Home Featured Why is Armstrong thriving in IndyCar after three years of ‘what if’s in F2?

Why is Armstrong thriving in IndyCar after three years of ‘what if’s in F2?

by Ida Wood

Photos: James Black

Marcus Armstrong arrived in F2 having won in two top F3 series, and he made the podium twice in his first four races. But that early form couldn’t be continued. So what can we take from his strong arrival in IndyCar?

Looking back at Marcus Armstrong’s junior career, there is a trend of things not going his way. Often in qualifying. But what led to the Kiwi’s reputation growing with each year was how he rebounded again and again. He only got one win in FIA European Formula 3 as a rookie in 2018, and came a distant fifth in the standings, but that was enough to make him one of the title favourites going into the new FIA F3 Championship for 2019.

He delivered on the hype by coming second in the standings, but it was a trying season more than anything. He had several qualifying nightmares, but those set up his first wins as charges up the order in the Saturday race then put him on reversed-grid pole for the Sunday race.

That trend continued into the Macau Grand Prix, where he was on top in the second qualifying session before hitting the barriers. There was no reversed-grid element to benefit from there, and he finished 17th in the qualification race and eighth in the main race.

The expectations were even higher when he stepped up to Formula 2 for 2020 with ART Grand Prix, and Armstrong qualified 13th for his debut. Then he proceeded to storm to second place. A week later he qualified 12th, charged to seventh in the feature race and then had a front row position for the sprint race which he converted into another podium finish.

Armstrong was not seen in the points again until 13 races later, and he came 13th in the standings as the 14th fastest driver on average in qualifying. The next year he moved to DAMS and also came 13th in the standings. This time he was the 12th fastest driver on average, but his rolling race pace average was the eighth best on the grid and he suffered three retirements due to technical issues outside of his hands.

For 2022 he moved to Hitech GP, but once again was 13th in the standings. He scored almost twice as many points as the previous year, was the sixth fastest driver on average and fifth on race pace, but his average starting position was 8.3.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Only champion Felipe Drugovich led more laps than Armstrong’s impressive tally of 93 as he won three sprint races, but from the 14 feature races (which award more points than the sprint races) his total of 48 points was bettered by 12 drivers.

From 34 attempts across three seasons, Armstrong only qualified on the front row once, and the only feature race podium he claimed was the one on his debut. But everyone in the paddock knew that Armstrong, who in typical Kiwi fashion was a laidback figure even on the most trying of race weekends, was capable of much more and there was – as usual – a lot of high expectations around him when he announced he had an IndyCar drive for 2023.

Fast forward eight months, and Armstrong is eight races into his part-time rookie campaign with Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s contesting all of the road and street course races, and so far his average finishing positon is exactly two places higher than his average starting position. He already has two eighth places and a sixth, achieved last time out in Toronto, and he’d likely be finishing in even higher positions if he was able to make it into the ‘fast six’, the final segment of IndyCar qualifying.

Ahead of his return to the cockpit this weekend on the streets of Nashville, Armstrong spoke to media about his rookie season, what he’s seeking for 2024 and his habit of performing stronger in races than qualifying.

“I was slightly disappointed, really, with my own performance leading up to the race,” Armstrong said of Toronto. “And then I knew that we had good pace. So we would make it towards the front during the race. Despite starting 10th.

“It would have been nice to have a bit more pace. Like I saw Scott [McLaughlin, fellow New Zealander] come past me at one point that was on a different strategy, going extremely fast. And I feel like there’s a long way to go before we can really nail it like him. But in a general sense, I thought there was no real mistakes.

“Certainly we are building some momentum, just due to the fact that we haven’t really been making mistakes as a group as the #11 [crew]. And personally, I don’t feel like I’ve made any errors. It’s just been sort of learning and trying to get as many laps under my belt, in order to be in a better position towards the end of the season.”

Photo: Chris Owens

“I feel like we have a lot to work on, which is in a way quite comforting because I feel like despite having had top 10s in the previous races, we haven’t really done that great of a job, or personally, I don’t feel like I have. So Nashville provides an opportunity to try and learn from the things that I did wrong in Toronto, which was a similar layout.”

Both tracks are particularly bumpy, which contrasts to Armstrong’s expansive experience of street circuits in junior series.

“[The bumpiness] provides challenges that you can differentiate yourself to others. If I compare to racing at Monaco or Baku, or even Macau to a certain extent, they feel like road courses compared to a lot of these street circuits. Just because they’re very smooth, like Monaco, it’s resurfaced every year, there’s not a single bump on the track, and the grip is like driving around Paul Ricard.”

Armstrong says the bumpiness itself isn’t the biggest challenge, but “understanding it very quickly”.

“I need to sort of learn quickly so I can start near the front. Normally towards the end of the race we’re well and truly on the pace. So it’s just a matter of getting there quicker.”

That progression of pace over a weekend was what worked for and against Armstrong in F2. The reversed grids meant he could start near the front even if his qualifying was poor, but winning a sprint race was only equivalent to fifth in a feature race. And he only finished four feature races in the top five in his F2 career.

Armstrong was asked if learning IndyCar’s softer ‘Alternate’ tyre compound was the reason behind his qualifying form in IndyCar so far not being as strong as his race results (where more time is spent racing on the harder ‘Prime’ tyre).

“No, I don’t think so. I think learning tyres is a particular skill of mine, just due to the fact that I spent so many years on the very demanding Pirelli. I would say it’s more so getting to the pace quicker.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

“Like I said before, learning the circuits, the circuits have a lot of character. And when you come back time and time again, like the other guys have, it’s quite difficult to arrive and straight away be as quick as them. And I make big steps through the weekend from the first laps of FP1 through the end of Q2.”

“I need to be on the pace in FP1 and then make smaller steps onwards because at the moment I’m having to find big chunks from session to session. Which is, I mean, I understand that. That’s part of it. But I feel like we have everything, we have all the ingredients to do a very good job in quali. We just need to get there quicker and just chip away at the small details leading into the final laps of quali.”

Helping him achieve that is two IndyCar legends. One is fellow Kiwi and team-mate Scott Dixon, who is a six-time champion, and the other is retired four-time champion Dario Franchitti who is CGR’s team advisor and driver coach.

“Dario has been really, really great. I think I’ve probably been on the phone to him about five times over the course of the last five days, so he’s great in every aspect really. He certainly points in the right direction, and he doesn’t – I often say that he needs to be more harsh with me, like tell me what I’m doing wrong, because clearly, I need to improve on stuff.

“But he seems to be very positive all the time about what we have been doing as a group and what I’ve been doing and how I’m progressing. But he’s very observant and he understands the sport probably better than anyone. Equal with Scott Dixon, let’s say. So for him to be on my stand for the majority of the races this year, and also just to have a very good personal relationship with him is clearly an advantage. We’re always trying to find things to improve, whether that be driving or whether that be managing the people around me.”

According to Armstrong: “When we’re in the engineering room, I’ll ask point blank ‘Scott, what are you doing here?’ And he’ll tell me without, as far as I know, any hesitancy. That’s a big advantage.”

Armstrong and Franchitti

Armstrong’s other team-mates are 2021 champion Alex Palou, who is dominating this season, last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, who drives Armstrong’s car for all the oval races.

“It’s really great when you have a team around you that there’s a life, there’s a great team synergy, let’s say, where everyone is helping each other. And there’s certainly no blame game. I feel like that’s one of the reasons why as a group we’re so strong, it’s because everyone is helping each other but we’re also honest with each other. There’s a great group of people.”

“I’m learning so much from everyone, really. Everyone has been here a long time [in IndyCar], they’ve had a lot of success, whether it be my engineers, mechanics, team-mates, whatever. They’ve all had success. And the fact that they’re so willing to offer information to me is a massive advantage.”

Learning isn’t all about picking up improvements from others, and Armstrong has prepared “a lot more for my sim sessions this season than I have in the past” as all the tracks are new to him. But “also the team is very, very helpful, by allowing me to go normally last of the four drivers; so that means that I get a whole lot of data to look at for when it’s my turn to drive”.

The team environment at CGR clearly appeals to Armstrong, and you have to head back into the 2000s for the last time the team went longer than two years without one of their drivers winning the Indy 500 or the title, so it’s no surprise he wants to remain there for 2024. Trying oval racing is also on his radar now, and starting the Indy 500 would “be a dream come true”. And being on the pit stand for the oval races this year while Sato is in the cockpit has been “extremely beneficial” as it has given him more time to analyse how a race weekend unfolds and also to talk to team members to build his understanding.

After Nashville, Armstrong has three more races to impress the sponsor of his car and retain his seat for a second season.

“I think it’s possible that we will have some very good results in the next couple of races. I’ve said that from the beginning of the season, really, straight away after the first pre-season test. Like there will be a time this year where I feel like everything is going really well and I can achieve the result that I want.

IndyCar’s GP2/F2 & FR/FV8 3.5 converts
Year Driver Races Best result
2023 Marcus Armstrong 8 1x 6th
2021 Christian Lundgaard 27 1 win
2018 Santino Ferrucci 52 1x 3rd
2018 Jordan King 12 1x 11th
2018 Pietro Fittipaldi 9 1x 9th
2018 Rene Binder 6 1x 16th
2015 Stefano Coletti 16 1x 8th
2014 Mikhail Aleshin 46 2x 2nd
2014 Carlos Huertas 21 1 win
2013 Luca Filippi 23 1x 2nd

“I feel like we will be able to compete for a podium as we did at Road America. And my target isn’t necessarily on ‘I want to win a race’ or ‘I want to get a podium’, but I certainly want to be fast enough to win a race. And then certainly be in the leading pack and get into a good rhythm and sort of a run. Either the next race weekend, hit the ground running, and just always be at the pointy end.”

Armstrong is on course to be IndyCar’s top rookie this year, despite missing races, and although he’s unlikely to match his 13th place in the standings from the last few years, he feels his results have been more representative of performance than his F2 ones.

“Your performance directly correlates to your results in IndyCar,” he said in answer to a question from this writer. “I think many times in F2, I’ve had races where I felt like I was the fastest on track and I ended up finishing P12 just because of some massive tyre deg in the last 10 laps or something like that.”

There’s “still a big step to be made” to get his first podiums, and “you can’t understate how high the level is right at the very pointy end of IndyCar”.

The side-gig

“We do a podcast [Screaming Meals], that is pretty much as Kiwi as you could get. Me and my mate from New Zealand do it, now Clement Novalak, an F2 driver does it with me and we just chit-chat. Got one with James Hinchcliffe coming out soon. Initially we started it because it was quite a fun use of our time when we were sitting in London between races.

“I’ve moved to America since, but we will continue to do it. It’s a lot of fun. That’s the point. And it’s also cool to, for lack of a better phrase, bro down with other drivers. Get to know them a bit better. It’s been difficult to nail down a few of the IndyCar drivers, I’ll be honest, for the podcast. That’s a work in progress.”