Lundgaard under the radar but top of the rookie standings

Christian Lundgaard isn’t the highest-profile rookie on the IndyCar grid, but he’s ahead on points, he’s outperforming his car, and he appears to be gaining an edge on his established teammates. By David Malsher-Lopez.

Lundgaard under the radar but top of the rookie standings
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It’s hard to pick a star of the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series over its first nine rounds, because of the closeness of the competition. The pacesetter at the previous round can so easily be an also-ran at the next. For that reason, one has to salute Josef Newgarden, who has accumulated wins on an oval, a street course (when Team Penske-Chevrolet was probably only the third best car-engine combo) and a road course.

But while the cameras haven’t picked him up too often, it’s important to acknowledge the efforts of rookie Christian Lundgaard. Sure, because of their Road To Indy history, Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas have stolen the headlines among the newbies by either outdriving their equipment, or overachieving, depending on the down days and up days of their respective teams, AJ Foyt Racing and Dale Coyne Racing. But both are headed in the championship by Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda’s quiet Dane who, unlike they, has virtually no experience of the tracks on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

 

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

If one looked at the most obvious statistics – a best finish of ninth, a best qualifying position of eighth – one might question the wisdom of giving him a nod of appreciation. Those figures are comparable to Malukas and Kirkwood but surely to be expected of a man who won races in Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula Renault. In fact, isn’t it a tad disappointing for a guy who breezed into IndyCar on a one-off deal with RLL at last year’s August race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and qualified fourth, barely a blink of an eye slower than pole position?

Yes, superficially that is true, but don’t put that comparative slump down to the driver; Lundgaard finds himself in more difficult circumstances now that he’s become a full-timer for 2022. The team co-owned by Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan is treading water currently, with weekends going by where the rookie and his experienced teammates Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey collectively barely register. That’s why they sit 17th, 15th and 20th on the points table respectively.

It’s not as if anyone at RLL is failing to work as hard as their counterparts in rival teams, nor is anyone there content with the way things are. But professional sport is judged in a harsh manner, and while Bobby and Graham and their sponsor-fetchers can charm birds off trees and look after their backers like few others, onlookers will draw conclusions based purely on speed and results.

As a race engineer from a rival team remarked to me a few weeks ago, “Why did a team that finishes 7th to 10th in the championship every year, with an engineering group better than anyone’s except Ganassi and Penske, think that expanding to three cars was going to be the magic bullet?”

 

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Well, the theory is that having a greater number of cars on track in any given session on race weekends will at least start to compensate for the dearth of test days…

“Doesn’t work like that,” snapped the reply. “That only works for fine-tuning. You don’t have the time – or the tires – to run three very different setups and then make changes based on which one of your cars is quick. Shit, I wish we did. It’s all about the work between races, and if you don’t roll off the truck fast, or with just a few little tweaks to make, you’re going to be slow the rest of the weekend…”

Unless you’re Ganassi.

“OK, yeah, unless you’re Ganassi.”

But that’s the way it is: RLL has expanded to three full-time IndyCar entries at a time when qualified personnel have become hard to come by, and at the same time it’s building a new facility and preparing to run the exciting BMW GTP car in IMSA. But if some might judge that as overambitious, that shouldn’t detract from RLL's choice of third driver. Certainly, it hasn’t detracted from the appeal of IndyCar for Lundgaard: in fact, the F2 refugee sounds remarkably positive about the experience.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he tells Motorsport.com. “As a racing driver you always want to win, but the challenge of bringing the team further up is interesting. I like that challenge of taking the personnel we have, and whoever will join us, and getting them all to work together well and get the performance increase. That challenge is nice.

“I would agree with Graham that we are perhaps under-manpowered. But no matter how you’re going to turn it around, it’s always going to be nice to have extra people, right? In terms of pitcrew, for example, I’m personally not complaining. I have many new guys on my car for this season, some experienced ones who have been improving on their mistakes and also improving on each other’s mistakes. I think that’s been going very well this year. Having Ryan Harber [former MLB pitcher who is now RLL’s director of human performance] with us to help the pitcrew be better physically prepared has been for sure a positive.

RLL-Honda teammates Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard and Graham Rahal.

RLL-Honda teammates Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard and Graham Rahal.

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“The important thing is everything is going in the right direction and not the wrong direction, so I’ve got no complaints.”

Despite being a rookie, it’s notable that in the last four road and street course events – Grand Prix of Indy, Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio – Lundgaard has outqualified both of his teammates, and he has yet to line-up third of the RLL trio on any type of track. He has also, aside from contact with the wall at Texas Motor Speedway after an incident with Colton Herta, kept his significant mistakes to a minimum, one of the main reasons why he’s ahead of Malukas and Kirkwood in the rookie standings. It’s as if, 10 races into his IndyCar career, Lundgaard has already developed an innate feel for the limits of the car.

“I don’t think there’s a benefit of going over the limit,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner. “For sure, paying for damage is never fun. I’ve never had a big history of damaging cars, so I think for sure that’s something I’ve brought from Europe.

“But also… we aren’t really in that position of risking throwing everything overboard to get that one extra position. Results come from consistency and being clever and playing the long game. Making sure we finish the race, score those points, get the mileage and gain data will help us understand what changes we want to make and which directions we want to go. Across the team, that’s been the biggest benefit for us – being on track every time, getting data.”

Assessing his year overall, Lundgaard again accentuates the positive, loves the closeness of the competition.

“In terms of performance we have been disappointed,” he says, “but how tough it is… well, I think Mid-Ohio is a good example. Like I told my race engineer after the race, ‘If you want to play with the big guys, you’ve got to play like the big guys.’ Simon [Pagenaud of Meyer Shank Racing] and myself had a bit of tangling together, but nothing too serious. It was just us getting our elbows out – and that’s what IndyCar is all about: hard racing but fair racing. There’s respect between the drivers, and that’s what I like: there is no one who just runs each other off the track and then complains about it afterwards. It’s racing, it is what it is, and that’s what I like about IndyCar the most. How tough, hard but fair racing it is.

“We’ve had races where we’ve struggled more than others. I don’t think we’ve had that one clear weekend where just everything has worked for us, so I’m looking forward to that!”

Ovals have not filled him with enthusiasm – yet – but he can tell they will be fun eventually.

“I wouldn’t exactly say I have enjoyed oval racing,” he admits with a chuckle, “but it’s a cool experience now that I have experience, right? So coming back to an oval race next year I will have that benefit. When we tested at Iowa a couple of weeks ago, I went out there and said, ‘Holy damn, this is not fun!’ The track is so bumpy and you’re going around in circles, and if it’s your first time there, you’re thinking, ‘Is this right? Does this feel right?’ You have no frame of reference, so that’s what has been my biggest benefit in having Graham and Jack. Having them go out and proving what’s possible in the car. It pushes me harder to improve. So as a package of drivers, I think we’re well sorted.”

First taste of Iowa Speedway, in testing last month, was an eye-opener for Lundgaard.

First taste of Iowa Speedway, in testing last month, was an eye-opener for Lundgaard.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

At road and street courses, the 20-year-old Dane is better able to find his own way – while pooling data with his colleagues, of course – and is getting used to the dynamics of an IndyCar after spending two seasons in F2.

“I’d say some weekends are better than others,” he confesses. “For example, at Mid-Ohio we struggled with one issue straight away from the first lap which we carried through the weekend, but you adapt and you understand, so it gets better and it gets filtered a bit more. These cars can handle a lot more oversteer than what I was used to. The car doesn’t drive particularly different to an F2 car – which makes sense, because they’re both built by Dallara, and I know some of the components are the same. So… it’s not too difficult to adapt.”

Whatever his problem at Mid-Ohio – and he clearly didn’t want to go into specifics – Lundgaard set fourth-fastest time during the race. But he’s remaining realistic about the remaining seven rounds on the 2022 schedule, and dismisses his startling IndyCar debut last August as ancient history.

“Honestly, I don’t think that much about that performance last year because that was more of a confirmation for myself that I still had it. In Europe I was facing a very tough season. We were far off the pace, didn’t have the performance pretty much wherever we went, and if you made a change to the car you’d feel it but it would kind of overreact to whatever you did. It was very difficult to find that balance of being right, where I feel more comfortable and competitive here in understanding the car. So that IndyCar race last year just confirmed, ‘OK, I can still drive a car, I can still be fast,” etc. So I think that’s why I enjoy more being here than I did in my last year in F2, because everywhere we went last year, I was thinking, ‘Ugh, here we go again, what’s this event going to bring?’ Here, I go in and no matter how strong our car is, I feel I can win. That changes your perspective as a racing driver.”

That being the case, it’s no surprise to hear Lundgaard sounding much more positive about staying on this side of the Atlantic for the forseeable future, and sticking with RLL, too.

He says: “I enjoy the project that the team is building with the new facility, and expanding to three cars for this season – the whole season. I think next year we’ll have more confidence, we’ll have moved from this shop to the new one and it will be calmer in the sense that, ‘This is where we’re going to be,’ and the whole team is working on that. Everyone is so committed, and for sure I’m looking forward to that.”

Lundgaard’s European era has passed then? No expected callbacks by Alpine?

“I’d be as surprised as you!” he laughs, before admitting that a one-off with the French squad at Le Mans would interest him, if the IndyCar schedule doesn’t preclude participation in the June 10-11 event.

After the interview wraps up, I’m left pondering the last time I heard a fulltime driver who’s 17th in points midseason sounding so positive. In Lundgaard’s case, it’s because he’s excited about the future. But that shouldn’t overshadow what a fine job he’s doing in the here and now, in difficult circumstances. That may only get properly recognized if he retains his top spot in the rookie standings all the way through to the season finale in mid-September.

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