until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Petrified of failure to 'unicorn' seat: IndyCar's wild 2023 swing

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Imagine the dream move you've hoped for being taken away from you, sitting on the racing sidelines for almost a year, and then delivering in a one-off opportunity to such an extent that, less than a month later, IndyCar's biggest team has you signed up for the following year.

That’s the story of Linus Lundqvist.

The 2022 Indy Lights champion is unique in the sense that, for his year only, he received a much smaller chunk of the series' prize money and guaranteed IndyCar track time.

The previous champions and the one after him (the prize was increased again for 2023) all got an ensured Indianapolis 500 entry and at least one more IndyCar race's worth of funding. But Lundqvist got $500,000 and no such guarantee.

Given he came to America in 2020 with very little cash and has won a scholarship almost every year since to guarantee his progression, he couldn’t afford such a drop in prize money.

“No, I had no back-up plan,” says Lundqvist, who eventually got his IndyCar chance with Meyer Shank as an injury stand-in for Simon Pagenaud in Nashville in August. Later that month, he had a contract on the table from series champion Chip Ganassi Racing.

He joined The Race IndyCar Podcast recently to discuss his journey in more detail than he has before with an honest and compelling interview.

“I was scared. I was petrified honestly; what would happen if this didn't work out? When we won the [Indy Lights] championship, we were in a position where we didn't have a seat.

“It's difficult being on the sideline, when everybody else is creating headlines and winning races. I know that at the end of the year, there's going to be a new champion, and you're very quickly forgotten in this world.”

Luckily, Lundqvist had chosen to stay in the feeder series - rebranded Indy NXT for 2023 - as a driver coach, which kept him in the paddock.

For years now, Lundqvist has been known to IndyCar bosses for his old-school willingness to literally knock on doors to see what opportunities were available.

On his Nashville debut, he crashed while in 11th place, but had run most of that race with Alex Palou - something few drivers really managed in 2023, and something MSR certainly hadn’t.

In the end he got the chance to race the following week as well and was 12th at the Indy road course, taking the team’s third-best result of the year, and then he outqualified team-mate and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves on his oval debut at Gateway.

Lundqvist says he’d already discussed with Ganassi managing director Mike Hull the prospect of a deal between the two but, after Nashville, “people that I'd been hassling and calling for two and a half years, all of a sudden they were calling me, which was a pretty nice feeling”.

In many ways, Lundqvist was well prepared for his Nashville race. He knew it would be make or break for his IndyCar career, which is the kind of pressure that would crush some competitors. But Lundqvist was genuinely his smiling, laughing but serious-on-the-inside self through that whole weekend.

“I don't think, a single season, throughout my career, I've known that I was actually going to be able to finish it,” he adds. “Because I've always had to chase a little bit more money to make sure that you can actually finish the year.

“In a funny way, almost my whole career prepared me for that moment because you've always had to perform every single weekend because otherwise you might not be racing the next one.”

Even so, to have not raced since the previous October, or to have not done a live IndyCar pitstop until the race, or to have not faced rain-shortened practice time, and to deliver like he did, makes it easy to see why so many were impressed.

Luckily, Lundqvist doesn’t need to worry about the future so much with a multi-year Ganassi deal now in hand.

“Especially as a young driver, and you have a team like Chip Ganassi Racing, it's almost a bit of a unicorn,” he says of Ganassi, “in terms of, you hear so many stories about it, and you watch it from afar, but you can never really get up close, and touch it.

Now, 2024 becomes such a conflicting time for Lundqvist.

On the one hand, for the first time in his career he knows that if he has a bad race, he won't be looking over his shoulder and wondering if the next one is the last of his career as he has the budget in place.

But if there was any concern that weight lifting might lead to complacency, you don’t need to worry.

That's because he’s just received the added pressure of going into the championship-winning team with eight titles between two of its drivers, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou, and a more equal comparison against Marcus Armstrong, the 2023 IndyCar rookie of the year who had three years of F2 and a Ferrari Academy upbringing, to worry about.

“There's a certain weight off my shoulders, knowing where I'm gonna be for the next few years, but there's obviously an added weight that comes with being a Chip Ganassi Racing driver,” says Lundqvist.

“Just look at this season for example, the bar has been set. You know that you're going up against the best drivers in the whole field as your team-mates.

“But for me, I just see it as an opportunity. Because firstly, I am a rookie and this is probably the best environment ever to learn from having these team-mates and having not only the drivers, but the engineers on the the level that the whole team is operating on. It's so high, higher than I've ever seen.

“As well, from a driver point of view, to have Scott Dixon and Alex Palou as my team-mates, it's incredible.

“Already, I was with the team at Portland and Laguna, watching from the inside seeing how they operate and how they work. I made probably more notes than I've done throughout my career over those two weekends.

“I'm incredibly excited to share the team with them next year.”

But if you think being a rookie or his diverse resume has led to softened expectations of his rookie year, think again.

Asked what his expectations are for next year, he says: “[To] win the championship.

“I say it half-jokingly but at the same time, that's why we're here.

“You don't go into a team like Chip Ganassi Racing with expectations anything below it.

“But you have to take into consideration that you're going up against some of the best drivers in the world and it is my first full season so there's going to be a lot of learning to do and I realise that.

“The goal for me is to maximise every single weekend, if I'm only fast enough to be 10th then I'm gonna try to make sure that I'm at least 10th that weekend or fight to be ninth at least. So that's more my approach into next year.

“Make sure that we maximise every single weekend and obviously, a lot of learning and trying to learn from my team-mates especially and see what they do so well.

“But at the end of the day, I'm a competitor, I'm here to win. So if we have a chance and we have the speed to win a race or two then we're definitely going to go for it.”

For now, Lundqvist has stayed later than many other drivers into the off-season at the factory, with the aim of getting to know the staff he'll be working with next year and trying to put his stamp on the car's characteristics for next year.

He's limited in what he can do there without significant track time and with the team making developments for next year.

He did at least complete a day of testing last month that he called one of the "craziest days of my life" as he drove a Ganassi car for the first time and the Indianapolis oval - again, for the first time.

He was able to complete his rookie orientation programme which means he can get straight on with practice next time he visits the oval.

"I still remember my first two laps, I felt, 'Jesus Christ this is so fast', and then I saw my average speed was like 189mph and I knew that I had to get 210mph to even pass the first stage!" he adds of his rookie orientation day.

"Then realising qualifying day the average speed is like 230mph or 233mph, whatever they do, it was pretty crazy, those first couple of laps."

Luckily he was up to speed in next to no time, once he'd got past the initial shock.

Something tells me a lot of 2024 is going to come at Lundqvist as quickly as Turn 1 at Indy did, with the level he is going to have to reach and the challenges he will inevitably face coming from almost a full year of no racing to the sharp end of one of racing's most competitive grids.

There's no real way to answer how he will do, but his career of fighting against the odds and his steely determination to overcome any adversity should certainly set him up well.

The Race IndyCar Podcast is running a tech special next month. If you have questions on IndyCar's development wars, dampers, aerodynamics or want to ask Jack Benyon or JR Hildebrand something on another topic, email podcasts@the-race.com. You can even send a voicenote if you want to be featured on the show.

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