(via The New York Times) – Marcus Ericsson had just turned 28 last fall when he suddenly needed another place to race. The Sauber Formula One team had bumped him from a regular ride after he spent four years finishing mostly at the back of the pack. Ericsson wanted a job with a contender.
“Formula One has always been more of a manufacturer’s championship than a driver’s championship,” Ericsson said in a New York coffee shop on Tuesday. “If you’re not in one of the top cars, it’s tough mentally.”
Essentially locked out of advancing in F1 because there are maybe only six elite rides in the series, Ericsson had not come close to winning a race. But he had options. His best option was to join the NTT IndyCar Series in North America.
Ericsson, a native of Kumla, Sweden, signed in October to race a Honda full time in 2019 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. His first race will be Sunday, when the season opens with an event on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Ericsson said he planned to drive Indy cars for at least two years, adding with a smile, “Maybe I’ll be here forever.”
“I can go into every week and have a chance — something I was so, so missing in Formula One,” he said.
Ericsson is not the first European to stretch his career by jumping from Formula One to Indy cars, which generally resemble sleek F1 cars with open cockpits and open wheels but are much tougher to drive. Five former F1 drivers will participate in the IndyCar Series full time this year, the most since at least 2003.
“Frankly, with F1, there are so few drivers every year who have a chance to be competitive,” said Mark D. Miles, the chief executive for Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series.
According to IndyCar, Ericsson will be one of 11 drivers in the series who have raced at some level in Europe. Included is another Swede, Felix Rosenqvist, 27, who joined the powerful team owned by Chip Ganassi and will be the teammate of the five-time series champion Scott Dixon.
Fernando Alonso, 37, a two-time Formula One champion, plans to return to drive the Indianapolis 500 after competing in the race in 2017. Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell raced Indy cars, but only after winning F1 world championships.
But the 18-race IndyCar Series — which added a March event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., home of the F1’s United States Grand Prix — is gaining traction as a viable full-time option for F1 drivers who cannot hitch a ride with an elite team.
“There are definitely more drivers thinking about doing it,” said Max Chilton, a 27-year-old driver from England who enters his fourth season in the IndyCar Series after three years driving for the Marussia F1 team.
“If you excel here, you just might get back into F1,” he added. “It’s definitely possible. Everything’s possible. That’s not on my agenda now. My agenda is to prove myself here.”
With a new title sponsor and all of its races to be carried by NBC Sports, the IndyCar Series has ratcheted up its competition while managing costs. Adding foreign drivers helps the series market itself internationally.
Ericsson said he had a “huge following” in Sweden from his time as an F1 driver.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be here,” he said. “But it seems like the support from Sweden is as big as it was, or even bigger.”
Three of the last four Indy 500s have been won by drivers with F1 experience: Juan Pablo Montoya, from Colombia, in 2015; Alexander Rossi, from California, in 2016; and Takuma Sato, from Japan, in 2017. Sato was one of four full-time former F1 drivers in the IndyCar Series that year; there were also three part-timers, including Montoya.
Sato, 42, drove in 90 F1 races from 2002 to 2008, finishing third in the U.S. Grand Prix, then at Indianapolis, and eighth in the 2004 standings with the Lucky Strike BAR Honda team. He moved to IndyCar in 2010 but won only once in 105 races before winning at the Indy 500.
“I know how tough the competition is there — it’s all about technology and science, and research and development. Unbelievable equipment, and I really enjoyed it,” Sato said of F1. “But what I’m doing now is completely concentrating on this series. I have no regrets. I’m completely happy with how I’ve done in the IndyCar Series.”
“Although as a racecar driver,” he added, “I’d very much like to drive Formula One.”
Ericsson said he enjoyed traveling around the world as an F1 driver, but he had been only to Austin and Los Angeles in the United States before he moved to Indianapolis this winter.
His manager for six years was Kenny Brack, a Swedish driver who won the championship of the former Indy Racing League in 1998 and the Indy 500 in 1999. Brack had been instrumental in Ericsson’s transition from go-karts to race in the Formula BMW Series in Britain in 2007.
Ericsson got more information about racing in North America from Brack and from Rossi, who moved to the IndyCar Series full time in 2016 from a part-time ride with the Marussia Formula One team. Rossi won the Indy 500 that year, only his sixth race in the series.
“Apart from F1, it’s the toughest level of racing at the moment,” Ericsson said. “You have to have some flexibility to drive. F1 is supercomplex, with high speeds in the corners. It’s all about perfection. With IndyCar, it’s an old-school feeling. You have to work behind the steering wheel to drive it.”
Before the first practice session on Friday at St. Petersburg, Ericsson had tested an IndyCar only six times. He has yet to race on an oval racetrack, like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, though he is looking forward to the challenge and soaking in its tradition.
“I know a bit of the history, with drinking the milk and everything,” he said.
He knows he will be asked about making a U-turn back to Formula One. There have been drivers who were successful in Indy cars before embarking on successful careers in F1, most notably Mario Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve.
But, Ericsson said, “I’m not here to drive a year, then go back. Anything is possible today, but I’m seeing this as a long-term project.”