Ryan: An IndyCar star is born on the streets of St. Petersburg
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Felix Rosenqvist hopped on a pit wall along the runway of the Albert Whitted Airport, rubbed a very sore right shoulder and patiently took every question.
After turning in the most impressive drive of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie appropriately was sitting in a place known for takeoffs, yet it seemed (with a growing group of arriving reporters) as if he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.
He certainly seems to be already entrenched in the NTT IndyCar Series, which likely witnessed the debut of a future star with Rosenqvvist’s eye-popping fourth-place finish on the 1.8-mile street circuit.
“Yeah, I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t on the podium, but still, it’s been a great day and a dream start to my IndyCar career,” the native of Malmo, Sweden, said after leading 31 laps of 110 laps. “It’s a shame we couldn’t get Chip Ganassi the first win since Dario (Franchitti) here (at St. Petersburg) but maybe next year.”
Franchitti delivered a win for Ganassi at St. Pete in 2011, which opened the last of his three consecutive championship seasons in the No. 10 before his 2013 retirement. Since Franchitti’s departure, the team had managed only one victory in the car that’s the primary complement to five-time series champion Scott Dixon.
Beyond just being another highly competitive title contender for IndyCar to build around in its next generation of big names, Rosenqvist could become the long-term answer that team owner Chip Ganassi has been seeking.
“I thought he did a great job,” Ganassi said. “You couldn’t ask for much more and for a kid who’s never driven an Indy car in a race before, all the sort of restarts and in and out of the pits and stops and all that, I think all in all, it was a solid day.
“You always hope that a guy is good like that when you bring him on. Obviously he showed the (talent) whether in preseason testing or things we’ve done before, but you really never know for sure.”
It took all of one corner for Rosenqvist to announce his presence to the IndyCar elite. Starting alongside Dixon after qualifying an impressive third, he made a power move past race winner Josef Newgarden to take second entering Turn 1.
In the same place on Lap 24, Rosenqvist locked up his brakes in a plume of white smoke while diving underneath Power and wresting the lead away from the defending Indianapolis 500 winner whom many consider to be the greatest street and road course driver of all time.
“I didn’t really know how it’s going to be until I hit the brakes,” he said with the classically delightful nonchalance of a European racer. “I hit them early but just couldn’t stop. Yeah, it was a good move.”
None of it was surprising to Dixon, who confidently has predicted his new teammates would wow the series quickly and often since Ganassi announced his signing late last season
“I was surprised he didn’t go for the lead in the first corner,” Dixon said with a laugh. “I knew he was going to be aggressive, and that’s what you’ve got to do, man. You got to come in and get after it. He did.
“It was cool to see that. He showed Will and Josef what’s up, which was a good little chuckle there. He’s fast, man. He’s got a lot of experience for a young guy and has raced so many different things. He’s a smart kid and is going to go a long way.”
Rosenqvist, 27, has had success in lower rungs of the racing ladder, posting three victories in Formula E over the past two seasons while also running in myriad sports car and touring series. He won the 2015 European Formula 3 championship with 13 victories, 24 podiums and 16 pole positions in 33 races.
He is managed by Stefan Johansson, a former Swedish F1 driver who also works with Dixon. That made Rosenqvist a natural fit at Ganassi, which has used him as a test driver for a few years.
With a diverse and experienced background despite his age, Rosenqvist has brought some “outside the box” ideas to Ganassi, Dixon said, while also raising the level of competition in a way that’s been missing from the powerhouse team’s other car.
“For his first go, he did a hell of a job,” Dixon said of Rosenqvist, who paced Friday’s opening practice at St. Pete. “It’s nice to have some real intra-team competition. I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of the season.
“Not just for me but for everybody, man. It lifts the whole team’s morale. Now we’ve got two dogs in the fight. It’s kind of nice.”
It’ll be tougher, though, on the competition, which already is respectful and wary of Rosenqvist’s prowess.
“He’s a rookie, but he’s obviously going to be really strong and has done a good job,” Power said.
Said Newgarden, who spun his tires at the start to give Rosenqvist the opening: “He’s going to be a very strong competitor. He’s going to give Scott a run for his money and he’s going to give all of us a run for our money. We want to see the greatest talent in the world running with us and I think you have one of the best in him. Yeah, it’s going to be tough to beat him.
“He wasn’t overzealous, but he’s a very experienced driver. He’s a rookie, but he’s driven just about anything you can drive outside of an IndyCar. He’s very, very good, very, very talented and I’ve watched him in all forms of racing whether it’s DTM or Formula E, anything. He’s very, very good at managing his car. I thought he was just perfect. Wasn’t too aggressive and he wasn’t too timid.”
There were a few mistakes. Rosenqvist, who is accustomed to shorter races, still is getting acclimated to getting in and out of the pits, and his first stop was less than optimal. While exiting on his second stop, he nearly was squeezed into the wall by Power (who had the right of way) while trying to maintain his track position. Rosenqvist somehow managed to save the car with some steering gymnastics.
“Yeah, I didn’t really know what was the rule,” he said. “I thought (Power) would give the room, and his spotter would clear and tell him I was there, but obviously not. It was a near-miss there. A near moment, but yeah. That’s also something to learn. My spotter told me I was clear, or maybe I heard wrong.
“It was just one of those scary moments, and I had to really step on the brakes to not hit him. It was fun racing against him. He’s one of my big idols. It was really cool just being around him for a lot of the race. I’ve always been an admirer of his driving, especially in qualifying. And Scott. And Tony (Kanaan). All these guys.
“It’s going to take some hours, but I think when I’m on the plane back home, I think I’m going to have a smile on my face.”
And probably a lingering pain in his arm. Over the last 20 laps, Rosenqvist’s right arm began “fading” because the seat pinched his shoulder, which cost him any shot at catching Power to make the podium.
“I think there was a bit more in it,” he said. “A good enough package to win the race. I can work on things.”
He’s displayed the commitment to improvement. Though he still keeps a residence in Monaco, Rosenqvist is renting an apartment in Indianapolis to stay connected to Ganassi’s IndyCar headquarters (“There are a lot of things to go through, and it’s easier to do it at the shop than phone or emails”). Though he still is mulling a permanent move to America, he said he has no aspirations to return to Europe and chase a Formula One career.
Could IndyCar be a long-term home?
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I love being in Chip Ganassi Racing. NTT Data is looking after me well and trusts in my abilities. Yeah. It’s just a great place to be right now.
“I feel settled in already here.”
That was more than evident Sunday.
And probably will be for years to come.