Felix Rosenqvist immediately challenged for victory after joining IndyCar with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019. He led during his first race in St. Petersburg, nearly beat Scott Dixon, his teammate and a five-time champion, at Mid-Ohio, and swiped second in Portland.
But that first IndyCar triumph eluded the Swedish driver until three weeks ago at Road America. After shaving a five-second gap to rookie Pato O’Ward, who was struggling with worn tires and lapped traffic, Rosenqvist secured the win with a gutsy move around the outside of the fast Turn 7.
The victory was his first—in any series—in over two years. “I’m used to winning a lot more than I have the last two years,” he explained. “You start missing it quite a lot.”
Rosenqvist’s path to IndyCar was unusual. After excelling in karting, he left for the Formula Asia 2.0 Series. “I spent almost a year there alone when I was sixteen,” Rosenqvist reminisced. “I was shy at the time and I had to grow up a bit.”
Not only did he mature as a person, but he won the series in 2008. First place in the Formula Renault 2.0 Sweden championship the following year propelled him to the Formula 3 European Championship.
After several successful campaigns, Rosenqvist dominated the series in 2015, but his progression up the Formula One junior category ladder had stagnated, and he left for Indy Lights. Success during a part-time drive earned him an IndyCar test with Ganassi, but he surprisingly transitioned to Formula E with Mahindra Racing for the 2016-2017 season.
“I always loved street tracks, so that championship felt like it was made for me,” he said about the switch. “It was the first time I got properly paid to drive a race car so it was hard to say no.”
While he shone on Formula E’s tight city circuits, taking three wins and six pole positions across two seasons, IndyCar always remained in the back of his mind. After the 2017-2018 season, he and his manager, Stefan Johansson, began serious talks with Ganassi.
“We decided that this was maybe the last time I get an offer to go to IndyCar,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was a dream to race for one of the best teams in the world and be in the series I grew up watching.”
After a slow start to this season, the win at Road Atlanta is a big boost of confidence for Rosenqvist. “Winning a race this year was definitely one of my main goals,” he noted. “It was a really good feeling to get it done and I’m sure there will be more soon.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
How did it feel to get your first IndyCar win at Road America?
It was really special to get the win there: it’s one of my favorite tracks and we had the fans back, the previous races had no fans at all. I interacted with them a bit even with all of the restrictions now, signing some autographs and taking some pictures. It added a lot of flavor to the weekend. I thought initially, when the fans weren’t there, that it wasn’t really different because I just focused on my driving, but in Road America I felt a different vibe to the weekend, driving in and seeing everyone camping around the track.
How do you carry that momentum forward into the rest of the season?
Since then we had the Iowa weekend, which was not good for me. But at least we’ve started to figure out the road courses pretty well now, the Ganassi cars have really good race pace. We’re lacking a bit in qualifying though, so that’s a focus area we’re trying to solve right now. But the win brings some confidence and some calm going into the future.
What have been the challenges in returning to racing during the coronavirus pandemic?
The logistic side of everything is pretty complicated—not for us drivers so much, but more for the crew, trying to stay away from each other even while working really close. We would normally fly in the day before, but to reduce hotel nights we now fly in the morning of the race and we always fly back the day of the race as well.
In many ways though it’s improved the efficiency of the Ganassi team—we’ve done a really good job technically, with Zoom and Discord and all those things, and that’s something that will continue even after corona.
But it definitely has a lot of challenges. You can never relax and you have to think about everything you do, even when you’re home—what kind of people should you meet, can you see your friends. It’s a constant risk versus reward scenario, which is putting a bit of strain on everyone.
You finished sixth and won rookie of the year in 2019. Why were you able to come into IndyCar and succeed in your first season? What could have been even better, and how has that helped you moving into this season?
I felt really ready for it to be honest. I had good help from the team and people like Dario [Franchitti] and Scott [Dixon] in my first year. Also, the fact that I tested with the team back in 2016 meant I knew a lot of people coming in. My driving has become pretty diverse, doing a lot of different categories during the years, so I felt ready to do that step from Formula E to IndyCar. It didn’t go as well as I wanted it to—we always want to do better—but it was a good rookie year, especially the end of the season.
This season has been way more up and down, but that goes for most people in the field. I don’t know why that is, but it’s very inconsistent, except for Dixon really [laughs].
The ovals are the big improvement area, looking at last year. Starting this year at Texas was really good for me until I had a crash lapping cars at the end, but that was a really strong race for what I expected myself to do on an oval this year. It showed us a receipt for the hard work I’ve done during the winter to improve on the ovals. But Iowa was definitely not as good as I’d wished.
Many people deride oval racing, saying it’s easy to “just turn left.” How has it been adjusting to oval racing in IndyCar and what are some of the unique challenges it brings?
It is very difficult, at least for me. It’s so important to get the car right, to communicate what setup changes you need with your engineer, and to know yourself what you need with the car. On a road course, you can sort of drive around the problem: maybe if you have a less good car you will lose a tenth or two on a lap. But on an oval, as soon as you’re driving a worse car you’re going to lose so much lap time, you’re won’t be able to drive forward, you’re going to get overtaken and when that starts you just get passed by the whole field.
Also, the fact that you’re racing at 200-plus mph, close to other people, takes a certain confidence and knowledge to know which guys you can trust and who you should pay attention to. That was what I learned in Texas: with certain drivers you’re probably better off waiting a couple of laps before making a move.
How do the G-forces effect you differently on an oval, when you’re always turning in the same direction?
The first time I did an oval I felt crooked in my body for like a week [laughs]. You also feel kind of dizzy afterwards. It’s definitely an odd place to be for such a long time, I don’t think the body was made to do that. After a couple of times you don’t really notice it anymore and your body gets used to it.
You’ve raced in Formula E with the halo and now this season in IndyCar with the aeroscreen. What are some of the differences between racing with the two head protection devices? Do you prefer one to the other?
Both fit their purpose: they protect the driver and there’s been cases with both where they saved someone from having an injury. They both come with downsides: weight is the biggest thing, especially with the aeroscreen. It’s heavy and makes the car act differently, but it’s the same for everyone.
The heat has been a topic this year, but I like the challenge that comes with it being hot in the car—it’s physical and we had minimal preparation. It’s another area where you can make an advantage to your competitors, it’s going to make life harder for some that are not as well prepared. We’ve had drivers throwing up and passing out, so you really need to be fit to do well.
Where did your desire to race in IndyCar originate?
Before I started karting, when I was seven years old, me and my dad always watched Kenny Bräck drive. Kenny was a big name and IndyCar was probably bigger than Formula 1 in Sweden at that time. That changed afterwards and today Formula 1 is the biggest. But I think that’s also changing with me and Marcus being in IndyCar now, it’s almost 50/50 with which is the more popular category. IndyCar was actually my first introduction to motorsport, and since then it’s always been a dream.
The Indy 500 is coming up next month. How do you handle the hype and pressure that comes with the 500?
For some reason it feels like less pressure this year. There’s just less build up. It still has the same value and will be a hell of a race like always, but it’s nice that we don’t have the big month full of PR events. Usually, the hard thing with Month of May is energy conservation because it’s so much more than just driving the car.
This year, even if we get less practice it seems like we can focus on everything a bit more. As a team, we have worked really hard for Indy this year, and Texas was a little showing of what we can do at Indy if everything goes well. It’s a opportunity for me to bounce back in the championship and turn around a difficult season.
All images courtesy of Felix Rosenqvist.