Chip Ganassi Racing might have the most diverse driver lineup in the recent history of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in terms of age, experience and nationality. The Indianapolis-based team will field five drivers in four cars over the course of the 2021 season and again will be in the hunt to win both the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and the series championship.
The team with five Indianapolis 500 victories and 13 INDYCAR SERIES titles staged its second test of the preseason earlier this week at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, with Mike Hull, the team’s managing director, describing it as a success.
INDYCAR.com posed an assortment of questions to Hull, who helped Scott Dixon win a sixth series championship in 2020 as his race strategist.
Question: You might be the most interesting team for the upcoming season. You’ve added Alex Palou (full season), Jimmie Johnson (for the road and street circuits) and Tony Kanaan (for the ovals) while bringing back Marcus Ericsson for a second season and, of course, running Scott Dixon for a 20th consecutive season. That gives you an older American (Johnson, who is 45), an older Brazilian (Kanaan is 46), a young Spaniard (Palou, who turns 24 on April 1), a 30-year-old Swede (Ericsson) and Dixon, who seems to get better with age (he’s 40). How would you size up the group?
Hull: We do have some moving parts, no question. We had tested at Laguna Seca in November with Jimmie and Alex, and that was a good preview for what we were going to do when we went back this week, so that did help. The racetrack is a very low-grip track, by nature, as the hillsides are sandy and the wind blows like clockwork when the sun comes out in the afternoon, and it’s been like that since I went there as a kid. In a way, (those conditions) are a good thing because you have to work really, really hard on mechanical grip, (and) small gains there are a big deal. We worked hard on that with all four cars and each driver in his own way. With all of them being at a different position in his career, it’s a good cross-section for us – we see things from four different perspectives. They certainly share what they’ve learned with setup changes, and the perspective is quite refreshing because it’s not group-think. I kind of like that.
Q: What have you seen from the integration of Palou?
Hull: Fantastic person, fantastic race car driver, enormous natural ability, very resolute. He goes about his business in a very quiet way, so when he puts that (good) lap time down, you’re like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ It isn’t a lot of flair and flash; he just gets down to business and gets after it. It’s very refreshing for us because he’s young, aggressive, and he wants to learn. He’s certainly in a tutorial environment. Add all those things together with the experience he already has with Dale (Coyne) and Super Formula in Japan – that’s an amazing series – he came through both of those with flying colors, and I think you could ask (former employers) what they think, and they’d probably say the same thing. Definitely a worthy driver.
Q: With Ericsson, this is his second year with your team, finishing 12th in the standings last season. He has said his biggest disappointment of last year was crashing out of the “500,” finishing 32nd. But if he would have had even a mid-pack finish at Indy, which awarded double points, he could have finished ninth in points. I think it was overlooked how good his season was. What do you expect from him in 2021?
Hull: You’re right about what you’re saying, that’s the first point. He flew very much under the radar in a sponge-like way and learned an awful lot. Hopefully in his sophomore year with us, we can capitalize on that. He’s a quality guy, and he’s driven at quality places. He was in Formula One at a time when drivers of his ability didn’t get to (post the results) they should have. I expect we’re going to see a marked improvement in terms of where he finishes in the races this year. I think he’s capable of winning a race and maybe more than one, and he’s certainly capable of podium finishes. I don’t think he’s overconfident about that; I think he’s resolute about that. He has all the tools. I would also say he was a huge contributor to Scott Dixon’s success in winning the championship. (People) don’t see that, but his driving style is very similar to Scott’s.
Q: Is Jimmie still drinking from a firehose?
Hull: He is, but the volume was down at Laguna Seca! He did a great job there. I know he was really excited that he had marked improvement there. He’s such an amazing person because he’s so dedicated to his craft. Maybe people would hear that and say, ‘Yeah, he should be,’ but he’s raced in NASCAR for 20 years and won seven championships. They talked about Tom Brady winning seven out of 10 championships. Well, Jimmie did the same thing. He carries himself very well as a result of that -- ego doesn’t get in the way. He wants to improve himself, and he’s finding new ways with us. We’re going to see continued improvement with him all year long, and I’m looking forward to it.
Q: In testing, are Jimmie and Scott always together comparing notes?
Hull: The answer is Y-E-S, and you have Dario (Franchitti) in the mix, too. Between the three of them, they are counterparts and compare notes effectively. It’s gratifying to know we work at a place like Chip Ganassi Racing where that can happen.
Q: Will Kanaan be in a car before testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in April?
Hull: No, I’d think we’ll do the open test with him at Indianapolis and go from there.
Q: Lastly, that guy in the No. 9 car continues to drive at the highest level, winning his sixth series title at age 40. We referenced Tom Brady earlier, and Dixon also continues to add to his legacy.
Hull: I’ll have whatever he’s having! He’s a lot like Jimmie. Their ethic is very, very similar. They both work hard to learn new things and how to improve themselves, and it isn’t just in the car. It’s what Scott needs to do out of the car to make himself stronger mentally and physically. I don’t want to say ‘at his advanced age’ because if someone looked at him and you said he’s 40 years old, they’d say, ‘No way!’ It’s refreshing to be around somebody who is so willing to not take anything for granted.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opens Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. The 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is Sunday, May 30.