GRR

Ericsson crashes then wins as IndyCar hits Nashville

08th August 2021
Damien Smith

You’ve heard of spin and win: how about fly and win? On lap four of the inaugural Music City Grand Prix on a novel new street track in Nashville, Marcus Ericsson’s Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara was pointing to the sky after the Swede smashed into the back of Sebastien Bourdais’s Foyt entry on a restart. Yet somehow 76 laps later the ex-Sauber Formula 1 driver led the field home for one of the most unlikely victories in any series on any track, in a race peppered by a stuttering nine full caution periods.

Ericsson’s amazing comeback

How Ericsson’s Dallara survived serious damage in his early collision with Bourdais beggars belief. The race had barely got going when Dalton Kellett stopped on track to trigger the first safety car interruption. Then on lap four, just as the race was about go green Ericsson made a dreadful misjudgement, accelerating too early and launching himself off the back of Bourdais’s car. The unimpressed Frenchman was out on the spot, but Ericsson nursed his car back to the pits, at one point his broken front wing bending underneath the car and lifting a front wheel off the deck. Luckily, the wing dislodged itself, the wheel resumed contact with the track and the 30-year-old steered through the next turn.

The TV cameras had caught a full shot of the underside of his car in the impact and yet somehow his front suspension didn’t break. After repairs he returned to the track, then served a stop-go penalty for the incident, before a string of calamitous incidents allowed him to work his way back into contention on an offset pitstop strategy. But here’s the thing: including his penalty and two red flag stoppages, Ericsson made a total of seven pit visits during the race, whereas most of his main rivals made four – and yet he still came out on top. This was one crazy and complicated mess of a race.

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A river runs through it

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what happened next, it’s important to touch upon the nature of the Nashville circuit. This new addition to the IndyCar schedule had been much anticipated, attracting a bumper 27-car entry – the best this side of the Indianapolis 500 – and the city clearly embraced the spectacle and attention a downtown motor race brought to the home of country music. The grandstands were full and onlookers perched from all and every vantage point, creating an atmosphere that looked electric.

The track layout was centred around the Korean War Veterans Memorial bridge that crosses the Cumberland river, the cars crossing and re-crossing on both carriageways with two ‘technical’ (in other words, tight and fiddly) sections connecting it all together on either side of the waterway. These sections were reminiscent of the usual tracks found in Formula E – in other words a tad too narrow to inspire great motor racing. Track designers can only work with the roads that are there when it comes to street circuits in towns, and aside from the stunning bridge, Tony Cotman – the man behind this one – didn’t have much wiggle-room. It was the tight nature of the layout that led to the high number of incidents, triggered often by experienced drivers making tiny errors of judgement with big consequences – much like in Formula E. It was a shame, because it took the shine off a great occasion and created a frustrating, drawn out stop-start motor race that almost ran into darkness and only rarely got into a rhythm.

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Ericsson claws his way back

All weekend in Nashville Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta had been right on top of his game, heading each session and claiming an impressive pole position, the second of his season. He was indubitably the man to beat in Music City and led convincingly from the start – or at least it would have been convincing had he been allowed to race without a safety car interruption. He stopped under caution on lap 31 along with a bunch of others behind him, and still re-joined in fourth place, heading back out just as the safety car led the field through the Turn 1 and 2 chicane. And the driver who led at this stage? It was that man Ericsson, who had cycled up the order thanks to a strategy that was out of sync with almost everyone else. But on street circuits track position counts high and having rode his luck in an unbelievable manner early on, Marcus wasn’t about to squander what he’d gained.

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Heartbreak for Herta

Ericsson held the lead until lap 45 when it was time for him to stop again, with Herta having now cycled back to the front – exactly where he belonged. The trouble was the safety car interruptions kept on coming and he was never allowed to build the lead he surely would have managed had the race remained green for any length of time. It was during the seventh caution period Herta made his second pitstop and now had some work to do, re-joining down in ninth. But now he was fired up knowing he had the car to win and put in an impressive display as he sliced past those ahead of him, including team-mates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, plus six-time champion Scott Dixon, pulling a beautiful move on the Kiwi into Turn 9 after getting a great run over the bridge. Now on lap 62 of 80, he just had Ericsson ahead of him. And neither had to stop again.

The Ganassi car was on the red-walled softer rubber and perhaps that helped Ericsson’s drive out of the fiddly sections, plus the black and red car was clearly more slippery over the bridge. Herta would close in through the tight stuff, then lose car lengths over the river – and it began to frustrate him. On one lap he almost ran into the back of his rival on the brakes into Turn 9 and did well to keep it out of the wall. But with six laps to go and darkness falling fast on a race that had started late in the afternoon, the car got away from him at the same turn and he slammed hard into a tyre wall. Holding his thumb as he climbed into a recovery truck, Herta removed his helmet and dropped his head into his hands in deep frustration. The 21-year-old knew he should have won this race, lost track position through no fault of his own, fought back brilliantly – then allowed his frustration chasing Ericsson to get the better of him. A good lesson for the future.

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Ericsson brings it home

The shunt triggered the second red flag stoppage of the day, and when the field rolled once more there were just two laps to go. Ericsson used all his experience to keep well out of range of Ganassi team-mate Dixon, the pair delivering delighted team boss Chip a welcome 1-2. Hinchcliffe claimed a rare podium in third – much needed given that it looks like he’ll soon be looking for another ride for 2022, with Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal completing the top five.

“Unbelievable,” said the winner through a mile-wide grin. “It just shows in IndyCar anything can happen, you never give up. To get a 1-2 is amazing, I just can’t believe it. This is one of the best performances of my career. Colton should be up on the podium with me and I’m sorry he ended up in the fence. Also apologies to Sebastien [Bourdais] as well. I thought the race had gone green.”

His second victory has vaulted Ericsson up to fifth in the points, which are still led by his team-mate Alex Palou on a day when the Spaniard was never really a contender. He’d received a six-place grid penalty for an unapproved engine change during a test session run in the mid-summer pause in the race schedule. Dixon is second, 42 points down on his team-mate Palou with Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward and Penske’s Josef Newgarden between him and Ericsson. Next up is a quick-turnaround second visit this season to the Indianapolis road course, next Saturday. Herta will be hoping to waste little time putting his Nashville heartbreak behind him in the best way possible.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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