Note: The INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable is taking the opportunity of the two-week break in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule to analyze the first eight races of the 17-race season and offer discussion and opinions about a variety of topics in the first half of the season. This multipart series will run daily through Friday, June 24.
Today’s question: What is the biggest surprise this season?
Curt Cavin: I’ll cheat and offer two. The first is Marcus Ericsson. Entering May, there were at least 10 drivers with better odds to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Yes, Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Alex Palou seemed to have better cars before they fell out of contention – Palou by bad yellow-light timing, Dixon by a pit road speeding penalty – but earning a place on the Borg-Warner Trophy has always involved a blend of speed, luck and circumstance. Ericsson has been just as surprising away from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he has solidified himself as a legitimate championship contender (he’s the leader by 27 points over Will Power). Beyond Ericsson’s consistently strong runs, I was struck by Colton Herta’s comment after their Road America duel, where he couldn’t catch Ericsson on the late restarts. “He’s really good on restarts,” said Herta, who is judicious with praise.
Zach Horrall: I must say, Callum Ilott and Juncos Hollinger Racing definitely have surprised me with their performance lately. Sure, early in the season Ilott had some forgettable runs in the No. 77 Chevrolet, but something changed once May arrived. He was strong at Barber, and had it not been for a rookie mistake he likely scores a top 10. Then, he gets JHR its best NTT INDYCAR SERIES finish with an eighth on the IMS road course. I’m going to omit the Indy 500 for this driver who is still new to ovals and remain incredibly impressed with his 11th-place effort at Road America with a broken hand that forced him to sit out Detroit. Ilott’s performance says a lot: I think we’re seeing he is a superb talent, and we’re seeing that little, single-car teams can find success in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES if given the right driver and opportunity. Ilott has the talent to be an F1 driver, like many around the world believe, and selfishly I’m glad it didn’t pan out for him and INDYCAR was able to welcome him with open arms.
Paul Kelly: Marcus Ericsson’s skill on ovals is a surprise, with a victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and a third-place finish at Texas. I didn’t have Ericsson on my bingo card as the ovalmeister of the season in 2022. But Curt already pinpointed that trend, so I’ll spot another one. It kind of blows my mind that Silly Season is all but done before the season’s halfway point. The two biggest lineup questions for 2023 entering this season already are answered, as Pato O’Ward is staying at Arrow McLaren SP and will be joined by 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi starting next season. Promising rookie Kyle Kirkwood will leave AJ Foyt Racing after one season to rejoin Andretti Autosport in 2023. Sure, there still are a few dominoes to fall, such as the status of Felix Rosenqvist with Arrow McLaren SP and Rinus VeeKay with Ed Carpenter Racing, but it sure seems like nearly all the major players in the series have their seats already lined up for 2023. I’ve read some chatter about Alex Palou’s status at Chip Ganassi Racing, including being a candidate for the third AMSP seat. But I can’t imagine Palou moving from the team that delivered him his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in 2021. Still, stranger things have happened. Maybe there is one more trick in the tail left in what has been a pretty quiet, settled Silly Season so far.