Among the many highlights from an amazing 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, the instant competitiveness of its rookie class was hard to ignore. And it’s about to happen for the second consecutive year.
With two-time race winner Colton Herta, podium finisher and eventual Rookie of the Year winner Felix Rosenqvist, and impressive efforts from Santino Ferrucci, Pato O’Ward, Ben Hanley, and others signaling the arrival of IndyCar’s freshest talents, the series is poised for another jolt of youth and speed as a new crop of rookies prepare to take their place.
Arrow McLaren SP leads the charge with the last two Indy Lights champions with reigning title winner Oliver Askew, and O’Ward, whose part-time 2019 appearances have been upgraded to full-time status. Dale Coyne Racing has Spanish standout Alex Palou joining Ferrucci as its team adds to AMSP’s youth movement, and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, who chased Askew home last season in Lights, is cued up for his big shot in IndyCar.
Add in A.J. Foyt Racing part-timer Dalton Kellett, and Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey who, like O’Ward, is getting a season-long bid for the first time, and IndyCar in 2020 has the look of a series where the next generation is taking hold.
“It was very impressive last year with the rookie crop that came in,” Andretti Autosport’s Herta tells RACER. “And honestly, there were guys that just shook the world immediately, especially Felix, with a podium at the first round at St. Pete, and then also with Santino on the ovals, and it was very impressive. And now, you have the same energy this year with the rookie class. It’s going to make life a lot more difficult for us, because I think they’re going to be battling just as soon as we were last year.
“I have a lot of confidence in the guys like Pato, who I guess isn’t a rookie, but is coming back to the series, and is going to be right up there. And he’s obviously going to teach Askew a lot. And Askew’s already a fast driver, and Palou coming from Japanese Super Formula and [was] doing great over there… Man, there’s just so much talent right now in the series that you can’t really run away. I think it’s going to get to a point where you’re going to have to be happy with a top five finish and a top seven finish, because it’s going to be tough out there.”
Returning to Chip Ganassi Racing where he complemented IndyCar veteran Scott Dixon, Rosenqvist expects the sophomores to gain more ground against the established guard while the newcomers bring more surprises to the race results.
“I think all the new drivers coming in definitely shows that IndyCar has some good momentum right now,” he says. “I think part of it is due to probably a change of some of the drivers in IndyCar are getting pretty old, and it’s a couple years now with new blood coming in. I think the important thing is that every rookie last year was a potential podium contender. IndyCar has been a championship that had slightly more veterans than rookies, and it’s good to see that trend turning a little bit. And I’m sure the rookies from last year will definitely all be ready for taking more podiums this year. But these new guys will definitely be up there as well. So yeah. Good, good fun. I like when there’s changes in the field.”
In comparing the era where IndyCar’s older drivers got their start to the changes experienced by the younger generation, Herta says there’s a clear reason why he and his counterparts don’t need the same amount of time to make an impact.
“It’s actually very cool, because when my dad started racing IndyCars, he was 24, and probably had about 60 races coming from the junior series to start his IndyCar career,” he says. “Nowadays, I started racing cars when I was 12, and I did 48 races in cars my first year. And then the following year, I did another 18 in USF2000. And then the year after that, I did another 30 in Formula 4 in Britain. So I think the amount of track time you get in this era is pretty incredible.
“And sim work… when I was in England, all the teams have their own simulators, so I did a lot of that. And so when you’re not in the car today, since we’re all young and not married and don’t have kids, we can spend all the time we want at home on our own simulators. You’re way better-prepared, and I think this is the evolution of the sport. People are going to start coming in younger and younger and people are going to start racing. I can’t wait to see the first 10-year-old to win a Skip Barber race…”
Having taken three Indy Lights wins in an abbreviated 2016 season with Belardi Auto Racing, Rosenqvist is keen on seeing how the most recent Indy Lights graduates fare as Askew and VeeKay enter IndyCar.
“Naturally, I’ve had an eye on the Indy Lights drivers because every time we sat in the truck last year, we had it running in the background and we always follow the races and the qualifying, what have you,” he says. “And it just seemed like Askew was always winning everything. I mean, he must be very good indeed. So is VeeKay. Seemed like he was always fighting. He was a hard fighter last year every time I looked.”
The Swede also thinks Palou could be a big surprise.
“When I did Formula E, one of the team bosses, Adrian Campos, an old F1 driver from Spain, helped Palou a little bit and he rated him very high; he tried to get him into the team at that point,” Rosenqvist says.
“And he was like me; struggled to find budget, went to Japan, raced in Super Formula last year. And I think he finished third in his rookie year, so I believe he’s the real deal as well. I know a lot of people that speak highly about him in Europe, so that will be really interesting to see.”
At 28, Rosenqvist is an elder statesman among IndyCar’s newest drivers. His name has been found on entry lists in about a dozen series spanning the globe, and with a proper feel for where IndyCar ranks among them, he sees the recent turn towards young talent is a welcome development.
“That is a change we’re seeing across all motorsport lately, as it’s gone more towards younger drivers coming in and being winners immediately,” he says. “I think IndyCar has probably been the slowest to adapt to that trend, and I think it’s because it’s a very specific kind of championship with the really tricky tracks, and ovals, and so on.
“So I think it’s taken time for team bosses to sort of gamble, to try out the good rookie. But last year, I think we’ve proved that it can be a good choice. We’ve seen it in F1. We’ve seen it in Formula E. We’ve seen it everywhere. I think in IndyCar, the young drivers’ time has come.”