DETROIT – The milk was barely washed out Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson’s fire suitand the NTT IndyCar Series summer slump has gone wild.
The Swede is the new points leader, free agency has been increasing at a dizzying pace and the reigning IndyCar champion said his name was wrongly hit the rumor mill.
And it’s the final race at Belle Isle to boot – and the opening practice session for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix has been fittingly dominated by drivers who have been in the headlines for the past few weeks.
Freshman Kyle Kirkwood, who was recently announced to join Andretti Autosport next seasonaccelerated Friday’s Detroit session with a 1-minute, 16.1345-second lap of the 2.35-mile, 14-turn street course.
FRIDAY SESSION: Speeds from afternoon training
DETROIT CHEVROLET GRAND PRIX: Schedules, participant list, how to watch
Though the 2021 Indy Lights champion is looking to end his only season for AJ well. Foyt Racing’s No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet Kirkwood said his upcoming move had been known for a while.
“It’s really not a focus for me at all,” said Kirkwood, who won the Indy Lights title with Andretti and also won a GTD pole as a late reserve driver in IMSA on Friday. “It hasn’t changed anything for me. It’s been, yes, quite a while since we’ve actually done it.
“It was the same for me. It’s always the same goal. We have 11 races left. For now we’re doing it solid. Obviously the focus is still with AJ Foyt Racing because all I want to do is win for the team because they worked really hard for that.”
After finishing second at the Indy 500, Pato O’Ward was second fastest in practice for Arrow McLaren SP. which officially introduced the new driver Alexander Rossi (whom Kirkwood will replace at Andretti) in a news conference on Friday.
Although Rossi (who was third fastest on Friday) and O’Ward will be team-mates, it’s still uncertain whether Felix Rosenqivst will remain as the third driver when McLaren add a car next year
“So Felix is staying?” Helio Castroneves, who is also on a contract year, asked O’Ward in an interview after training.
“I really hope he stays,” O’Ward said.
“Okay,” said Castroneves, who was eighth fastest in practice. “No indication of who the third car will be?
“I don’t know. I have nothing to say.”
O’Ward is focused on winning his first championship and trying to overtake new championship leader Ericsson in the standings. Each won a Belle Isle race last season at the track’s final doubleheader weekend (after a nine-year run).
Sunday’s race will be IndyCar’s last on Belle Isle in three decades. which will move to a new downtown layout in 2023.
Rossi said he decided last summer that this seventh season with Andretti would be his last. Andretti held an exclusive negotiation window with Rossi but allowed him to sign early with McLaren to ease the move to Kirkwood. Rossi is approaching the three-year mark of his last win.
“It was clear that I would look at different options and explore what was out there,” Rossi said. “I’ve been driving for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you have to change things, be it on a personal side, on a professional side, or both together. I think it was time for a change.”
But what about the third McLaren seat next year?
O’Ward has been strongly in favor of keeping current teammate Rosenqvist, who is on a contract year and is still being evaluated by the team. He finished fourth at the Indy 500 but was involved in an incident in practice on Friday (video above).
Rosenqvist, who missed two races after a crash in Detroit last year, was unhurt after sliding into a tire lockup at Turn 1
The name most associated with the Arrow McLaren SP open-top ride was series titleholder Alex Palou. The Spaniard won the IndyCar title in his first season driving for Ganassi – runner-up in IndyCar – and has become a coveted asset in the paddock.
Palou was thrilled to be part of the rumor mill on Friday but doesn’t know why his peers think he’s leaving Ganassi for McLaren.
“I’m fine. I don’t talk to other teams,” Palou said. “I mean, my name is everywhere, but just because someone’s interested doesn’t mean I’m interested.”
NO REGRET: The ink on O’Ward’s contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP has only just dried and he is thinking big all the time. He eased off on the final lap at Indy as he challenged Ericsson for the win and on Friday still thought it was the right decision.
O’Ward believes he failed to execute the winning pass and would have fallen – an inexcusable result in a race worth double points. Ericsson shot up from eighth to first overall with the win, while O’Ward moved up from seventh to second and is 13 points off his lead.
“I made the right choice 100%,” O’Ward said Friday. “I just don’t think trying to be a hero there would pay off in helping us win a championship. I think that would be a huge blow to the championship and it just wouldn’t be worth it.”
Other drivers disagreed, with reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou insisting he would definitely be aiming for the Indy 500 win.
However, O’Ward had the support of his team as Arrow McLaren is making big strides towards becoming one of IndyCar’s top organizations with Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. O’Ward had already signed an extension last week and is at the heart of the organization, and McLaren has plans to build a state-of-the-art store in Indianapolis as it prepares to expand to three cars next year.
“What I’m proud of is Pato’s maturity in understanding us as an organization,” said team president Taylor Kiel. “He made a move that was smart beyond his years and with the bigger picture in mind. I know in his heart he wanted to keep it flat to see what happened. But something in the back of his mind said, “Let’s focus on the championship. That’s a huge thing for me.”
DIXON’S MOOD: The Indy 500 was supposed to lose Scott Dixon, and he did.
A pitlane speeding penalty decimated Dixon’s chance of a second Indy 500 win after dominating almost all of the race’s build-up. He went over 234 mph in a record-breaking pole-winning run and then led 95 of the 200 laps.
Dixon has made winning another Indy 500 a top priority, and the six-time IndyCar champion was “certainly devastated after the race,” said Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou.
The New Zealander insisted on Friday he was fine.
“We are in Detroit now. I feel great,” said Dixon, who added that disappointments often don’t stick around for long. “I’m pretty quick with the stuff. For me, it’s more about how everyone else feels. I think the saving grace was that one of the Ganassi cars (Ericsson) still won the race.”