Marcus Ericsson is a prime example on why you don’t get rid of someone after a year or two. Give them time to grow and they’ll blossom into something special. Ericsson has proven that.
Between 2019 and 2020, he said just give him an opportunity to see tracks a second time. Between 2020 and 2021, let him learn his new team at Chip Ganassi Racing.
His goal entering the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season was to become a better racer on ovals. It paid off. A podium in Texas but a win in the Indianapolis 500 accomplished that goal. The goal for 2023 was simple. He wanted to become a better qualifier. That was his next step in his growth in INDYCAR.
Every goal he’s set out to accomplish, he’s achieved. His next goal is to become a champion? The best path to do so, start the races off better.
It paid off last weekend. He qualified on the front row and while he had nothing this weekend for the Andretti Autosport camp, he was the top non-Andretti finisher with a podium finish in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Ericsson brought his No. 8 Dallara-Honda home in third for his ninth career podium finish. 7 of those 9 have come in his last 30 starts. He had just 2 in his previous 36.
With two podium finishes in three races run this season, Ericsson has the points lead leaving Long Beach.
“Yeah, I think it was a great weekend for us,” Ericsson boasted. “We had tying best qualifying results for me. I think we had a really good race going today.
“It gives a lot of confidence. I think we’ve been really strong. Last year already, we were fighting for the championship and leading the championship for a long time. Was disappointed to miss out on that. But used that as motivation this winter to work hard on myself and my team. I think we’ve come out even stronger this year.
“Winning in St. Pete showed that. We had a good weekend on a bad weekend in Texas, quite a good result. Here again this weekend, we had tremendous speed. We’re definitely in the fight. Leading the championship feels good, but it’s a long way to go. We need to keep focused and keep working hard.
“But, yeah, I’m really happy with the start of the year obviously.
“I love it. I think that was one of the biggest motivations for me coming over to INDYCAR, to get the chance to sort of show what I could do on top level racing.
“The INDYCAR championship, the competitiveness of the championship, especially this year, is just incredible. There’s so many good drivers and cars out there. To know every weekend you can go out and compete and fight for a win, the kind of drive you get from that is something I missed very much in my five years in Formula 1.
“Yeah, it’s great to be in that position now. To be in a great team in Chip Ganassi Racing, yeah, be out there and fight for wins and podiums, it’s a lot of fun.”
This is all part of a better focus in qualifying this season. His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he start 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.”
Ericsson has delivered in 2023. While he was only 16th in Texas, he qualified fourth in St. Pete and on the front row now in Long Beach.
“Yeah, no, it was a really good session for us,” said Ericsson on Saturday post qualifying. “I think a really good weekend. From the get-go we’ve been fast. Practice yesterday, practice this morning.
“Qualifying was a bit hectic with the red flags and stuff going on. Q2, we were on a really good lap, the red came out, we had to go for another set of tires to make sure we could transfer. Didn’t have that sticker set then, which would have been nice.
“Still it was a really good effort. Tied my best qualifying result in INDYCAR, so I’m really happy about that. I worked really hard this winter to improve my qualifying performance. I’ve talked about it a lot, focused a lot on it, worked on it by myself and with my team.
“P4 in St. Pete and P2 here, that’s progress. I’m really happy with that. We’re making progress. Like I said, our weakness or my weakness has been qualifying in INDYCAR so far. I think our form this year, with Thermal, I think that shows we’re making progress. All my INDYCAR career has been about making progress, getting better and better, stronger and stronger. Now we’re a better package, better driver this year again.
“I think everyone should look out because we’re in it and we’re going to fight it all the way through.”
Ericsson overcame an early race mishap when he was in the top five after the first round of pit stop. When Pato O’Ward spun while going for second with Kyle Kirkwood, Ericsson had to slow to avoid contact. He fell down to seventh as a result.
He didn’t quit though. He kept his head down and drove up four more spots for a podium.
“The only sort of issue we had in the race was that restart when Pato decided to dive down there and try to take out a lot of cars,” said Ericsson. “Got caught out in that. Had to almost stop the car. I think I lost five or six positions there. From there on, it was tough.
“I thought from my point of view it was a low-percentage move, early in the race, on a restart. I think he was trying to overtake two or three cars in two corners. That move on Kyle, he could have taken out me and Kyle and Romain, all of us.
“We had the pace in the car to fight for the win today. So, it was a good recovery to come back and still finish on the podium. I think the pace on the last stint was amazing. Really, really happy.”
On a day that saw O’Ward become too aggressive, Scott Dixon finishing last and Josef Newgarden having to save fuel comprising positions in the end, Ericsson looked like the championship front runner in a podium result.