Written by Morgan Holiday, edited by Harshi Vashee
2022 is set to be an exciting season for Indycar, with plenty of battles and storylines to pay attention to. One of the fights the audience will be watching closely is the one for the Rookie of the Year award, handed out to the rookie who finishes highest in the standings and has competed in at least four races.
Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin with the 2021 ROTY trophy, via INDYCAR
In 2021, the fight for this award was a little odd, with Scott McLaughlin being the only rookie driver to compete in every round of the season, and taking the rookie title with relative ease. This season, five rookies will be on the grid full time, with a sixth running in all but the oval courses. There’s much to be said for most of these highly rated drivers, and the fight is likely to be much more intense than in 2021, with car performance being the only thing hindering some of them.
Let’s look at the six drivers who will be contesting the Rookie of the Year award, and take a shot at determining which one of them will be the one to come out on top by the end of the season.
Ilott is one of three 2022 rookies to not come in from the Road to Indy, but one of the two rookies to have already contested at least one race in Indycar.
The 23 year old British driver has always been fast over one lap, having a record of qualifying very well but falling back in the race. Despite being highly rated in the world of Formula 1, Ilott has never won a championship in single seaters, with a best placed finish of second in the 2020 season of FIA Formula 2. He took five pole positions throughout that season, more than any other driver, and was consistently one of the fastest on the grid. Despite this, he was beaten to the title by Mick Schumacher, who didn’t take a single pole position but was more consistent and reliable.
As a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy at the time, Ilott wasn’t promoted to Formula 1 but served as a reserve driver for Alfa Romeo in 2021 while racing in several different GT categories. He also participated in the final three races of the Indycar season with Juncos Hollinger, and was classified towards the back in all of those races.
Juncos Hollinger Racing, unlike many of the other current teams, is not well established on the Indycar grid. 2022 will be their first year running a car full time, and Ilott in the #77 will be the team’s only driver. While they’re not likely to accomplish anything fantastic in their first full season, they’ll be focusing all their efforts on Ilott’s car and looking to progress past the backmarkers if possible. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, as does the full potential of Ilott as an Indycar driver.
Lundgaard is another driver to make the transition from the Formula 1 feeder series to Indycar. Like Ilott, he also came from Formula 2 after not being able to make it to Formula 1, despite being a part of an F1 junior academy. As a member of the Alpine Junior Academy, Lundgaard competed in two full seasons of Formula 2 with ART Grand Prix, finishing seventh in the standings in 2020 and 12th in 2021.
Lundgaard is the only other rookie in the field to have already made his Indycar debut, racing on the IMS Road Course in 2021 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He qualified an impressive fourth, and finished 12th, already setting himself apart from the other 2022 rookies as a force to be reckoned with.
On top of Lundgaard’s stunning debut performance, RLL Racing is a team on the rise, and will likely be able to compete in the upper midfield throughout the 2022 season. Lundgaard will be aiming and probably expecting to win the Rookie championship.
But the Rookie of the Year award isn’t the only title Lundgaard is chasing in 2022. “The rookie championship is one thing, but there’s also a main championship to win,” said the driver, “I’m not going to say that I’m going to, but I’m going to try as hard as I can to.”
via Road to Indy / Gavin Baker
Kirkwood didn’t just come from the Road to Indy, he dominated it. The young American driver made his way from USF2000, to Indy Pro 2000, and then to Indy Lights with ease, winning each category in his rookie year. Throughout the three series combined, Kirkwood had a win rate of 62%, winning 31 out of the 50 races he competed in. And that’s not even mentioning his dominant title wins in F4 United States and F3 Americas.
Kirkwood is easily the most prestigious graduate the Road to Indy has ever seen, but he might be wishing his Indycar debut was happening under slightly different circumstances. After becoming the first driver to win every step of the Road to Indy ladder, and doing each in his rookie year, getting signed to A.J. Foyt Enterprises, a team that hasn’t won a race since 2013, seems somewhat anticlimactic. Kirkwood was originally set to get a seat at Andretti Autosport when Colton Herta looked likely to move to Formula 1, but when that deal fell through Kirkwood was told to look for another team.
While Kirkwood has clearly proven his talent, he’ll be starting his Indycar career in a car unlikely to have the ability to showcase that talent. But while this makes Kirkwood’s chances at winning rookie of the year slim, it might just be exactly what he needs. Being at a backmarker team means that the pressure will be off him to produce the sort of results he produced throughout his junior career. Even if he has a bad season, his credentials ensure that teams higher up the grid will still be interested in signing him, so it’s simply a matter of waiting until a seat is available and not doing anything too horrendous until then.
But all the same, it’s always possible that the Foyt team could make a jump in performance, and it’s a bad idea to bet against Kirkwood, even in a less than perfect car.
Kirkwood will be joined at A.J. Foyt Enterprises by another rookie teammate in Tatiana Calderón, yet another driver to come from the Formula 1 feeder series. Calderón has been a test driver for Alfa Romeo’s Formula 1 team since 2018, but has never seen much success in racing.
She competed in three full seasons of FIA Formula 3 from 2013-2015 and finished a best place of 15th in the standings in 2014, with one top five finish to her name. She then moved to GP3, where she also competed in a full three seasons, achieving a best 16th in the point standings by the end of 2018. In 2019 she moved up to FIA Formula 2 for one full season, finishing 22nd in the standings with BWT Arden. For 2020 Calderón made the switch to endurance racing, which she’s been doing until getting a contract with A.J. Foyt in Indycar for 2022.
Like Kirkwood, Calderón will most likely be relieved to be in a team that isn’t at the top of the field, giving her time to adjust without much pressure to put in good results. While she isn’t likely to outperform Kirkwood, she’ll want to do well against the third Foyt car, piloted by Dalton Kellett. If she can at least keep up with him, despite his having more experience in Indycar than her, she’ll have done well.
via INDYCAR / Joe Skibinski
Malukas had a relatively anonymous climb up the Road to Indy ladder, although that doesn’t mean he didn’t get good results. In 2017 he competed in USF2000 with BN Racing, and finished tenth in the standings with a podium to his name, despite only racing in nine of the 14 rounds. He then won races in the Pro Mazda Championship before moving up to Indy Lights with BN Racing, which had partnered with HMD Motorsports (owned by Malukas’ father).
After the break that Indy Lights took due to the pandemic in 2020, Malukas came back to Indy Lights for a second season with HMD. This time he put up a fantastic fight against Kirkwood to eventually finish second just 13 points shy of the title. This performance was enough to earn him a seat at Dale Coyne Racing, who has partnered with HMD Motorsports to run Malukas in the #18 car.
The HMD partnership will likely be key for Malukas, who will benefit from having a team that was essentially built around him to support him in his debut Indycar season. Alongside the much more experienced Takuma Sato, he’ll be in a good place going into 2022 to get some good results and fight for the rookie championship.
via Road to Indy
DeFranceso’s signing by Andretti Autosport was somewhat controversial, given that many people thought Kirkwood should have gotten the seat. But DeFrancesco brings financial backing to the team, who chose him to pilot their #29 car, one of four Andretti cars.
The Italian-Canadian driver has roots in both Formula 1 and Indycar, making his way all the way to FIA Formula 3 before coming to America and switching to Indy Pro 2000. In his Formula 3 season (2019) he raced with Trident and finished 25th in the standings, the highest placed driver to not score a point. With that sort of result while his teammates were scoring points and even appearing on the podium occasionally, DeFrancesco decided it was time to try his luck in Indycar. In 2020 he finished second in Indy Pro 2000, a decent sized jump in performance despite being a good ways behind title winner Sting Ray Robb.
In Indy Lights in 2021 we already know that Kirkwood and Malukas were fighting for the title, while DeFrancesco came home to finish sixth in the points standings with two podiums in the first round being his best performance throughout the season. All the same, he was signed by Andretti for 2022, and will now have pressure to perform at one of the top teams in Indycar. Of all the rookies he’ll be in the best team, which will be both a blessing and a curse for DeFrancesco as he tries to adapt at the top level of racing.
Who is going to win the award?
With all things taken into account, it’s most likely that the fight for Rookie of the Year will be between Lundgaard and Malukas. With Kirkwood and Ilott lacking a car that can showcase their talent, DeFrancesco lacking talent to showcase in his car, and Calderón lacking both of those things, it’s up to the only two drivers who have all the resources to actually score the points consistently.
The easy answer between those two is Lundgaard, who has a more impressive resume overall and has already proven his talent in an Indycar race. But you shouldn’t count out Malukas from the Rookie of the Year fight after his impressive Indy Lights campaign, and he’ll have the oval experience that Lundgaard will be lacking. In the interest of having a final verdict, I’m making the slightly less popular call and betting that experience in the Indycar world will win out, and Malukas will take the Rookie of the Year award.
Malukas at the Sebring test, via INDYCAR
But Lundgaard won’t be far behind, and will take a close second. After him, I’m calling the Foyt team to take a step up performance wise, and Kirkwood to come third in the rookie standings. If Juncos takes the steps needed, Ilott will come fourth. After him, DeFrancesco in the Andretti, and finally Calderón, who has the most going against her.
Whatever the case, this year’s fight for the Rookie of the Year award is likely to be hard fought and exciting to watch. Catch the first race of the Indycar season on February 27 in Saint Petersburg!
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