PRUETT: Marcus Ericsson reimagined

PRUETT: Marcus Ericsson reimagined

Sitting in the Indianapolis 500 winner’s press conference, Marcus Ericsson said it with his patented smile. But the smile was a mask. Knives were drawn with every word spoken: “Not bad for a pay driver.”

Listen to the endless stream of folks who can’t wait to tell you he was a hack who couldn’t cut it in Formula 1, or that he was only there because of a wealthy industrialist who’s sponsored him since he was a teen, and it would be easy to believe Ericsson’s current station in life — the winner of the world’s biggest open-wheel race — is something he does not deserve.

In casual settings, even his first IndyCar team, Arrow McLaren SP, struggled to offer kind words about Ericsson after cutting ties with the Swede following his rookie season. With so many people ready and willing to minimize the man at every opportunity, Ericsson has born the weight of disrespect with immense class.

His turn of fortunes started 52 weeks ago at the Detroit Grand Prix and offer an important lesson. It was on the streets of Belle Isle where Ericsson earned the first of two victories on the season; those performances, along with 10 tops 10s, culminated in a career-best run to sixth in the championship.

We make a habit of casting a driver’s die at an early stage in their career and rarely stray from viewing them in that light. Whatever Ericsson was in his early 20s while driving for the terrible Caterham F1 team, or afterwards for also-rans at Sauber, well, that’s who he’ll be in perpetuity. But is it possible that in the right environment, Ericsson has grown into a new version of himself?

As a rookie to IndyCar, with no knowledge of oval racing, he was 17th in the standings; his race-winning veteran teammate James Hinchcliffe was 12th. That said more about the team’s lack of competitiveness than its drivers, but again, and just like in F1, the guy’s die was cast. He was Marcus ‘The Unremarkable Ride Buyer’ Ericsson.

At Chip Ganassi Racing, everything changed. Ericsson found support — real support from every person and department in the building — for the first time as a pro. With Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan and Alex Palou and Jimmie Johnson as allies, he’s found the culture that fits his needs. And it’s here where he’s broken that mold, been recast as a new and constantly evolving driver who is unrecognizable from whomever he was as an F1 or IndyCar rookie.

Ganassi’s main driver advisor, four-time series champion and triple Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, has seen how heavily Ericsson has responded to being immersed in the right environment.

“There’s a good rapport between the five drivers, and it’s hard to do it with five different personalities involved and have their willingness to share stuff and work together,” Franchitti told RACER. “And it helps that the five of them are good people, and they like each other. They want to beat each other, too, which is healthy. But they’ve done a great job of working well together, which we saw during the month. That same thing of the boys working together to benefit the team has also worked massively for Marcus individually.

Ericsson’s Indy 500 win was an answer to anyone who might have judged him from some of the earlier chapters of his career, including his F1 stints with Caterham (above) and Sauber. Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

“And, Marcus, he’s such a nice person, that sometimes that can be misunderstood. People think, ‘Oh, Marcus is too nice to get mean or dirty.’ No, he’s not, and he’s made that clear a couple of years ago when he came to the team. It was almost like a ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’ look that he gave. It was like he was saying, ‘Don’t confuse because I’m a happy, smiley guy, for not being willing to do whatever it takes to become a winner.’ And he’s worked so hard. Him having Brad Goldberg as an engineer has been huge for him, because Goldberg leaves no stone unturned. The guy works his arse off, and that’s what we’ve seen with Marcus, as well.”

Like Ericsson, Franchitti landed in America with limited fanfare, finishing 22nd as a rookie with the midfield Hogan Racing team that wasn’t too dissimilar to AMSP during its era. The Scot would turn his opportunity to join the powerhouse Team Green organization the following year into a life-altering affair as he became a regular race winner and leapt to third in the standings.

Ericsson’s process of reaching the best version of himself has taken a few more years, but as Franchitti sees it, there’s no reason for anyone to believe the driver’s he’s coached was incapable of big development spurts in his late 20s and early 30s.

“Of course you can make big gains as Marcus has done,” he said. “You look at people in the junior formulas, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, some of them aren’t exceptional.’ I never quite reached those heights until I got into the big cars. What some people fail to understand, because maybe they don’t want to understand it, is it all comes together at different times; people mature at different rates. I actually thought Marcus’s junior career was pretty bloody good. That’s one thing.

“The other is the Formula 1 side, and as we know, you’re only as good as the car you’re sitting in. Since we’ve had him in the team, I couldn’t be more complimentary of who he is and what he brings as a driver. And the thing about Marcus is, yes, winning Indianapolis is big exclamation mark, but this is the same guy who will be tired as a dog but climbing into the simulator for Detroit to get himself and the team prepared to win again. That was not what I was expecting when he came to the team, that was not maybe his reputation, but the guy has worked for everything he’s gotten here.”

I know Franchitti sees elements of himself in Ericsson. Few put in more hours than Franchitti with pre-race preparation, in-depth analysis of previous chassis setups that did or didn’t work, race strategies that gave the best and worst odds of success, and he topped it off by making an endless number of small changes to the cockpit to suit his needs.

The effort expended outside of the cockpit was matched by what went on inside, and from that obsessive dedication came huge rewards. We’re seeing the same returns happen for Ericsson at the same team where the most successful years of Franchitti’s career were forged. That’s not a coincidence.

“Brad Goldberg and that whole group in the in the wintertime were having Zoom calls every week, wherever Marcus was in the world,” Franchitti continued. It was, ‘Okay, what are we doing now? Are we getting better? What did we get done this week to improve?’ You know, winning doesn’t happen by accident. I cannot compliment him highly enough for how hard he’s pushing himself to get better all the time and how he’s pushing his team to be better.

“Like I said before, it doesn’t always happen for you when you’re a kid. Sometimes it takes time to find the last little bit within yourself. I think last year, he got a lot of confidence from winning at Detroit and again in Nashville. And we saw that result now in Indy where is confidence is sky-high. He knew what he was doing out there on Sunday. He asked a lot of questions all month and had a plan and executed it in a delightful manner. Well deserved.”

Like Ericsson said with the intensity of a blue flame, not bad for a ride buyer.