The recent return of oval-based racing has provided entertainment for many.
For Felix Rosenqvist, it also has furthered his education.
As NASCAR and many sprint car series have hit the track again over the past few weeks, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said he intently has been watching the left-hand turn brigade.
Heading into IndyCar’s season opener Saturday night on the lightning-fast high banks of Texas Motor Speedway, the research is partly a reason Rosenqvist feels “way more confident” heading into his second season in the NTT Data Series.
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“It seems like the more time you spend over here, the more you understand oval racing because it’s just something we never really watched back home,” Rosenqvist, a native of Sweden who got a place in Indianapolis, Indiana, last year as an IndyCar rookie, told NBCSports.com. “Obviously we watched the (Indy) 500, but I have to admit that most of us probably don’t really understand the concept of the racing too well.
“It can still be entertaining, but I don’t think everyone understands it. And now I start to feel that I really understand how oval racing works and how you become good at it, and what you need to be there at the end to win the race. Last year when I started, it was still a bit of a blur and like, ‘Oh, what’s going on here?’ It was kind of hard to understand when to push and when not to push and the whole perspective of what’s going on in the race. I feel that I should have made a huge leap on that (this season).”
After leading 31 laps and finishing fourth in his IndyCar debut in the 2019 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rosenqvist was thrust into a trial by fire at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two months later.
He crashed in Indianapolis 500 practice May 15 and struggled to find the edge on the daunting 2.5-mile oval. He qualified 29th for the May 26 race and finished 28th (after getting caught in a multicar crash started by Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais) in his first Indy 500.
Over the final oval races on the schedule, Rosenqvist didn’t crack the top 10, starting with a 12th at Texas.
He qualified a season-best ninth for an oval at Pocono Raceway but finished 22nd without turning a lap after getting caught in an opening-lap crash that started when Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi went three wide.
The scary wreck sent Rosenqvist, 28, to the hospital for a checkup, but he returned from the minor injuries the next week at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, where he finished his oval season with a best of 11th.
Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said it was indicative of improvement for the 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year that actually started at the Brickyard.
“I thought Indianapolis was good for Felix,” Hull told NBCSports.com. “We tried to drill into him you’re not going to learn how to race 500 miles unless you race the whole thing. As the race progressed, he did a better job.
“I think that was a big learning curve and really helped him. After we got into June and July, he realized how important the study of IndyCar racing is. It’s a very unique formula. It isn’t just a put your foot down formula.
“The cars are meant to be so identical to each other, you have to really focus for each racetrack how you create speed. That’s what he began to learn as the season went. It wasn’t that he wasn’t already fast. He learned how to consistently create speed. He made great progress and probably the last third of the season, we began to see it.”
But the progression has continued with oval film sessions for Rosenqvist, who was trained exclusively on road and street courses while becoming a 2015 champion in Formula 3 and a winner in Formula E and various sports car and touring series.
Hull said Rosenqvist follows NASCAR racing with a laptop by his side, watching timing and scoring to understand which drivers are getting faster throughout the course of a long green-flag run.
Rosenqvist also hones his oval race management by studying how the tracks change in other series (“that seems to be a very important thing”) as well as grasping the importance of patience. He has taken particular note about NASCAR Cup drivers rallying for top fives and victories after falling a lap down because of an early speeding penalty.
“I think in the beginning of my oval career, if you have a bad start, you would think, ‘Oh shit, the race is screwed; we’ll never get back in front,’ ” Rosenqvist said. “But that’s one of the things that if you have a fast car, you just need to take deep breaths, and you will eventually make it to the front, and it can go the same way the other way. If you start off well and then the car gets worse, then you will very quickly drop to the back. It’s one of those things you just have to breathe and stay in the game and you will be there at the end if everything allows for it.
“It’s interesting. It takes some time before you understand it, that’s for sure.”
— Felix Rosenqvist (@FRosenqvist) May 18, 2020
He has a helpful teammate in five-time champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, whose 46 career victories include 22 on ovals (three at Texas).
Hull said drivers such as Dixon make their biggest impact by conserving their tires for the last third of a green-flag stint when the car becomes lighter as the fuel load burns off.
“It doesn’t come from experience alone, but what experience teaches you is the car has to be at its best when the tires are at their worst,” Hull said. “That’s what good oval drivers do generally, whether on dirt or asphalt. They create a drive style in such a way that they have tires left to have a bit more speed than people they’re racing at end of a run. That’s when they make the most track position.
“That’s the reason Felix is so intent on studying what other people do.”
Of course, there’s been hardly any studying in IndyCar, which hasn’t raced since last September at Laguna Seca. Texas will mark the end of a nearly three-month layoff for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that began with the postponement of the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.
With two podium finishes (second at Mid-Ohio and Portland) and a fifth at Laguna in the last three races on road courses last year, Rosenqvist is cautiously optimistic about regaining his form in his NTT-sponsored No. 10 Dallara-Honda.
In memory of our friend John McCain from @NTTDATAServices who helped bringing @CGRTeams so much success for many years. You will be in our thoughts in Texas buddy. https://t.co/Cqb6rtQEkl pic.twitter.com/GUX5d0rEPm
— Felix Rosenqvist (@FRosenqvist) May 28, 2020
But with IndyCar beginning its aeroscreen era Saturday night on the 1.5-mile oval north of Fort Worth, Texas, drivers will be adapting to racing for the first time with a 17.3-pound ballistic canopy (which will offer much greater head protection). Rosenqvist also expects there naturally will be some rust as “we were probably better drivers in Laguna than we are now because of the down time, so it’s going to take some time to get back to that level for sure.
“I’m pretty confident we’ve done everything to be prepared, but you never really know,” said Rosenqvist, whose car will honor former NTT CEO John McCain, who died in February. “Every year when you’ve been out of the car, it’s always different when you step in again. Sometimes, you jump in and feel you’ve done it all winter, and sometimes you feel really rusty and everything feels really quick, and you almost get dizzy the first couple of laps. You never really know what you’re going to get.
“But I think it’s going to be tough. From standing still for five months to going 200 mph, that’s going to be a big change no matter how well we prepare and also the way your body is affected by G forces. That’s something you also can’t train for when you’re at home. I’m not worried, but I know it’s going to be a big task, and my mind is set that it’s going to be a big challenge.”