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Marcus Armstrong: IndyCar Rookie of the Year

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Joe Skibinski

Marcus Armstrong may have had the best equipment of any of the rookies in the 2023 IndyCar season, driving the No.11 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. But with his deal not encompassing oval races, with Takuma Sato stepping in for an oval programme with the team, the Kiwi still came into the season unfancied by many, in terms of Rookie of the Year honours.

Of the 17-race calendar, Armstrong’s season consisted of only 12 races, meaning his fellow rookies - Agustin Canapino at Juncos Hollinger Racing, Sting Ray Robb at Dale Coyne Racing, and Benjamin Pedersen at AJ Foyt Racing - had five races to make up points on him.

However, now in the wake of the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, we are reflecting on Armstrong winning the Rookie of the Year award by a 34-point margin ahead of Canapino. He ousted third-placed Robb by 67 points, and fourth-place Pedersen by a lofty 85 points, despite running five less races.

Armstrong’s fellow rookies, incidentally particularly the pair who had prior American experience, had messier seasons plagued with more errors for the most part, while the 23-year-old New Zealander has rarely found himself causing his own incidents.

Despite having the advantage of experience at many of the tracks from the Road to Indy, Robb and Pedersen had the tougher time of things. Armstrong and Canapino - the latter doing a creditable job moving from a solely touring car background, as Juncos expanded to two cars - had the clear measure of the Indy Lights-graduating duo across the year.

Image Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

IndyCar was something very new for Armstrong, even if not to quite the same extent as for Canapino, who moved from stock cars in Argentina, with no open wheel experience. The car is very different to that of Formula 2, which Armstrong has often spoken about not being the most fun to drive, in stark contrast to IndyCar.

The lack of power steering in IndyCar makes the series very physical, but the car is generally suggested to be more of a ‘drivers’ car’, whereby it is challenging, and draws out the best of the drivers, whilst feeling alive to them.

Armstrong is the second successive Rookie of the Year to graduate and make an impressively seamless transition from F2, after Christian Lundgaard edged David Malukas to the award in 2022. Callum Ilott has also made an impression for Juncos Hollinger Racing, as they continue to grow into IndyCar competition.

The recent crop of graduates have proven that results in Formula 1’s premier feeder series are not all that representative, with Lundgaard finishing 12th in the championship in his final season, and Armstrong finishing 13th in each of his three seasons. Both have gone on to make real strides in IndyCar.

Like Lundgaard and Ilott, Armstrong has learned things very quickly, even under the pressure of driving for one of IndyCar’s powerhouses, in a car evidently helping to get the most out of his wide-ranging skill set.

Image Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

He quickly showed his qualifying speed, only narrowly missing out on transferring to the Fast 12 in the season opener in St Pete, starting 13th, before reaching the second round of qualifying on another tricky street circuit, Long Beach, in only his second race.

Armstrong ultimately racked up six Fast 12 appearances in 2023, accounting for half of the races he competed in. He managed a best of seventh at the Gallagher Grand Prix, on the Indianapolis Road Course, with a respectable average qualifying finish of 13.4, skewed somewhat by 26th at Barber - his only qualifying below 18th - due to a penalty for impeding.

Having missed out on transferring to the latter sessions by the finest of margins on occasion, including missing out on a maiden Fast 6 by 0.0008 seconds at the Gallagher Grand Prix, Armstrong will be hoping one year of development will help bridge such gaps in 2024.

An average race finish of 13th, especially given he deserved some better finishes, as issues out of his control scuppered strong results, shows he is generally able to progress in races. His racecraft is already in good shape, and five top 10 finishes - a best of seventh, three eighths and one ninth - plus two 11th-places, display that he is already comfortable in races.

If it wasn’t for a strategic error, the team keeping him out during a caution, which saw him cycle to the back, Armstrong could well have been on for a podium, or at least a top five, at Road America. More recently, in Portland, he was possibly on for a career-best result, and could have wrapped Rookie of the Year up before the season finale, before a wheel came loose in the pits.

Image Credit: Karl Zemlin

Armstrong doesn’t yet quite have the consistent output - a crucial facet in IndyCar - of his teammates, albeit much of this can be attributed to misfortune, such as being caught up as an innocent party in an incident on the first lap of the Gallagher Grand Prix. There have still been times where he has very much been competitive with, or even beating, his esteemed teammates.

One standout performance was in qualifying for the aforementioned second race on the Indy Road Course, when Armstrong beat each of his teammates, and was one of only two Ganassi cars to reach the Fast 12. This was significant, as it was his first time returning to a track, presenting the steps forward that may be made when he returns to tracks next year.

There have been times that he has been in a position to fight the likes of Scott Dixon in races, and he has done so in a creditable manner. Being in such illustrious company at Ganassi will no doubt have aided his learning. Foremost, he will have relished being on a team with six-time champion, countryman and childhood hero, Dixon, who was a big part of Armstrong’s fandom of the series from young.

Being in the company of two-time champion, Alex Palou, the imperious force in the series throughout 2023, will also have given a template for Armstrong. In the No.8 car, Marcus Ericsson was someone with F1 experience, as well as being an Indianapolis 500 and multi-time race winner stateside.

Armstrong also had the benefit of close guidance from four-time champion, and three-time Indy 500 victor Dario Franchitti through the season. This sort of mentorship will undoubtedly have been something Armstrong will reap the rewards of in years to come.

Image Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

Armstrong comes away from his rookie season in a modest 20th-place in the championship, technically level on points with Santino Ferrucci in 19th, but more representative is his road and street course position of 15th, given he missed out on five races.

He ranked one place, and five points behind third-year driver, Romain Grosjean, on road and street courses, and two places and 13 points back from six-time podium-sitter, and one-time race winner across five seasons, Felix Rosenqvist. Ericsson was Armstrong’s closest teammate, 81 points ahead, a respectable margin given Armstrong’s rookie status.

Also in terms of road and street standings, Canapino was the closest rookie to Armstrong in 21st, 84 points behind the Kiwi. Robb and Pedersen were 97 and 126 points behind Armstrong respectively.

Armstrong has not been fully content with his performances through the season, but he is still in good stead, after what has been a very strong rookie year all considered. Maybe he hasn’t reached his desired peak performance, but he is primed for next season.

It speaks volumes to the job that Armstrong has done, to have clearly produced and shown enough to appease a tough but elite operator in Chip Ganassi, earning a new, multi-year deal that will see him run a full programme, including ovals, starting next year.

Image Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

Armstrong has been with the team even at oval races, learning off veteran Sato, in his own No.11 car, as well as being present on the pit stands of the remainder of his teammates. It has never been a case of not wanting to run ovals, with Armstrong in awe of, and inspired by the speeds at the Indy 500, triggering desperation to be in the race for 2024.

His oval career has begun with a test at the challenging Texas Motor Speedway in the aftermath of the season-closing race at Laguna Seca, helping him build up to 2024.

Armstrong has all the traits it takes to be successful in IndyCar. He appears to be a driven young driver, one who is willing to learn, and certainly fits the bill of likeable personalities in the series. By all accounts an approachable character, he is clearly well-liked by Ganassi.

His rookie year has been encouraging, and the foundations have been built, to go on and have a very long and successful IndyCar career.


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