Christian Lundgaard secured the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Rookie of the Year Award with a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but the path to the honor began with a summer test at Sebring International Raceway.
Man, it was hot that day, as it often is in Florida. “Hotter than hell,” said Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which fielded Lundgaard’s No. 30 Honda this season.
“I confirm,” the Danish driver said. “It was hot.”
But the driver who was not yet 21 and Rahal described finding “a lot of” answers in the swelter.
“Some of those answers were not friendly to the things that we believed at the time,” team co-owner Rahal said. “We took those answers, and we faced reality.”
Sebring is a bumpy circuit which replicates a street circuit, and the next such venue on the schedule was the Honda Indy Toronto. Lundgaard qualified 10th with teammates Jack Harvey (13th) and Graham Rahal (14th) only a few paces back. While it might not have seemed like progress, it was for a team which had its drivers 13th, 16th and 20th in the standings at that point. Rahal raced to a fourth-place finish, with Lundgaard finishing eighth.
“Very strong performances,” Bobby Rahal said. “And it was like, ‘OK, we’re back in the hunt.’
“The findings from that test really contributed to the second half of the year, or the third (one-third) of the year because the first half of the year was tough.”
In the four non-oval races that followed Toronto and ended the season, Lundgaard’s average qualifying position was 7.0, and a runner-up finish in the Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course helped him earn five top-11 finishes in the final six such races to end the year. The surge was strong enough to hold off David Malukas, the Dale Coyne Racing with HMD driver who similarly fared well in the second half of the season, in the Rookie of the Year standings. Their separation at year’s end was 18 points.
Lundgaard also did well enough to climb to 14th in the final standings, 22 points behind Rahal and 114 points ahead of Harvey, who was forced to miss the March 20 race at Texas Motor Speedway due to an accident in the previous day’s practice.
Lundgaard’s performance over the course of the season led the team to again invest in his future, restructuring a new, long-term contract announced Aug. 16. Terms weren’t revealed, but last week the team announced it has added more strength to its engineering group, hiring Stefano Sordo as technical director. Sordo has had considerable Formula One experience working with the Jaguar, Toro Rosso, Red Bull and McLaren teams.
“To work with Stefano and seeing what he can bring to our team and the experience he has … we’re going to work extremely hard this winter,” Lundgaard said. “(Sordo’s hiring) shows how committed the team is to the sport and to the series, so I’m looking forward to the great things to come.”
Don’t forget that 2022 wasn’t just Lundgaard’s first full NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, it was the first year at RLLR for engineer Ben Siegel. The two had just one test day together before the first race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 27.
Lundgaard said he was proud he and Siegel contributed to the improvement the team made in the second half of the year.
“I must say, in the beginning of the season it did feel like I could have done something more to help the team perform better earlier in the season,” Lundgaard said. “But at the same time, (the struggle) was across all three cars.
“When I look back now, I wish there was more I could have done and something I could have done different to help us be better prepared, but we bounced back in the second half of the season, and I think that’s worthy to remember.”
Lundgaard thinks “everything is possible” in his second season in this series.
“I’m not racing to finish second, so I’ll give it my best shot.”