Hertamania is anything but your typical teenager. He became the youngest winner ever last spring at COTA after taking advantage of a Power technical failure. But the final weekend of the season was all Colton. He captured the pole position for the Harding Steinbrenner team on Saturday and then whipped Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport on Sunday — leading 83 of 90 laps in his Harding Steinbrenner Honda.
“It was a perfect race. Whenever you win, it has to be perfect with no mistakes,” said the 19-year-old Californian. “We were definitely the best today, and we deserved to win.”
No brag, just fact as the second-generation driver was flawless despite unrelenting pressure from Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Power.
“I didn’t feel threatened until the end when Will was all over me,” Herta said. “I felt I had things under control for 80 percent of the race, and I had a great car.”
The other drive of the day, though, came from Rosenqvist. The 28-year-old Swede started 14th and charged all the way to fifth in his Ganassi Honda while clinching the Rookie of the Year title.
“It was a fun day and an interesting race,” said Rosenqvist, who would very likely have started first or second had he not been penalized for impeding another competitor with a half-spin early in qualifying.
“It was not ‘aggressive all the time’; just kind of pick your moment and then try to save tires and fuel. We were really good on reds and only a little bit worse on blacks.
“It was a helluva year, and my crew was flawless all season,” Rosenqvist added.
The former Formula E, Indy Lights, DTM, Super Formula and Formula 3 competitor scored a pair of podiums for Chip Ganassi and just missed winning at Mid-Ohio.
While the well-traveled Rosenqvist’s performance was no surprise, Santino Ferrucci’s pace was — maybe the most pleasant surprise of 2019. Turning 21 midway through the season, the Connecticut native gave Dale Coyne a display of driving the enduring team owner never expected.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” said Coyne, who has probably given more rookies their first opportunity than any other owner in the paddock. “I certainly didn’t expect this. He did a great job all year.”
Three fourth places, a seventh at Indianapolis (which earned him Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors) and a fearless style on ovals made him instantly popular with the paying customers. He never put a wheel wrong until Sunday when he slid into Takuma Sato on a restart.
“We were having a good race, but then on the restart I forgot to put the brake bias back to the rear, and going into Turn 1 I locked the fronts,” he said. “I knew I was going to hit (Takuma) Sato, so I just tried to hit him square to do the minimum amount of damage. Sadly I ended up with most of it. I’m sorry to him and his team for messing up their race. It was my mistake.
“Looking back, I feel pretty good about our season as a whole. I feel it went exceptionally well. It’s just unfortunate because I think today is the only mistake I made all year. It’s not the way I wanted to end the season but overall we’ve had a great year and I think we can be proud of that.”
As for Ericsson, he left F1 after five years with mediocre teams, most recently with Sauber, before moving to North America and stepping in for the injured Robert Wickens at Arrow SPM, and he quietly impressed all season long.
The Swede finished second at Detroit and had many better drives than the final results showed, though he finished mid-pack (11th) at Laguna.