How Marcus Ericsson took flight from last to first to win the Nashville Music City Grand Prix
NASHVILLE – Even with the best seat in the house, Marcus Ericsson was unsure how he won the inaugural IndyCar Music City Grand Prix.
And can you blame the Chip Ganassi Racing Driver for being a little confused behind the wheel?
After an airborne crash, a stop-and-go penalty to the rear and a masterful job of saving fuel while staving off the season’s dominant street-course star, there was a lot to process.
“I’m trying to figure it out myself,” Ericsson said with a sheepish smile Sunday night after his second career NTT IndyCar Series victory.
RESULTS, POINTS STANDINGS: Full stats package from Nashville
Let’s start with perhaps the most memorable highlight of the 2021 season: Ericsson’s (admittedly self-inflicted) crash with Sebastien Bourdais that shot his No. 8 Dallara-Honda about 6 feet into the air on the short chute between Turns 10 and 11 (and giving quite a show to the fans lining the Nissan Stadium pedestrian ramps).
“I was seeing the sky,” Ericsson said. “When I hit the ground, I felt that one. I’m really sorry for Seb there. I got caught out. I thought everyone was going, and I went. I think someone in front of Seb braked, and he braked. I just didn’t have time to react. I was really sorry for seeing him going out of the race that way. I’m really sorry for that.”
The car’s nose and front wing were replaced, but there were other parts of the suspension that were damaged but unrepairable after slamming back on the asphalt from the violent collision, hampering the car’s handling through left-hand corners.
Ericsson also caught a break while limping back to the pits when the wing briefly slipped beneath his tires and turned him into the wall at Turn 6.
“It kind of bent the right front,” he said. “I thought I had to stop. Somehow the wing came to the front again and I got steering and I could continue. Then yeah, somehow things worked out in our favor.”
Ericsson already was restarting at the rear because of the pit stop for repairs, but it was the stop and go shortly after the Lap 9 restart that left him nearly 20 seconds behind 24th. “I couldn’t see a single car,” he said. “I just tried to put down lap times. I think we were as fast as the leaders at that point. So I definitely had the pace.”
That was partly because he and engineer/strategist Brad Goldberg made the risky call to put on the softer red tires, which Ericsson was able to stretch for 40 laps despite their relative lack of durability to the primary black compound.
A caution flag on Lap 16 allowed him to catch the pack and gain some spots when other cars pitted under yellow. Then on the Lap 19 restart, there was a 10-car traffic jam in Turn 11, and Ericsson some managed to avoid getting caught.
“I think that took away like five or six cars that was ahead of me,” he said. “That really put me up in a good position (in 12th). Then I knew we were in a very good spot. From then on, it was all about trying not to do any mistakes and be focused and hoping that this strategy would work out.”
It did when the yellow flew on Lap 31 and sent pole-sitter Colton Herta and several others into the pits – and Ericsson into the lead for the first time on Lap 33.
He led 37 of the final 48 laps, controlling the race after a final pit stop on Lap 45.
Herta, who was trying to win his second street race from the pole this season after also pacing the first two practice sessions at Nashville, pushed hard to catch Ericsson before crashing with five laps remaining.
“Congrats to Marcus; he drove a hell of a race there at the end,” Herta told NBC Sports pit reporter Dave Burns. “I didn’t think he was going to make it (on fuel), and he just kept pulling away from me. Good job to him.”
Ericsson, a veteran of five Formula One seasons and various European racing series, said beating Herta was “one of the the toughest challenges of my career. I’m very proud that I could keep him behind and keep the pace up. That won me the race.
“I knew it was going to be big fuel (conservation). I thought the tires held on well. I was on the red tire for a long time after my incident in the start. I didn’t feel like they were wearing that much, especially if you were looking after the rears.
“I wasn’t concerned about the tire wear really. I knew I could keep them underneath me. That’s one of my biggest strengths, is to sort of conserve tires. So that was not a concern. The biggest concern for me was the fuel.
“That was probably the best performance of my career to keep (Herta) behind for that long. When he pulled off behind me, I was thinking this is not going to work. We’ve seen all weekend how fast he’s been. I’m thinking, I’m not going to be able to hold him back. I just went into myself and tried to focus on where can I save most fuel where he cannot attack me, where can I push to make sure I stay ahead. I was really trying to just use all my experience to try and figure out how I was going to keep this guy behind. I was really proud of doing that.”
Ericsson, 30, said the key was using push-to-pass for more horsepower heading into the two long straightaways on the 2.17-mile course at the exits of Turns 3 and 8.
He also conceded having some luck helps when racing in a series where he proved again that anything can happen.
“The races are tough because they are long and you have tire wear, you have different strategies with the fueling, refueling, and the car is never planted to the ground,” Ericsson said. “You always need to fight the car in some way with understeer, oversteer. I think that really makes it a series that’s tough and never straightforward. You always need to, like, push to the limit.”