The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series rookie class has finally hit the road, making their debuts at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last weekend. Six drivers make up an incredibly talented group with diverse backgrounds across the world of motorsport from Formula 2 to Indy Lights. Though the 2021 rookie class may be regarded as one of the most star-studded groups of all time with Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson, and newest race-winner Scott McLaughlin, this new crop of drivers are looking to make their mark on the series.
In this new segment to our NTT IndyCar Series coverage, we will take a closer look at the individual performances of the rookies as they take on their first taste of IndyCar action.
CHRISTIAN LUNDGAARD – RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
QUALIFYING: FIFTEENTH – RACE: ELEVENTH (+4)
Lundgaard took the IndyCar world by storm last year in his debut race, qualifying fourth in the 2021 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix. His first qualifying session as a full-time IndyCar driver with RLL didn’t quite recapture the magic, knocked out in the first group of the first round of qualifying.
The Danish driver lost more ground at the start of the race as he fell down to twentieth place by the end of the first lap. After starting on the harder black-walled Firestone tyres, a long run on the softer, red-walled alternate tyres during his second stint allowed Lundgaard to make up a lot of ground. His final stop onto another set of blacks cycled him out in ninth place, battling with Takuma Sato and Marcus Ericsson. Both the veterans managed to work their way past the rookie with three laps remaining, pushing Lundgaard to eleventh.
“In the end I think the balance of the car was decent today, we just didn’t have the proper pace that the Penske cars had,” Lundgaard said. “So, I think to come home with a result like this is pretty good on our first weekend.”
Although a top-ten finish slipped through his fingers, Lundgaard still managed a positive finish on his first trip to St. Pete, and now leads the rookie of the year battle as the highest-finishing rookie in the field.
KYLE KIRKWOOD – A.J. FOYT ENTERPRISES
QUALIFYING: TWELFTH – RACE: EIGHTEENTH (-6)
Kirkwood turned heads in qualifying reaching the second round of qualifying, the Fast Twelve, in his first attempt. The young American beat out former Indianapolis 500 champions Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves. All weekend, Kirkwood had the aid of four-time Champ Car champion, former Foyt Enterprises driver, and resident of St. Petersburg Sebastien Bourdais on his pit box as a coach. Clearly, the assistance paid off.
Kirkwood was unable to capitalize on his starting position thanks to strategy, pitting on lap 10 to get off of the reds in favor of the blacks and go for a three-stop strategy. The extended caution period after the crash of fellow rookie David Malukas put the race in the favor of the two-stop strategy, sending the 23-year-old Kirkwood down the order. In the final stages, Kirkwood was forced to save fuel and lost another spot to Felix Rosenqvist, finishing eighteenth.
In the end, however, Kirkwood took pride in battling with some of the best drivers IndyCar has to offer that also got caught out on the wrong strategy.
“We showed this entire weekend that we have pace and we showed pace in the race with the ROKiT Chevrolet,” Kirkwood said.
“We ran right there with veteran drivers like [Josef] Newgarden and [Simon] Pagenaud. I was super happy with that.”
CALLUM ILOTT – JUNCOS HOLLINGER RACING
QUALIFYING: NINETEENTH – RACE: NINETEENTH (+0)
Ilott, like Kirkwood, found himself on the wrong three-stop strategy, but showed a great pace throughout the race. The 23-year-old ran as high as second and spent nearly 30 laps in the top three. The team perfectly timed his first pit stop before the caution was thrown, which vaulted Ilott to twelfth on the restart. Strategy saw him fall down the order, as well as a lack of pace in the late stages, but Ilott stated that the physical nature of St. Pete got the best of him.
“With about 30 laps to go, my hands started to fall apart, and it was quite difficult to turn,” Ilott said, “It was an experience.”
“I think we had good pace, especially on the blacks. What a race. We ran in the Top-3 for almost 30 laps, so that was mega.”
Although the result may not show it, this was a brilliant day for a team that is new to IndyCar with a driver in the same position. Keep your eyes on Ilott.
DEVLIN DEFRANCESCO – ANDRETTI STEINBRENNER AUTOSPORT
QUALIFYING: EIGHTEENTH – RACE: TWENTY-SECOND (-4)
After finding himself in the top fifteen in both practice sessions, DeFrancesco’s pace unfortunately did not translate to qualifying or the race. Once again, like many of the rookies, DeFrancesco was caught on the wrong strategy and had to fight through traffic for most of the race. Along with not being on the right strategy, the Canadian driver lost time on pit stops, an error that he took responsibility for.
“We have some work to do on pit stops on my end,” he said. “We lost a bit of time there.”
DeFrancesco’s most notable moment of the day was being just ahead of race leader McLaughlin as he battled Alex Palou on the final lap of the race. Some could argue that he was in the way of the leaders, but held his own and finished as the last car on the lead lap.
TATIANA CALDERON – A.J. FOYT ENTERPRISES
QUALIFYING: TWENTY-FIFTH – RACE: TWENTY-FOURTH (+1)
Calderon felt first-hand the physicality of the streets of St. Pete, calling the race “the toughest race physically of my career.”
Much to her credit, the 28-year-old pushed through and made it to the end, crossing the line with a wealth of new information about the car to learn from.
“I think we managed to get a feeling for both tire compounds,” she said.
“I did a few mistakes running out of road and a few things but sometimes you have to learn the hard way. But I was happy to cross the line to get a bit more information, a bit more fitness for what’s coming next. And to know where I need to improve as well and where I can maybe help with the balance of the cars, so I’m quite happy with all that information.”
While all the other rookies will take to the track at Texas Motor Speedway, Calderon will re-join with the series at the Grand Prix of Long Beach on 10 April. She is only running the road and street courses this year.
DAVID MALUKAS – DALE COYNE RACING WITH HPD MOTORSPORTS
QUALIFYING: TWENTY-FOURTH – RACE: DNF (CRASH) (-2)
This was not the start to his IndyCar Series career that Malukas was hoping for. In the first round of qualifying, the American driver was handed a penalty for impeding Jimmie Johnson who was on a flying lap. This eliminated his two fastest laps, and sent him back a few rows on the starting grid.
Malukas’ race started in very promising fashion, jumping up to seventeenth place before his first pit stop on lap 21. Three laps later, Malukas’ weekend took a turn for the worse, smacking the wall in turn three and ending his day.
“I was going into Turn 3 and I had a bit of a moment, it was only a split second but it took me offline and as soon as that front left hit the marbles that took me straight to the wall,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate. I did not want it to end that way.”
Despite the poor fortune, Malukas remains optimistic about the long season ahead.
“Our seasons always seem to start with a bang, but then go in the right direction so hopefully this one is no different.”