The knock on Marcus Ericsson was that he was a washed up, ride-buying Formula 1 refugee with nowhere left to go but IndyCar. In the early stages of his fifth NTT IndyCar Series season, his fourth with the Chip Ganassi Racing organization, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner is looking a lot like the team’s best hope for the future when the ageless Scott Dixon decides to call time on his Hall of Fame career.
Leading the team this year in speed, consistency, and placement in the championship standings, the Swede has done something that seemed improbable by making another large step in his development as an IndyCar driver.
“That’s the best guy Ganassi’s got,” said one prominent rival, pointing at Ericsson prior to the race last weekend in Long Beach. “They’ve got their guy when Dixon hangs it up.”
There was nothing to suggest the Ericsson who debuted in 2019 as a one-and-done rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, who placed 17th in the championship, would find a new gear in each subsequent season.
A move to Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020 saw Ericsson improve to 12th in the standings as new teammate Dixon cruised to the title, and it’s here where a classic Ganassi scenario has unfolded.
When 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon joined the program in 2006, Dixon was a sponge, soaking up all manner of oval knowledge from his new teammate. Dixon went on to win the 2008 Indy 500 and become one of IndyCar’s most decorated oval drivers.
When Dario Franchitti was signed by CGR for 2009, Dixon — already a two-time IndyCar Series champion — went to school once again, learning a range of new techniques and approaches to apply going forward. The process was repeated when CART IndyCar Series veteran and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan arrived at CGR in 2014 as Dixon onboarded more items that improved his game; and in turn, when Felix Rosenqvist made his IndyCar debut in 2018, it was Dixon’s turn to download more than a decade of IndyCar wisdom.
Alex Palou enrolled in Dixon University in 2021 and readily credits Dixon for helping him to win the championship in his first try at CGR. And for Ericsson, who’s entered his fourth year of studies — his senior year — at Dixon U, the fruits of having the best IndyCar driver of his generation as a friend, ally, and educational resource has changed the trajectory of his life.
“Look, I’m a hard worker,” Ericsson told RACER after placing third following a fightback drive on Sunday. “I came into IndyCar five years ago with low confidence after a tough spell in F1. I had to build myself up. I was very determined to get to the top in this series, and I believed in myself, but I knew it was a journey to get there. I got the opportunity to race with Chip Ganassi Racing and Scott Dixon, who is the best in the sport, and I knew I could learn a lot from him over the years. And I’ve just been working really, really hard to put myself in a position to fight for wins and championships.”
One deficiency Ericsson targeted to improve for the new season was qualifying, where occasionally good but rarely excellent performances made his job on race days harder than desired. At St. Petersburg, he started fourth, best of the four CGR drivers, then struggled at Texas with a run to 18th in time trials, and rebounded to place the No. 8 Honda on the front row at Long Beach next to polesitter Kyle Kirkwood.
A win at St. Pete, rise from 18th to eighth at Texas, and a third in Long Beach has Ericsson holding a 15-point lead over Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward and 19 over teammate Palou entering Round 4 at Barber Motorsports Park.
“I think the last couple of years, our speed on race day has been one of the best in the field,” he said. “I am 100-percent confident in saying we’ve been qualifying too low, and that’s made life too hard for us in the race. That’s why we worked really hard this winter, as a team, me as a driver, to try everything I could to help myself to take another step in qualifying.
“Together with my engineer Brad Goldberg and the whole Ganassi group, I feel like we made progress. That’s encouraging for me, because I know if we qualify well, we can fight for podiums and wins every race. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Ericsson’s ascension within CGR where he’s become consistently fast, consistently at the finish, and often leading the team in qualifying or in the race to the checkered flag, is one of IndyCar’s most compelling stories. But with the likes of title-winning teammates Dixon and Palou under the same tent, there’s no guarantee Ericsson will remain atop the internecine pecking order.
“As a racing driver, you want to be the best in your team,” he said. “That’s in the nature of racing drivers. I have a ton of respect for my teammates. I have a great bunch of guys there that I race with every weekend and I can learn from and we work well together. Scott is the greatest driver I’ve ever raced together with and as a teammate.
“But I still want to be the top dog and I’m gonna see if I can do that. That’s what I’ve worked so hard to be and so far, we’re leading the championship. But if I relax and think I’m great and can just sit back, I’m gonna get overtaken, so I need to keep that determination, keep working hard and continue to improve.”