until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Could IndyCar's rising star really be kept from its ruling class?

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It’s hard to argue that the standout young driver of the 2023 IndyCar season was anyone other than Christian Lundgaard.

A pole and a race win were the highlights of an individually stellar season as part of one of IndyCar’s most inconsistent teams - for which the highs were extremely high and the lows were extremely low.

“We win one race then we go to the next and we were absolutely nowhere,” is Lundgaard’s honest assessment.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

The dynamic between Lundgaard and his team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, has to be one of the bigger storylines heading into 2024 and beyond, because Lundgaard’s already admired by other teams and RLL will need to make another step up in its form to keep hold of the ex-Alpine Formula 1 junior in the future, assuming he continues on his current trajectory.

Christian Lundgaard in IndyCar so far

Starts: 35
Wins: 1
Pole positions: 2
Other podiums: 1
Top-10 finishes: 16

Championship position 2022: 14th
Championship position 2023: 8th

In 2023, in what was Lundgaard's second season with RLL, it did improve on road courses. Any gains on street courses were less obvious - although Lundgaard took a pole and win in Toronto - and little-to-no progress was made on ovals, with Graham Rahal infamously failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, bumped out by his then team-mate Jack Harvey.

It doesn’t feel that’s the kind of form that would keep Lundgaard long-term.

However, if you take Lundgaard’s average points score on road and street courses in 2023 - 27.33 - and extrapolate that over the 17 races, he could have scored 465 points. That'd be enough to put him ahead of one of the series’ most coveted free agents in 2023, Marcus Ericsson, who has been extremely complimentary about Lundgaard in the past.

Christian Lundgaard, Marcus Ericsson and Conor Daly, IndyCar

Lundgaard had the fourth-best average finish on road courses, too.

Given what Rahal has been capable of road and street circuits, it’s easy to see why, when asked if he had made any demands of the team for staying there in the longer-term, Lundgaard highlighted the oval form - while also adding the team has demands of him, too.

“Sure, there's certain things that I want to see, there's certain things the team want to see, but I honestly think that we are in agreement on the steps that we need to make,” Lundgaard told The Race.

“From the position that we're in right now, I think the most important thing is that we are seeing progress. I also think that you have got to be critical and seeing the 2023 performance on road courses, it's clearly possible for the team to compete for wins on ovals.

“If we can do that on road courses and street circuits, I honestly don't see a reason why we wouldn't be capable of doing it on ovals, too.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

“The team has been [strong on ovals] in the past so I don't see a reason why they shouldn't be able to again.

“There are targets from both of our sides, 'requirements' if you want to say so. I would require that the team is better on ovals, but I'm sure they require me to be better on ovals, but I think that package will come together.”

Lundgaard's admission of seeking a personal improvement on ovals is more about a continuous process rather than it being in response to any personal weakness. It’s been hard to measure his efforts against other drivers of similar experience given how bad RLL has been on ovals - but there are always your team-mates.

Lundgaard’s assessment was pretty hilarious.

“Graham [Rahal, team-mate and IndyCar veteran] has done ovals for pretty much my entire life! And yet I jump in and I'm doing the same results as he is in the same car.”

Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard, RLL

On further inspection, despite some ill fortune for Rahal, Lundgaard finished ahead of him on every single oval this year. That’s not to slight Rahal - who had some issues - but it does suggest Lundgaard is close to maximising this package. Given he’s only in his second season of ovals, it’s very impressive.

As he beat all of the Andretti drivers overall in 2023 and one of the McLarens - and would've picked off a Penske (Will Power) and a Ganassi (Ericsson) with that extrapolated road and street course haul - you can see why Lundgaard is a hot prospect, but also why he certainly isn’t ready to give up on RLL.

He’s been especially complimentary about ex-Red Bull and McLaren Formula 1 aerodynamicist turned RLL technical director Stefano Sordo, who joined the team ahead of last year.

If improving oval form was the goal for 2023, hiring someone who had no experience of them before probably wasn’t the best short-term choice. But on road and street courses RLL did get better.

“I think what Stef has done for the team - I don't think anyone can argue against because if you look at where the performance was in 2022, yes, we were fast on street circuits and we were fast on road courses but we weren't winning races, we weren't putting the car on pole,” Lundgaard added.

“We have two drivers that were doing that in 2023. So I don't think you can really argue with the car being faster on those types of tracks where he has his specific expertise.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

“But I also don't think you can judge him for the oval performance, because we were in that [same] situation prior.

"Yes, we didn't get better, but at least we sorted some other things out.”

It’s unclear yet whether Lundgaard will hit the open market in 2025. He signed what was described as a multi-year deal in 2022, so that would at least cover 2023 and 2024. What happens after that isn’t clear.

But every team in the field will be trying to sign him.

For someone who has spent the whole of his junior career fighting for the budget and a seat for the following year, and whose career looked so uncertain in 2021 when the F1 dream became more and more distant, it must be incredible knowing that he’ll be a big part of the driver market either for 2025 or 2026 and every team that has room will want him.

“It's always in the back of your mind that the opportunities will come with results,” said Lundgaard.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

“That's just how the mentality has always been from a very young age when you were fighting for next year’s seat.

“You're still fighting to finish your season, but you're fighting to get a better seat for the following year - whereas I think now you're not necessarily trying to do that, but you're always trying to prove to people that you deserve to be in the best spot, really.

“And I think, looking at IndyCar, there are very, very good seats, very good teams in the series. So there's for sure certain teams that you want to be in, but then there's certain cars within that team that have a seat that you want to be in, there's also cars within a team that you don't necessarily want to be in.

“I think that's just how the sport is, for better and for worse. In my opinion I think it's great that we have that many drivers because it's probably the toughest field in motorsport.”

What is clear is that Lundgaard is very grateful to RLL for the opportunity it gave him to come to IndyCar in the first place and to be in contention to win races. And while you might think some of Lundgaard’s comments are slightly negative when discussing the team’s performance, that’s because it’s how he is: direct, without beating around the bush. 'Tough love', you might describe it as.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

RLL as an organisation is the same. It’s one of the reasons it’s hard to think it won't sort its problems out - because the culture seems so strong in this regard.

“We all know within the team where the dedication is for 2024 because it's just simply not acceptable to be where we are in the field right now on those types of tracks,” Lundgaard added of the oval performance.

“So we as a team, including myself, are working really hard to figure that out. And I know that there's been a lot of improvement.

“Again, at this point, it's all numbers. It's speculation. You can't really tell until we get on track. And that's also where I'm a little critical with the team because I think I have the right to [be] because they will say the same; if I said, 'Oh, I know I'm a lot stronger, I can take a lot more caster or whatever', then, I obviously have to prove that as well.

“It's a bit the same situation here where they're telling me, they're showing me numbers: 'We found this much, we're getting there'. But in the end, everybody finds pace and everybody will improve for the following year.

“At least that's how we need to look at it.

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

“So I can't really clap at them until I've seen the performance in real time. But I think we have a good understanding of that within the team.

“I guess that's what makes the team great.

“We're always good at criticising each other in a positive way of improving and helping each other. There's never any hard feelings. When anyone says anything to anyone, it's, 'You know what, you're right, let's try to look at it this way'. I think that's a positive spirit within the team.”

It’s very easy to imagine Lundgaard leading this team long into the future. In terms of how he and RLL work together, it appears close to the perfect match. If it can improve its oval form then it's easy to imagine Lundgaard taking it into title contention.

With a massive new factory and a focus on adding key personnel especially on the technical side, RLL is going through a period of transition that is producing some short-term issues - which should be balanced out by long-term gains like investing in the shop and new hires.

It would just be a shame if Lundgaard became one of those short-term losses - because it really feels like a seat at one of those IndyCar giants that are already in the title mix will make itself available to the Dane before too long.

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