INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Marcus Ericsson, once a Formula 1 bottom driver, is now an IndyCar frontrunner.
And an Indianapolis 500 champion.
Ericsson became the second Swede to win the Indy 500 on Sunday as he held off some of the biggest names in North American auto racing in front of the biggest crowd of his life.
“It’s the greatest race in the world,” said Ericsson, who described it as his greatest win “by a million miles.”
The 31-year-old resurfaced at IndyCar in 2019 after five unremarkable seasons in Formula 1. He’d worked his whole life to make it to the top of motorsport and then washed out without a win – not even a single podium – in 97 starts.
He didn’t exactly dazzle in his first season in North America either. Ericsson was released from his first IndyCar team after just a year, then bought a seat at Chip Ganassi Racing – he made it a point when he said, “Winning the Indy 500 isn’t bad for a paid driver” – and has made steady progress in his 36 races with Ganassi since 2020.
“It was hard. I spent five years in Formula 1, almost a hundred grands prix, driving for small teams, most of the time at the back. You don’t get much credit running in the back. People think you’re not very good,” Ericsson said. “I came here and people probably didn’t think much of it. Here, too, I had to work my way through, learn American racing drivers.
“I moved here and have dedicated my entire life to becoming an IndyCar and mostly Indianapolis 500 champion. It was’nt easy. It feels good to show that hard work pays off.”
Ericsson took control of the race late – largely due to teammate Scott Dixon’s speed penalty – and had victory within reach until a four-lap crash by Ganassi teammate Jimmie Johnson Remaining led to a rare red flag stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IndyCar is among the purest forms of motorsport, rarely throwing out artificial cautions or stoppages that could alter the outcome. But the crowd of more than 300,000 – just a few thousand before a sellout and the biggest sporting event since the pandemic began – went wild as IndyCar called the cars to the pit lane.
The stoppage gave Pato O’Ward and the rest of the challengers nearly 12 minutes in the pit lane to strategize on how to overtake Ericsson. Ericsson agonized over his own plans.
“Those 10 minutes of sitting in the pit lane during that red flag was some of the toughest 10 minutes of my life,” he said, “considering what to do, thinking I’m leading the greatest race in the world, and I’m so close to winning it.”
There were two laps left when racing resumed and Ericsson made the jump to O’Ward. The Mexican took one last look at the lead Ericsson was defending and O’Ward knew not to force the issue.
“No, he was going to stick me in the wall if I tried,” O’Ward said.
Sage Karam crashed and issued another warning on the final lap, allowing Ericsson to roll onto the podium under yellow. Karam was taken to a hospital for a check-up for sore muscles.
“When that warning came out, I thought it was going to be another restart. I was like, ‘I can’t believe it, one more,'” Ericsson said. “At first I was angry, then I just realized that I had won the race. From that point it’s an explosion of emotions.”
It was Ericsson’s third IndyCar win in 52 starts. But he arrived in Indianapolis confident he could win the 500, thanks in part to the work he put into learning ovals and a third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in warm-up for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
It’s the fifth Indy 500 win for team owner Chip Ganassi, who rode onto the podium alongside Ericsson’s car. Ericsson is the first Swede to win the Indy 500 since Kenny Brack in 1999 and second in 106 runs in the race.
Ericsson poured his milk jug all over his face and then handed the bottle to Ganassi for the boss to take his own sip. Ganassi hadn’t won the 500 in 10 years and sent five legitimate contenders to Indy to end the drought.
Victory appeared to belong to Dixon, the six-time IndyCar champion, who went over 234 mph in qualifying to win pole. The New Zealander led 95 of the 200 laps and his Honda was by far the fastest of the field – so fast that Dixon didn’t slow down enough on his final pit stop.
The penalty took Dixon out of the fight for the win.
That still left Ericsson and Tony Kanaan in the mix for Ganassi. Kanaan, the oldest rider in the field at 47, thought he was in a perfect position to restart fourth.
However, O’Ward would not back down. He signed a contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP on Friday and was keen to celebrate his status as a McLaren star with the win. But O’Ward finished second, falling just short as he tried to set a banner celebration for Mexico on motorsport’s biggest day. Sergio Perez opened Sunday by winning the Monaco Grand Prix.
Kanaan was third followed by Felix Rosenqvist, another Swede driving for McLaren. Rosenqvist is in a contract year at McLaren and struggling for his job, but the McLaren group carried the Chevrolet banner at Indy as Juan Pablo Montoya finished 11th.
American driver Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly finished fifth and sixth, Rossi for Andretti Autosport and Daly for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Helio Castroneves, last year’s winner, finished seventh and one place ahead of Meyer Shank Racing teammate Simon Pagenaud. Reigning IndyCar Champion Alex Palou finished 10th in another Ganassi entry.
Dixon dropped to 21st after the speed penalty and although he visited Ericsson on the podium, he was comforted by his wife in the pit lane after the race. Johnson finished 28th in his Indy 500 debut.
“It’s a team, everyone roots for everyone, everyone works together and everyone is an open book,” Ganassi said. “Things are going to happen in those 500-mile races, and they’re not always going to get in your way. So we were lucky to have five good cars and five good drivers.”
For more AP Indy 500 coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/indianapolis-500 and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports