ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Felix Rosenqvist was buckled into his brand new race car and ready to pull off pit lane when his boss leaned into the cockpit.
"Hey," Chip Ganassi told his newest driver, "it's nice to finally have you here."
Very nice indeed.
Rosenqvist had a stellar IndyCar debut that validated all the buzz surrounding Ganassi's new hire. He finished fourth, one spot shy of the podium, but used two strong on-track passes on former series champions Josef Newgarden and Will Power to officially announce his arrival. He passed Newgarden for second at the drop of the green flag, then chased Power — one of the drivers Rosenqvist said he most admires in the series — and used a strong inside move on a restart to claim the lead.
He led 31 laps, was never passed on the track and fell out of contention for the victory only because of troublesome pit stops. That he still finished fourth — two spots behind teammate and reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon — was no small feat because Rosenqvist drove the final third of the race with a pinched nerve in his right arm.
"We don't really do a lot of long runs during testing, so during the long race something in the way I was set up pushed into a nerve in my shoulder and I couldn't really grasp onto the steering wheel, it was like I had the strength of a 10-year-old," Rosenqvist said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It was really, really tough, the most painful experience. After the race I couldn't even shake people's hands."
The 27-year-old Rosenqvist was among a handful of IndyCar newcomers to shine on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Colton Herta, the 18-year-old son of former driver Bryan Herta, was fast all weekend for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The second-year team received a boost during the offseason when George Steinbrenner IV, grandson of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, signed on as a backer and Herta has consistently defied his age and limited experience with strong driving. Herta would have made the Fast Six in qualifying but his two fastest times were thrown out on a blocking penalty, so the American started 11th and finished eighth.
Also impressive was the debut of DragonSpeed, a sports car racing team that has committed to five IndyCar races this season. British driver Ben Hanley made his series debut and finished 18th in his first single-seater race since 2010. DragonSpeed only acquired its Dallara chassis three weeks before the season opener.
"We knew we were jumping in at the deep end, so simply finishing is an achievement in itself," said Hanley.
But it was Rosenqvist who entered St. Pete with the most hype based on a long career spanning multiple series. He spent the last two seasons in Formula E and in 2016 won three races in Indy Lights. He and Dixon share the same manager and that got Rosenqvist a test at Mid-Ohio with the Ganassi team. Rosenqvist was just as fast as Dixon that day, but it took nearly three years to get him into a full-time Ganassi ride.
When finally offered a deal last summer, Rosenqvist said it was an easy decision to pack up and move to Indianapolis to join one of the elite IndyCar teams.
"What I've found with Chip is that he tells you exactly what he means, he wants to win races and he's going to do everything possible to put his teams in position to win," he said. "That's what I'm here to do, win ASAP."
Dixon had yet to sign his extension with Ganassi when Rosenqvist joined the program. The five-time IndyCar champion was being courted by other teams but was part of the draw for Rosenqvist.
"I was probably happier when Scott signed his contract than I was when I signed mine," Rosenqvist said.
Rosenqvist is in Dixon's sister car, once driven to three consecutive titles and a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories by Dario Franchitti, who was forced to retire because of concussions after the 2013 season. The No. 10 has won just one race since, the 2014 season finale with Tony Kanaan.
Franchitti is now Rosenqvist's in-house driver coach, and he appreciates how blunt Franchitti has been. He's not quite the third wheel in the tight friendship Franchitti and Dixon have, but praised both for how helpful they've been in his transition to a new series.
"Felix has worked with the team for two or three years now with open tests we've done with him. The guy has got a ton of experience in so many different cars, so it's been really refreshing, actually, to not be in the same ecosystem and thinking of the same things," Dixon said. "It's kind of thinking outside the box which has been really refreshing. He's a strong guy, very committed and obviously very talented and he's going to be a hell of a fighter for the whole year."
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