MONTEREY, California – When a young, 19-year-old driver from Denmark arrived for the road race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 14, 2021, little was known about him.
Who was this Christian Lundgaard and why was he taken away by team owner Bobby Rahal?
He quickly showed why by qualifying fourth for his IndyCar debut. Lundgaard would finish the race in 12ththbut he proved to Rahal that he was capable of competing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
in the low season, Rahal signed Lundgaard for a season-long drive in the #30 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Lundgaard rewarded him with winning the 2022 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Award – 40 years after Rahal was IndyCar’s top rookie in 1982.
“I have compatriots in Europe that I’ve trusted over the years and they all said, ‘You have to give that guy Christian Lundgaard a chance,'” Rahal recalled. “(They said,) ‘He’s the one.’
“So we agreed and asked Christian to drive at the Harvest Grand Prix a year ago. He brings it to fourth place on the grid.
“More importantly I think that in that short time he helped develop a car, helped develop the car and gave us some directions for the car. That paid off for us for the rest of the year. A lot of the setup came from the bindings we got from Christian at Indy.
“It’s no coincidence when you act like that. That has substance. We believed that Christian could be something special. He’s very young and we’re also looking to the future and we thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a guy we want on this team now and in the future.’ ”
Lundgaard finished 14thth in the points classification ahead of rookie David Malukas (16thth), Callum Ilotte (20th), Develin DeFrancesco (23approx) and Kyle Kirkwood (24th).
“I’m just so happy for Christian,” said Rahal. “Rookie year, every track outside of Indy GP was a new circuit. You’re going to Texas, it’s an intimidating place. You go to Toronto; You’re going to Iowa. This young man had to learn these circuits as best he could in a very short time.
“I’d like to think that as a team we helped him, but when you get out there and start walking it’s kind of like holy (bleep) – sorry holy smoke – that’s a different place.
“So I’m not only happy for Christian, but also for his team, his group. Ben Segal, his engineer who was new to us this year and new to Christian. It’s kind of an initial process and they’ve really grown together over the year and the results we’re seeing today reflect that.”
In the three-rider RLL team, Graham Rahal finished the season 11thth and Jack Harvey was 22nd in the #45 Hy-Vee Honda.
So how will Lundgaard celebrate his IndyCar Rookie of the Year title?
“I’m going to Vegas,” he said. “I’m going back to my room, have a shower, and then we’re flying to Vegas tonight.”
Rahal quipped, “Well he gets a bonus from somewhere else because he’s not mine.”
Lundgaard, in August signed a multi-year contract extension staying with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing said: “I have a contract. I guess that’s my bonus.”
In addition to a new contract, he also convinced the IndyCar paddock.
Lundgaard was able to become the “Great Dane” by driving fast but also controlling the car. While many of his fellow rookies made mistakes this season, Lundgaard was rarely criticized for a mistake by other drivers – even when he first started racing on ovals in his life.
Lundgaard finished just behind Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway in Laguna Seca.
“Hard race,” said Rahal. “Tires are everywhere. Strategies are everywhere. This young man, as we saw in Portland – yes, a small mistake. But Indy, what’s the matter, he was there. He mixed it up with the top guys.
“I can only tell you that we are really looking forward to next year and are doing everything we can to ensure that Christian, Graham and Jack have the cars they need to really play in the championship.”
Lundgaard’s best finish of the season was a second place finish to race winner Alexander Rossi at the Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway street circuit on July 30.
“I think today’s race might have been one of the better races we’ve had all year,” said Lundgaard. “I think we weren’t really competitive all weekend. We were kind of there, but not really there. We didn’t qualify well enough. We were good on the blacks but once we put the reds on there was just no pace.
“We did it today and I’m just glad the team gave me the opportunity to be here and achieve that. I’m thankful for Bobby. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and holding me. I’m happy about that. Now I have another championship to win.
“You only get one shot at the rookie championship, so it was a big win for me.”
Team owner Rahal admits that in many ways Lundgaard was the shining star of his racing team.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” admitted Rahal. “The first third or half of the year was very patchy. We didn’t give our drivers, Christian, Graham or Jack, the cars they deserved.
“Even so, everyone pulled themselves together and sort of figured it out. Probably since Toronto, I guess, or just before Toronto, there has been a measurable improvement in performance as a team compared to us, and then we really saw what our drivers could do.
“As a rider, and I’ve been there, if you don’t have the right gear, I don’t care how good you are, you won’t be able to show it. But this team really came together. The whole team worked hard.
“It was tough. It was tough mid-season. But everyone stayed the course, worked really hard and we saw the improvements in the overall performance.”
In 2020 a rookie driver from Spain joined Dale Coyne Racing and was so impressive he was hired by Chip Ganassi Racing the following year. This Alex Palou driver who won the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship and also won Sunday’s race.
Could the same happen to Lundgaard in IndyCar?
“I think anything is possible,” said Lundgaard. “I’m not driving for second place, so I’ll do my best.”
His team owner is certainly enthusiastic about the idea of a championship with Lundgaard in the near future.
“Well, we wouldn’t have put our option on him if we hadn’t thought about it,” Rahal said. “I think Christian is a big part of the future of RLL and as you saw earlier this week we’re bringing in people to help improve RLL’s game and I think combined – there’s Christian of course, other new people in and the whole idea, we’re here to win and we feel Christian can win.
“I think he showed that this year. I mean, at the Harvest Grand Prix, we won the race because we were the first legal car.”
Rahal was referring to the fact that Winner Rossi’s car failed the post-race technical inspection because a water bottle made the car overweight. Rossi had docked points but retained the win.
“That’s right,” said Lundgaard. “We got the most points.”
“I’m just saying…” Rahal replied.
Although Lundgaard has risen through the European ranking system, he believes IndyCar is more his racing home than Formula 1.
“I’ve seen IndyCar before,” Lundgaard regretted. “Actually, I would say that I’ve seen a lot of street circuits and city circuits because I still follow Formula 1. I’m still chasing some junior categories. I even follow some go-kart races. I would say I did it before I came here.
“When I got the chance to test at Barber I wouldn’t say no anyway because I like the challenge of a new car, just to drive the car and get to know America.
“But I fell in love with her and I’m here and I love it.
“I will not go.”