until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Brilliant peaks expose what Andretti’s double winner must improve

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It’s been a rollercoaster second IndyCar season for Kyle Kirkwood, but last weekend he delivered a tricky win in Nashville to give Andretti its second victory of the season after his own Long Beach success in April.

Now Kirkwood’s sat ninth in points, it begs the question – just how good or bad has the season actually been for the sophomore?

Let’s not forget that Kirkwood entered IndyCar having won all three of its feeder series titles in a row as well as two other titles in what makes up the most impressive junior resume in North American racing history.

Indy Lights Large Image Without Watermark M38971

There were flashes of pace but plenty of errors in his rookie year at AJ Foyt, so it was uncertain what we’d see in 2023.

What we have seen on the plus side is two wins – neither of his highly-rated team-mates Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean have one – and he’s also regularly been Andretti’s fastest driver. He is the highest of the four Andretti drivers in the championship, and might have been on par with reigning champion Will Power in the points had less gone against him.

On the downside, Kirkwood’s racecraft has been questionable, and errors have led to the kind of inconsistency we saw from him last year. While he leads Andretti, he could be a lot further ahead, and these are the standards he’s going to be held to if he keeps winning races.

Kirkwood himself said after his Long Beach win that he had expected to win an IndyCar race at some point, and becoming more consistent was the most important goal for him.

Asked what it would take to see more weekends like Nashville, Kirkwood replied: “Honestly, the team has done a great job.

“Every weekend we’ve gone into, I think we’ve done everything pretty much exactly how it should be played.

“I think we just had a lot of incidents this year, whether it’s my fault and I’ve done something dumb, or we got into something that was like a dumb incident that we can’t control.

Kyle Kirkwood Big Machine Music City Grand Prix By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M89230

“There’s been a lot of both, to be honest.

“Just executing. Today was just such a smooth race. Strategy played in our favour. I was hitting my marks the entire time and everything worked out well for us.”

Kirkwood’s got a refreshing manner with the media. He can be fun, honest, insightful, introspective and self-aware, which makes for a gripping and absorbing discussion.

As well as Andretti’s general inconsistency across all of its cars – an old problem it shows no sign of fixing – racecraft has been Kirkwood’s biggest drawback. Whether it’s incidents he’s triggered himself or cropping up in bad positions, it’s caused countless issues.

Will Power And Kyle Kirkwood Gmr Grand Prix By Dana Garrett Large Image Without Watermark M79313

He hit Conor Daly in St Petersburg, was penalised for contact with Will Power in the Indy GP, hit Alex Palou and then got a blocking penalty at Mid-Ohio, and was sanctioned for hitting Helio Castroneves at Toronto.

Despite saying that he doesn’t see team-mates as competitors in a question about Grosjean after the race, Kirkwood had also made unnecessary contact with Colton Herta as part of three incidents in two corners that what would ruin Herta’s race.

Aside from his team-mates, the most logical person to compare Kirkwood to is Christian Lundgaard, last year’s rookie of the year, who is seven points ahead in the standings.

It’s clear Kirkwood has a better car, but Lundgaard is ahead through exceptional racecraft and maximising the results available to his struggling team.

Christian Lundgaard Honda Indy Toronto By Joe Skibinski Ref Image Without Watermark M86808

After Lundgaard won in Toronto, Herta said he is one of the cleanest drivers in IndyCar and that view has been backed up by multiple drivers.

That’s the level Kirkwood has got to be aiming for. Perhaps it’s partly down to Kirkwood dominating so many junior races from the front, whereas Lundgaard had a tougher rise in the Formula 1-based feeder series.

It’s certainly not down to age and maturity as Kirkwood has almost three years on Lundgaard.

What Kirkwood has proven beyond doubt is that he has the pace to warrant his drive in one of IndyCar’s best teams. Herta and Grosjean have four poles between them this year, but Kirkwood has two victories to their none, which shows he has been able to pounce on some opportunities.

Especially on street courses he has been phenomenal. Before hitting Castroneves in Toronto he likely would have been in the top five, and he delivered a strong drive after a qualifying crash to finish sixth in Detroit.

Asked by The Race what he felt it was about his technique that fitted with street circuits so well, he said: “I’m not sure, to be honest. I wish I knew exactly what it was so I could pin it down for the other places I go to, as well.

Kyle Kirkwood Big Machine Music City Grand Prix By Chris Owens Large Image Without Watermark M89280

“A lot of it has to do just with comfort around walls, adaptability. I feel like there are some drivers that just have outright raw pace.

“I feel like I’m one of the drivers that can adapt to things really quickly. I might not have, like, the super pace that some of these guys pull out of a hat randomly sometimes, but I adapt to tracks really well.

“That’s a reason why last year I come to new tracks and I’m already pretty quick. I think it just has to do with that, that the track is always evolving, I feel like I’m already up to speed.”

In one regard, it feels like nothing much has changed for Kirkwood. Becoming a consistent threat was, and still has to be, his target moving forward. He’s not reached that yet.

Lundgaard’s found a way to take his ailing team and send it to new heights.

We know Andretti is inconsistent, but Kirkwood – and his team-mates – have made errors when the car, strategy and pitstops have been good.

What is exciting is that Kirkwood is absolutely scintillating when on form and error-free.

Kyle Kirkwood Big Machine Music City Grand Prix By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M89235

He’s an extremely exciting prospect who has already been linked to Team Penske for the future – like almost all fast young American drivers are at some stage – and the fact his errors are being picked on is an example of the standard people are holding him to.

It might be frustrating to see the criticism, but it means people know what he is capable of.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks