Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
When you look at Linus Lundqvist’s 2022 Indy Lights title-winning campaign, it is unfathomable to think he was left without a seat in IndyCar the following year.
He won the championship, now rebranded as Indy NXT, by a massive 92-point margin over Sting Ray Robb, securing five wins, a total of eight podium finishes, a worst finishing position of sixth, and seven pole positions in 14 races. But it was Robb, and fifth-placed Benjamin Pedersen who came away with IndyCar seats, leaving Lundqvist sidelined.
The Swede has had to settle for a year of merely testing for a number of IndyCar teams instead, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) at Texas Motor Speedway, and Ed Carpenter Racing at Sebring. Elsewhere, he has tested for Andretti Autosport in Formula E, and has competed in Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia.
Lundqvist could even have been in IndyCar last year, having finished third as a rookie in Indy Lights in 2021, only behind champion Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas, who both graduated to IndyCar. Kirkwood is now a two-time winner in his second season, and Malukas is set for a big move this off-season.
But in a sport that can favour those with the greatest funding and backing, Lundqvist sometimes hasn’t gained the opportunities he deserves. That’s why, at 24, he is still in search of his first full-time drive in IndyCar.
Unfortunately for Lundqvist, unlike this season, winning the championship in IndyCar’s premier feeder series didn’t guarantee him any races for 2022. His prize money of $500,000 was a drastic reduction on the $1.2million of the year prior, too.
However, when it transpired that Simon Pagenaud would be absent in Nashville - missing the fifth successive race after a violent crash that saw him barrel-roll several times, following a brake failure in practice at Mid-Ohio - an opportunity arose for Lundqvist to utilise his winnings from the year prior.
Both Conor Daly and Tom Blomqvist - set to be a Meyer Shank Racing driver in IndyCar next year - had already deputised for Pagenaud. But Daly’s Mid-Ohio appearance was a case of right place, right time for someone that wouldn’t need the practice time, and he stepped in at Iowa due to his oval experience. Blomqvist ran in Toronto, but had IMSA duty with the team at Road America during the Nashville weekend.
And finally, there was an open shot at a seat for Lundqvist to make his debut. Coined by many as ‘Crashville’, the Music City wasn’t the easiest location for a driver to make their debut. But Lundqvist has shown persistence to ensure he stays in the picture for a seat, and he wasn’t going to miss even the slightest chance to finally get his time in the sun.
Lundqvist had lots to prove to potential backers and teams alike, and while the notorious street track, which had seen 17 cautions across the first two IndyCar races held there, was bound to be a challenge, he was buoyed by success in Nashville in Indy Lights the year prior.
Still, it was widely expected to be a weekend rife with obstacles to overcome. In some ways, that did possibly alleviate the pressure somewhat, with any struggle for Lundqvist understandable. He wasn’t stepping into a team that had performed particularly highly this season, either. If he did perform, however, then there was a big bonus.
He was in a position of strength either way, able to display the abundant talent he possessed. And from the outset in the opening practice session, he was on the pace, and showed he had a big point to prove.
For much of that opening session, Lundqvist was inside the top 10, finishing in 11th-place, and as the highest-placed rookie, 0.5 seconds ahead of experienced teammate Helio Castroneves. His time in the simulator before the weekend was limited, making it even more impressive that he so quickly got up to speed, and amongst a plethora of established drivers on the timing charts.
His interview on the broadcast following this first practice session gave an insight into his relaxed approach, joking that his session had been “terrible” because he wasn’t at the top of the times.
Rain on Saturday dealt a twist for the entire field, given such conditions have become somewhat of a rarity. A wet track can prove a great equaliser, and really bring out the best in drivers, and a shortened second practice session provided an apt opportunity for Lundqvist to display what a fast learner he is.
The 24-year-old did end up in the runoff and stalled late in the session, bringing out a brief red flag. But he ended the session with the 14th-best time, albeit seeing his fastest deleted for causing the red flag, after only completing five laps. For his first outing in wet conditions, and only his second weekend session, this was another admirable effort.
The transition back to a dry track proved no issue for Lundqvist by the time a delayed qualifying came around later on Saturday, with the Swede transferring to the Fast 12 at his first attempt, ousting Castroneves by two-tenths of a second, also beating the previous street course pole-sitter and winner, Christian Lundgaard, and taking top rookie honours.
It was only the second time a Meyer Shank Racing team car progressed into the Fast 12 in a road or street course qualifying session in 2023, after Pagenaud transferred to qualify eighth in Detroit. Lundqvist also became only one of 20 drivers to make the top 12 on debut.
Even in the Fast 12, Lundqvist was creditably competitive with some of the series’ veterans when on the same run plan - in a car that hasn’t always performed this season. However, a shortage of new tyres curtailed his session, the Swede having found himself eighth after the first runs, meaning he settled for a still-outstanding first qualifying result of 11th-place.
The race would offer an additional challenge: The start, restarts, pit stops, in-laps, out-laps, tyre management, fuel conservation, and even just racing side-by-side with others for the first time. It didn’t help that the traditional warm-up was cancelled to make way for the delayed qualifying session, but whenever Lundqvist was dealt challenges, he relished the task of overcoming them.
He was pushed around slightly by aggressive drivers around him in the mid-pack at the start of the race, initially losing a few places. Yet, despite racecraft possibly being the trickiest learning curve, he responded, and strategy even saw him running with, and staying intact with none other than championship leader Alex Palou for a period of the race.
He ran as high as the podium places, before having to stop for a final time, after which he managed to set the fastest lap of the race.
It will no doubt have been a physically taxing first race, especially given the mandated aero scoop, intended for cooling purposes amid the high temperatures and humidity in Nashville, fell off during the opening period of the race.
The most brutal moment, however, came in the closing 10 laps, when Lundqvist got marginally into the tyre marbles and hit the wall, bringing out only the second incident-induced caution of the race. Such a caution-free race was unprecedented in the Music City, and the accumulation of marbles was more extreme than anyone could have imagined. It was an error entirely excusable for a debutant.
Lundqvist sounded frustrated and slightly deflated on the radio, but despite ending his weekend having sustained damage to his No.60 car, there wasn’t one bit of damage done to his reputation, amid an exceptional debut run. He was running consistently inside the top 15, and was undoubtedly the most impressive rookie, despite the rest now having run for the majority of the season.
Such was the level of his performance in Nashville, Lundqvist has been granted a further opportunity to drive in Pagenaud’s continued absence, this time at the upcoming Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Road Course. The French driver says he is “recovering, but it’s taking longer than I expected”.
The fact that Lundqvist is set to drive for the second successive weekend, as opposed to Blomqvist, who is set to get a seat regardless and has nothing more to prove to the team, does indicate that he is possibly under consideration to drive the No.60 car next year.
Maybe, just maybe, Lundqvist will finally get the seat he more than deserves.