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“He was in a tough position” - Assessing Blomqvist’s MSR IndyCar benching

Written by Archie O’Reilly

After participating in only nine IndyCar events for Meyer Shank Racing (MSR) - three deputising for Simon Pagenaud last year and six in his full-time rookie year, including the $1 Million Challenge exhibition - Tom Blomqvist was benched by the team last week. 

The news came three days after he crashed out of his maiden Indianapolis 500, and first oval race, sparking questions over whether he may have suffered an injury of sorts. But this was not mentioned in MSR’s statement and it transpired that the decision was made amid concerns about the No.66 Honda finishing inside the Leaders’ Circle.

This is achieved by finishing inside the top 22 in the entrant points standings - subtracting two ineligible Chip Ganassi Racing entries - and is crucial for lower-resourced teams as it offers a guaranteed prize money contract believed to be around $1 million.

MSR’s second entry, piloted by Blomqvist, sat on the brink in 22nd after the Indy 500 while the sister No.60 car, driven by Felix Rosenqvist, was ninth.

And so the team turned to putting 49-year-old Helio Castroneves, who stepped away from road-and-street racing with the team after two full seasons at the end of last season to become part of the MSR ownership group, back in the car for an initial two-race period. This covered last weekend’s Detroit Grand Prix and the upcoming Grand Prix of Road America.

Team owner Mike Shank said Blomqvist “is 100 percent still a part of the MSR family and will remain a part of the team for the rest of the season” but there remains uncertainty as to what Blomqvist’s future will look like. It by no means seems a certainty that he will be back in MSR’s IndyCar stable.

Still, providing long-standing relationships remain intact after what appears to have been a mutual decision, there would certainly be a route back into the sports car realm for Blomqvist if MSR return to the IMSA SportsCar Championship’s top ‘GTP’ class next year. They are currently on a hiatus but appear keen to return in the future. 

Blomqvist is widely regarded as one of the world’s best sports car drivers, winning the 2022 IMSA championship with MSR. He was a pivotal part of three victories last season, including a second successive Daytona 24 Hours win, though the team fell short of the championship after being docked 200 points for a tyre infraction at Daytona.

What MSR do for the remainder of the season and longer term is also uncertain. If Blomqvist is not to come back, David Malukas could be a good option as he nears recovery from his pre-season wrist injury. Callum Ilott is also an IndyCar free agent but would not be available for every remaining round in 2024 due to World Endurance Championship commitments.

Unpicking Blomqvist’s IndyCar stint

“I couldn’t be more excited for what lays ahead,” Blomqvist told DIVEBOMB last October. But things have not panned out exactly how he hoped. He knew it would be a “challenge” and it has starkly proven that way.

On the face of things, it looked like Blomqvist was making steady bouts of progress early in his IndyCar career. After a promising junior single-seater career, he had not raced in an open-wheel series since FIA Formula E in 2020, meaning there were always going to be learning curves to overcome. He had described his three initial races in 2023 as an “eye-opener”.

His debut event on the streets of Toronto last July was encouraging as he qualified 20th in a mixed-condition session, though his race ended as he was innocently caught up in a first-lap incident. His further two races were more tricky as he qualified 27th and finished 26th in Portland before starting 21st and finishing a 26th at Laguna Seca.

Back then, Blomqvist said it was “a bigger challenge than I expected” and, after a “nightmare” Toronto and a Portland event where things were still not clicking, it was not until Laguna Seca that things started to feel a bit more natural. He felt he could have had a better result in the final race if it was not for being caught up in one of many of the race’s incidents.

Regardless of the outcome, his three outings in the No.60 car last year were “useful” heading into 2024 - from being more accustomed to the car to having learned the procedures. And that showed as he qualified 17th and finished 15th to start the season on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Particularly over one lap, Blomqvist continued to look more comfortable. He qualified 15th in Long Beach and made his first Fast 12 appearance at Barber Motorsports Park. He had also qualified fifth in his 13-car group for the Thermal Club exhibition event before these races.

Blomqvist unfortunately dropped back in all of these races, finishing 22nd in Long Beach, 19th at Barber and missing the transfer by finishing eighth in his Thermal heat race. And while teammate Rosenqvist was on the podium at Thermal and was inside the top 10 in the opening three points-paying races, there were signs of growing comfort heading into May.

“I’ve known the team for a long time,” Blomqvist said on Indy 500 Media Day. “I feel pretty embedded there and very comfortable. They know me and I know them pretty well. That helps me as a newbie. I’ve got so much data, info and help - so many people to listen to.”

But the biggest test of his progress was yet to come the next month.

Reactive move after the Indy 500?

After some signs of progress in the early part of the season, Blomqvist had a difficult May. This started with a 26th-place start and 23rd-place finish on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course as teammate Rosenqvist managed his fourth top-10 finish in as many races.

Then came his first-ever oval event, happening to be the Indy 500, where expectations frankly could not be set too high. He gained his first experience of the Brickyard with his Rookie Orientation Programme in October of last year but there was much more to overcome. 

The start of his debut Indy 500 campaign was solid enough. He had four-time winner Castroneves to learn from in a third, Indy-only entry for the team and again appeared to be making steady progress. This amounted to him safely making it into the field by qualifying 25th.

This was a slightly unremarkable finish that left Blomqvist conflicted given racing drivers’ desire to be up front. But safely making the race was imperative and he did so with Castroneves’ old 2021 race-winning chassis, which Blomqvist said he moved away from as he felt it was somewhat slow. Nonetheless, he was thoroughly enjoying the experience.

But there was a lot of learning to do. He had expected the qualifying horsepower boost to be most daunting but found that his greatest difficulty came in traffic running. He was one of the most productive drivers through practice as he twice logged half-race distance in individual sessions in his bid to get up to speed.

“It’s been a learning curve - a pretty steep one,” he said on Media Day, three days prior to the race. Last week was the first time I’d ever run on an oval in traffic. That’s a whole different thing to get your head around. That’s probably been the most difficult aspect of this whole thing… I’m still so far away from feeling as prepared as you probably want to.”

Unfortunately, his race came to a crashing end on the opening lap as he got down low in Turn 1 and lost control of the car in the dirty air.

It was a big mistake but a rookie mistake in a situation where cars were as packed-together as Blomqvist had experienced at Indy. It was the type of error that even non-rookies make at the Speedway. Whether this fed into the team’s decision to bench Blomqvist is unclear but it would seem somewhat reactive to get rid of him predominantly off the back of that error.

The risks of recruiting a rookie

“It is fair to say that the last couple of days have been some of the hardest in my career,” Blomqvist said upon his benching. “Everyone who knows me knows how much I love being a part of the MSR family and together we have enjoyed some amazing successes and victories.”

And there is an argument that MSR should have known what they were getting themselves in for by recruiting a rookie with limited recent open-wheel experience. No matter Blomqvist’s vast success and abundant talent evident in the sports car realm, he is still a first-year driver.

It cannot be underestimated how much there has been for him to get used to, ranging from the physicality of the cars and diversity of the tracks to the style of racing and cadence of a weekend. While Blomqvist was not putting everything together, he was not wrecking cars until his Indy incident and probably should have been afforded time as a rookie. 

“They believe that I can deliver them results, also in IndyCar,” Blomqvist told DIVEBOMB late last year. “And I’m motivated to prove them right, that they did make a good decision taking a punt on me. Because they could have easily tried to hire another driver or stuck with the same guys they had or take a proven IndyCar driver.”

The description of the move as a “punt” from Blomqvist himself seems quite an apt and maybe telling description. There is every chance there may have been prior warning that things could end if they were not going well.

After all, the team’s statements did suggest the benching was a “mutual” decision and Shank spoke of discussions with Blomqvist. It cannot be ruled out that he may have needed time to reset, albeit this sort of move is not something drivers tend to return from. There is a chance that could be different at MSR given how tight-knit a group it seems but one would guess that is unlikely.

“They make their drivers feel like they’re a part of the team, like they’re part of the family,” Blomqvist said of his long-standing relationship when speaking to DIVEBOMB eight months ago. “It’s an open book.”

But motorsports is a results-based business and regrettably, despite any relationships, it can be brutal. And that is what MSR’s decision is, whether viewed as correct or otherwise.

The decision to put Castroneves in

One of the more contentious elements of MSR’s decision was the choice to replace Blomqvist with Castroneves. It would have been understandable for an oval event but, given some of the streaks of promise shown by Blomqvist in early road and street races and Castroneves’ recent non-oval record, it was a slight head-scratcher.

It is 10 years since Castroneves last won a road or street race in Detroit in 2014, with three winless full seasons with Penske and two further with MSR in 2022 and 2023. In his supposed final complete IndyCar season last year, Castroneves’ best road-or-street finish was 11th in Nashville. He only finished better than Blomqvist’s high of 15th three times.

Part of the issue with Blomqvist’s performance has been his deficit to Rosenqvist, who has been consistently in the top 10 and a frequent contender in the late stages of qualifying. But was Castroneves really the answer, maybe aside from pleasing sponsors, over giving Blomqvist two more races to try and turn things around?

The decision seemed like one that broke the rhythm and possibly IndyCar chances of one driver by using a deputy having to search for their groove anyway.

Castroneves ultimately qualified 26th on his return in Detroit - still two-tenths behind Rosenqvist’s second-best qualifying time after his quickest was deleted for the causing of a yellow flag. His true race performance was a slight unknown after being hit by Santino Ferrucci in Turn 5 on Lap 16 to bring out the race’s second caution.

Castroneves would finish five laps down in 25th. But he was not running particularly well at the time of his incident anyway - 19th and behind Rosenqvist, who suffered an early puncture. Road America will be telling.

Too early for Leaders’ Circle panic?

It could be fair to say it is too early for MSR to panic about their Leaders’ Circle situation. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) benched Jack Harvey from their No.30 entry with three races remaining last year and still made the Leaders’ Circle through the aid of Conor Daly and Juri Vips. 

The No.66 entry came into the Detroit weekend 24th in entrant points but on right side of the Leaders’ Circle bubble in 22nd given two of Ganassi’s entries are ineligible amid a cap of three contracts per team. But the No.66 has now dropped back from 22nd to 23rd and is four points adrift of the No.41 AJ Foyt Racing entry of Sting Ray Robb in 22nd.

At present, competition for the final Leaders’ Circle spots would also appear to be predominantly coming from the No.78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevy of Agustin Canapino, the No.30 RLL Honda of Pietro Fittipaldi, the No.18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda mainly of Jack Harvey and the No.41 Chevy.

On the outside edge with the No.66 at present is Ed Carpenter Racing’s No.20 Chevy piloted by Christian Rasmussen, with Ed Carpenter on the ovals, and the ever-changing No.51 Coyne entry.

Sitting inside the Leaders’ Circle despite his struggles, it is highly possible that Blomqvist could have guided his car into the top 22 by the end of the season with the additional time typically afforded to a rookie to allow further progression. And he appeared to be in an environment that could help him to move forward and overcome any early struggles.

You only have to look as far as the performance shown by Rosenqvist in the No.60 MSR Honda to see the potential. The increasing impact of the technical alliance with Andretti Global, helping to form a five-car operation of sorts, also seemed to stand Blomqvist in good stead in terms of having data to study and drivers to learn from.

Rosenqvist “bummed” for his friend

Rosenqvist rose through the ranks with Blomqvist and the pair have forged a good relationship over the years. So the Swede is understandably disappointed for his friend.

“It’s unfortunate when you have that going on,” he said during a media call on Tuesday. “It’s not the ideal scenario. I feel like everyone has taken it pretty well. Helio is going to run this race [Road America]... I honestly don’t know what's going to happen after that. I’m sure they have a good plan in pace. 

“I’m a good buddy with Tom. Obviously I’m bummed to lose him as a teammate. It’s business and he’s still part of the team. The future is for sure going to be bright for all of us. We’ll see where it goes from after Road America.”

From Rosenqvist’s perspective, things “definitely started to click” for Blomqvist “at Indy and Barber” and he started to get to grips with facets such as race management. That progress has now been halted by his benching.

“We’ve seen it before,” Rosenqvist said. “I think it’s one of those… if it’s tough in IndyCar, it’s really tough - it takes a lot to get through to the other side. I went through that in ‘21 when I went to McLaren my first year. I had a really rough season. I almost pretty much ended my IndyCar career. Somehow came out on the other side, way stronger. 

“We’ll see. Maybe we’ll see him back in the future. I don’t really know what’s the plan or what’s going to happen. He was just in a tough position. I felt with him. That can happen even to the best of drivers.”

And while there is some uncertainty, Rosenqvist is not overly concerned about its impact.

“It’s a situation that we’re trying to improve and solve,” he said. “We have our partnership with Andretti Global, which is useful and helpful for us every weekend. That partnership still lives obviously. You can see they’re not direct teammates but we have a lot of information to trade. I’d say we’re pretty protected against what’s happening right now.”


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