SALINAS, Calif — Marcus Ericsson knew following his 3rd place finish at Texas this past spring that a championship was going to be in his sights this year. He was right. While he also knew that the odds were long for him to have a shot at the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series championship this weekend still, he at least was here fighting for one. Ericsson had to make up just 40 points on Sunday, it was still 40 points and having to leapfrog 3 other drivers in the process. That’s no easy feat for anyone to accomplish.
However, he nearly did so as he brought his No. 8 Dallara-Honda home 10th in Sunday’s season finale at Laguna Seca. While this year has to feel like a disappointment not to be taking home the championship hardware back to Indianapolis with him, it does have to feel somewhat sweetened in the fact that he does own a Baby Borg now too.
Every drivers’ goal is to win the Indy 500 and the season championship. Ericsson is 1-for-2. The Swedish driver won the year’s biggest race back on May 29 and his career trajectory shows that he’ll be back in this position very soon to go for another title. This isn’t the end. Far from it in fact.
He had 12 top 10 finishes this season which is as many as he had last year (12). The difference is the fact that this year while he had 2 wins in 2021 compared to 1 in 2022, 5 of his 11 top 10’s this season were found in the top 5. Last year, he had just 3 top 5’s. He had 2 in 2020 and 1 in his rookie season in 2019.
He almost had as many top 5’s in this season alone (5) than he had his his 46 previous starts (7).
Which shows what?
He’s improving each year which is why he went from 17th in points in 2019 to 12th in 2020 to 6th last year and now 4th. His consistency was why he was having a shot at this year’s title, not his Indy 500 win.
While the Indy win has some to do with it, it’s not the entire story. The entire story is what I keep reflecting back to that June day in Belle Isle during his rookie season.
This series was all new to him then. In that year, Detroit was a doubleheader so the Sunday race the first time of his career that he saw a track twice. He finished 2nd that day.
“Exactly, I tell Sam and Ric that look what happens when I get to a track for a second time and the result. It’s definitely a good boost,” Ericsson told me that afternoon.
That day could have sealed his fate for the long-haul. He also told me that he was fighting for a 2020 contract then.
“It’s extremely important,” said Ericsson on that June day. “This year hasn’t been that good results wise. We’ve been strong and had the pace everywhere but we haven’t been able to have a complete weekend. We’ve been close. That’s why it’s so important to get this result.
“For me, I’m fighting to get a new contract in IndyCar and to get a new contract here you have to have results like we’ve had today. That was a very important day.”
Boy was it ever. Ericsson was right too. He improved each time he saw a track a 2nd time. He improved again in the 3rd time and now in the 4th time, he was in the championship fight heading to the season finale.
Just look at who he was fighting for this year’s title. Scott Dixon has 6 championships which is 1 shy for being tied for the most ever. Josef Newgarden has won 2 titles in the last 5 years. Power has a championship before in 2014. This is all new for Ericsson.
Remember what happens the 2nd time around….
He knew his biggest improvement needed between 2021 and 2022 were on ovals. Back in the spring, Ericsson noted after his Texas podium that ovals was the area circled for him to be better at in order to put himself in the position that he was in this weekend to vie for a championship.
“If you look at the championship last year on road and street, I think I was second or third in that championship, but on ovals 12th or 13th,” he said in March. “An area we’ve been focusing on this season. To get to the first oval of the year, get my first podium on the oval, I think shows all that work that I and my engineer and the rest of the 8 car group, Dario, all the work we put in is paying off.
“I feel like that was the biggest reason why I wasn’t, like, really in the fight for the championship all the way last year. On the road and streets, I had enough points to take it down to the last race. Just lacking too much on the ovals.
“It’s been a big focus for us. We worked really hard. I worked really hard, studied I don’t know how many onboard videos of Scott Dixon, Indy, trying to understand the racing on the ovals especially.
“I think that’s so much experience, being tactical, thinking ahead, being on top of your tools and all that. It’s been something, like I said, I’ve been working a lot on. It’s such a great feeling to see that work is paying off, we get this podium.”
He later would win the Indy 500. He was in fact the only driver to get a top 10 in every oval race this season. He still came up short?
His Achilles heel in 2022 was qualifying. 9 times he started 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.
Consistently coming from behind is the culprit. Imagine is he started closer to the front in those races. It’s not like he wasn’t a hard charger. He went from 14th to 3rd in Texas, 18th to 4th in the GMR Grand Prix, 13th to 6th in Mid-Ohio, 15th to 6th in Iowa 2, 25th to 11th in the Gallagher Grand Prix.
His race craft is as good as it gets. His peers took notice. It’s qualifying days to where he can improve in 2023 which if he can, then that gap to the front is smaller and his point total goes up more.
Which in turn means….