INDIANAPOLIS — The calendar now says November, but that didn’t stop the aroma surrounding the town of Speedway from basking in the NTT IndyCar Series’ ambiance on Monday in a three car test on the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
By virtue of each of them finishing in the top three of the Indy Lights points during the 2021 season, Kyle Kirkwood, David Malukas and Linus Lundqvist took part in a 3 1/2 hour session which featured them getting some seat time ahead of the 2022 season.
The thing is, two of the three could be in the series next season but not in the seats they were participating in while the other looks more destined for a second year in Indy Lights.
Kirkwood, was in the No. 26 Honda for Andretti Autosport again, the same car that he’s been testing this offseason. The thing is, with Andretti Autosport’s F1 endeavors now stalled out, there’s no reason to believe that Kirkwood would be in that car replacing Colton Herta.
This will be Herta’s car again in ’22.
But, with Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean already signed and Lundqvist’s No. 29 Honda that he was testing on a blustery cold Monday afternoon in Indianapolis likely going to Devlin DeFrancesco, where does Kirkwood land with the team?
“We have an idea, yeah. I think we have a direction. It’s not all said and done yet,” he said.
Is that direction with Andretti? The option that Andretti held on him expired once Halloween came and passed.
“As of today, which today is November 1st, I’ve been given permission to look elsewhere,” he said. “I haven’t been able to have conversations. I don’t know exactly what I can and cannot say, so I’m going to keep my mouth shut on the direction (smiling).
In saying that, Kirkwood hopes to remain with Andretti though and hoping in the process that he doesn’t have to look too far to seek future work.
“Racing with them for the past two years, I think that’s really what I hope for. Pushed really hard all season to end up in one of their cars. Ideally that would be the best predicament for me.
“Given that I’ve done three tests with them now, knowing the engineers, the mechanics, kind of the whole operation, it’s very similar from Indy Lights to INDYCAR how they operate. Jumping in and not having to learn a whole new team’s system would be beneficial for me, yeah.”
Kirkwood, came through the Road to Indy program and won a title in all three years. He’s also the winningest driver in the history of the program. That’s why he’s being coveted. The other is that he holds a three race scholarship with money in his pocket to bring with him.
“The other two races? I think actually we got sent the contract from Anderson. It says that we have to do St. Petersburg, Indy GP and the Indianapolis 500. I really don’t have the choice,” he said on which races he has for his taking.
“If I did have the choice hypothetically, I would probably do Long Beach, the 500, and probably Mid-Ohio. Those are my three favorite races.
“I mean, ideally we do all of them. That’s what I’m pushing for right now. My focus isn’t really places where I’m only going to get a few races. We still have a lot of time. If it does — if push comes to shove, we have to do a few races, obviously I’m going to try and maximize it, get as many races as I possibly can. Ideally we just don’t do three.”
Andretti would love to have him. It’s just that they don’t have any room and if they were to bring out a fifth car full-time again, it takes money.
“Yeah, it’s hard, of course, to build up sponsors, though, if you don’t have a direction of where you’re going, you don’t know what team you’re going to, what conflicts you already have. It’s hard to build up sponsorship in that sense,” Kirkwood said on finding more money to bring to a program for the other 14 races.
The other part of this is the engine package. Honda may not be able to provide more than 18 and most of them are called for.
So far now, he’ll take his tests where he can get them. He says that it’s pretty rare that any INDYCAR driver just gets in this early and is able to do as much testing that he’s done so far already too.
“It’s rare in my career, too,” he continued. “When I ran USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, I had two or three test days before the first race. I’ve already done three test days now prior to even — it’s November 1st, so still so much time before the first race in February that we can still go testing.
“Obviously there’s a limit on it, but we’re going to maximize whatever that limit is. Having the three test days just after the end of my season, still being fresh in the car, not really sitting around and getting lazy, I think it’s super important for me.”
Monday was mission accomplished though to be driving an INDYCAR around IMS. What was the differences between this test and the one at Sebring and Barber though?
“I think the biggest difference that I felt physically for me was my neck,” he said. “By the end of running those three hours, I guess we do have a bit more dominantly right-hand corners running the inner loop. You go through three, four, five, you sat there hanging onto your neck. That was pretty big by the end of the day. I was pretty beat with my neck on the last new tire run.
“Right out the gate when I first went out, you go through 10, 11, then 14, the steering weight was quite a bit more compared to the Lights car. Oliver Askew mentioned that to me before I drove here, No, it’s not going to be that big of a deal. You feel locked up all the way through those two corners. That was the biggest difference I noticed right off the bat.”
What about Lundqvist?
“It was absolutely awesome,” he said. “I think one of if not the best of my life so far. It was absolutely fantastic, the whole experience of it.
“Obviously you’ve been looking at INDYCAR for so many years, dreaming about getting in one of those cars. Now to actually have done it, it feels incredible. Super happy.
“It wasn’t as bad as I expected actually. Obviously arriving here, I’m in my typical Swedish winter jacket, I expected it to be a lot worse.
“Actually the Firestone tire, the grip that they have just straight out of pit lane was a lot better than what I experienced in Indy Lights. Obviously it takes a little bit of time for the pressure to come up, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected it. You just had to be a little bit careful. It was not too bad. Obviously I think it would have been even better when it was warmer. Within a lap or two the tires were in.
“Again, a massive thank you to the whole of INDYCAR and Andretti for making this happen.”
His plans for next season are up in the air too.
“Unclear I would say. You never really know what’s going to happen. I would love to stay here in the U.S. to start off with. Obviously I would love to be in INDYCAR next year. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m looking to do Lights another year.
“You never really know because budget-wise it’s a very big question. We’ll see what we can do during the winter, after this test as well, what pops up. I’ll keep digging no matter what.
“The plan right now is to stay in the U.S. for another two, three weeks, sort of see how a few loose ends on this half of the planet. Then the plan is to go back home and obviously to have a chat with my sponsors back home and see what we can do for the following year.
“So, yeah, that’s pretty much it. Maybe a little bit of Christmastime in between.”
The one that’s most clear is Malukas. While he was in a Team Penske car on Monday, his path is back to the team he was with last Monday in Barber.
“99.9%,” he said of his chances on being in an INDYCAR next season.
It’s likely he will be with Dale Coyne Racing in the No. 18 Honda. There were representatives of Coyne observing him on Monday and with his families team that he drove for in Indy Lights wanting to move up to INDYCAR too, a partnership between them and fellow Illinois team at DCR would be ideal.
They in turn would replace Vasser Sullivan Racing who’s looking to move on their own in 2023. For 2022, they are looking for a new partnership which is why Kirkwood and them could play into this.
Kirkwood has raced sports cars for VSR. They have some money to bring. They could foot the bill for the other 14 races and team up on the fifth Andretti car with Kirkwood. If that doesn’t work, they could even team up with AJ Foyt Racing in one of their open cars for a year too with Kirkwood tagging along.
The path though is clear – Malukas is going to be in the No. 18 Honda while the new report is that Takuma Sato will likely be in the Rick Ware/DCR partnership in the No. 51 Honda as his teammate.
That’s why Monday was an interesting test where nothing past the checkered flag flying was going to translate well over to the future for these three entries.
“I’m definitely feeling it, especially not being in a racing car since Mid-Ohio as well. It’s been a month,” Lundqivst said of the test.
“But, yeah, you definitely felt it. Obviously you got prepared for Indy Lights, and that wasn’t an issue. Jumping into this car, it was a different beast. So, yeah, I think neck was fine, it was more the shoulders for me, the weight of the steering.
“You don’t really think about it, but the last corner here, turn 11 going into 12, those sort of long, high-speed sweeping corners are actually the ones that kill you, at least for me.
“But, yeah, you definitely felt the weight of it.”