Marcus Ericsson knew following his 3rd place finish at the Texas Motor Speedway last spring that a championship was going to be in his sights for the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season. He was right. Ericsson not only won the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, he took his No. 8 Dallara-Honda team to a 6th place finish in the final standings.
While last year has to feel somewhat like a disappointment not to be taking home the championship hardware back to Indianapolis with him from the west coast swing, 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 was 1-for-2 last year. However, with how close he was to going 2-for-2, it gives him so much more motivation to go 100% this year.
“I had a chance going into the final, but I also was leading the championship for a long-time last year. I’m still a bit pissed off about the ending of last year because I felt we were having a really strong year, then the last three races or so we just fell off a little bit. That was disappointing,” he said on Tuesday of INDYCAR content day.
“But it’s given me a lot of motivation to work hard in the off-season to try and be better this year. It’s definitely our goal to try and get that championship this year.
“We’ve been focusing on trying to improve our package for this year. We feel like we have some areas where we could improve from last year, so we’ve been focusing on that, trying to, yeah, become better as a team, as a driver. I’ve been focusing a lot on myself trying to improve my performance for this year.
“We were close to winning both the championship and the 500 last year. We need to keep pushing to try to do that this year.”
The 32-year-olds 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. I expect another season in 2023 like the one he just had in 2022.
He may have had the same points finish and the same amount of Top-10 finishes (12) last season as he had a season prior (12). The difference however is, the fact that last year while he had 2 wins in 2021 compared to 1 in 2022, 5 of his 11 top 10’s last season were found in the top 5. In 2021, 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 last season alone (5) than he had 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 the last two years. His consistency was why he was having a shot at last 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 last Fall.
Just look at who he was fighting for last 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 is now a two-time champion. This is all new for Ericsson.
Remember what happens the 2nd time around….
Which is why he knew that 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 of last year. “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?
Well it’s that next step in his growth. His plan every offseason has worked. The plan this offseason? Qualifying.
His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did 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 was the culprit. Imagine if 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.
“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.
“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.
“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”
His race craft truly is as good as it gets. His peers took notice. That praise makes Ericsson feel good but he also says that it can only go so far. At some point, you have to focus back on yourself again.
“Of course it means a lot,” he says of the praise by his peers. “But at the same time, you sort of race for yourself in a way. I think INDYCAR is, if not one of the absolute toughest series in the world, it’s amazing drivers here in the series. I feel like the last couple years I’ve shown that I can be fighting up front, winning races, fighting for championships.
“But, yeah, of course it means a lot to get respected by your competitors.”
As far as when that race craft came about?
“Yeah, I think race craft is something I learned a lot in my Formula 1 years. Planning a race, driving, thinking longer ahead in stints, taking care of my tires, fuel, stuff like that,” he told me. “I think my race craft, I really started to master that in Formula 1. It was one of my big strengths in F1.
“I feel like I brought that to INDYCAR, and it’s been my strength really from year one. I felt like I was pretty good in the races.
“Of course, you always try to become better and better. I try and analyze a lot and work hard with my engineers to understand and be involved in a lot of things. I think that helps me on race day to be prepared.
“It’s the same thing, that’s what we’ve been working on hard now in the off-season to try and improve on the qualifying side, to sort of analyze and understand why we’re lacking a little bit more there comparing to the races.
“It all comes down to hard work, having good people around you, being open to try new things.”