IndyCar is looking to F1 juniors to be tomorrow's talents

The driver from Denmark was a mystery to IndyCar teams in 2021. He had the entirety of the paddock reaching for their phones and asking Siri and Alexa, "Who the hell is Christian Lundgaard?"

Those basic internet searches revealed he was 20, drove for the ART Grand Prix Formula 2 outfit, and won two F2 races in 2020 on the way to placing seventh in the championship. In 2021, though, Lundgaard wasn't trending upward. He was in Alpine's F1 Academy, and yet, his chances of reaching Formula One were fading.

Through an outreach to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing IndyCar team, an alternate path was mapped out for Lundgaard. He'd make a one-off appearance with RLL late in the 2021 season to test the waters on rerouting his career through America. The kid would get a shot at the Brickyard Grand Prix in Indianapolis.

What a shot he made.

Qualifying fourth, Lundgaard stole the show in time trials on the Indianapolis road course. In the race, his inexperience with the Honda-powered Indy car and its Firestone tires proved troublesome, but he held on to finish 12th. Behind him were major IndyCar stars who'd amassed 12 championships and won seven Indianapolis 500s.

If a guy they'd never heard of from F2, who wasn't exactly drawing interest from F1 teams, could rock up and scare the daylights out of the IndyCar establishment, who else was simmering beneath the surface in F2 that might be deserving of a look by American open-wheel teams? The answers have been rather interesting.

Heading into next season's IndyCar championship, an ever-growing number of F2 graduates will be on the grid, led by Lundgaard, who won his first race for RLL in July. In his sophomore IndyCar campaign, Lundgaard sits eighth in the drivers' standings entering the final race; he's directly behind defending champion Will Power and ahead of names like Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and well clear of teammate Graham Rahal.

England's Callum Ilott, the former Ferrari F1 driver academy standout who placed second in the 2020 F2 championship, will continue to lead the upstart Juncos Hollinger Racing team. His close friend, New Zealand's Marcus Armstrong who also trained in the Ferrari Academy, is leading IndyCar's Rookie of the Year standings with new champions Chip Ganassi Racing. The Kiwi arrived on American shores after placing 13th in last season's F2 championship on the strength of three wins, and just signed a multi-year deal to stay with Ganassi.

Swayed by the diamond it unearthed with Lundgaard, RLL is strongly considering dipping into the F2 driver well once more as it refines its driver options for 2024. Estonia's Juri Vips, the former Red Bull F1 Junior Team member, has been brought in to run the last two rounds of 2023 and is likely to be paired with Lundgaard and Rahal in 2024, which would bring the tally of F2-turned-IndyCar drivers to four. And more are on the short lists held by IndyCar teams with vacant seats to fill.

The rise in interest for F2 drivers represents a major shift for IndyCar teams.

The finer drivers on the European open-wheel ladder have always carried one significant disadvantage when compared to their counterparts on the American junior open-wheel ladder, and that's with their complete lack of oval racing experience. Given the chance to pick between a F2 champion whose only disciplines are road and street course racing, and a domestically trained Indy Lights (now Indy NXT) champion who had the same road and street education plus a solid foundation of oval racing, the Lights driver traditionally got the nod.

That's changing, however, as the ownership of IndyCar and Indy NXT moved to Penske Entertainment in 2020.

The marquee Freedom 100 race, where NXT drivers received their first chance to race and learn on the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval that hosts the Indy 500, was removed from the calendar. Citing fears of a big crash that might maim or kill young drivers, the best NXT race of the season was erased, leaving two short ovals -- one at the 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway and the other at the 1.25-mile circuit on the outskirts of St. Louis -- as the only places to acquire oval mileage before making the leap to IndyCar.

With the big series running on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval and the daunting, high-banked 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval, the shortage of widespread oval schooling for NXT drivers has IndyCar team leaders viewing F2 talents with new interest.

As the new thinking goes, a quality F2 driver with F1 academy links and no oval knowledge is just as coveted -- if not more -- than a similar NXT driver who's fast but missing big chunks of oval wisdom. In both instances, those drivers will face deep oval curriculums, so why not opt for the one with the sterling pedigree?

"The ones who are coming over after being in the European system have integrated themselves quickly, and in our case, thrive in our system," Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told ESPN. "We've come across quite a few who've been inside the Formula One young driver programs with Ferrari and the others, and what they have in Formula 2 is a car that is like an Indy car in so many ways.

"The horsepower-to-weight ratio is extremely close, and they do pit stops in Formula 2, which is another benefit that directly correlates to what drivers are asked to do in IndyCar. If you're able to show well in Formula 2, there's no barrier to showing well here."

Arrow McLaren IndyCar star Pato O'Ward, who focused his training in America and won the 2018 Indy NXT championship, lost his opportunity to reach IndyCar in 2019 and found himself flying to Europe and Asia as a temporary member of the Red Bull Junior Driver family. He unexpectedly landed in F2 and the Japanese Super Formula series while trying to find a racing home. By the time he found his way back to IndyCar, the additions to his open-wheel education were readily apparent.

"In F2, I did pit stops, and for my time in Indy NXT, there weren't a lot of cars there, but the series has gotten a lot bigger and stronger now," O'Ward said. "But it would be great if they brought pit stops into NXT because the drivers who do F2 have an advantage that our drivers don't currently have. We did more ovals when I was in NXT, so it was good for me and Colton [Herta] and the other guys who were in it back in the day. We were definitely lucky."

For every Lundgaard, Ilott, Armstrong and Vips, you have a Kyle Kirkwood.

The Floridian eschewed Europe, focused solely on the American open-wheel ladder, and his talents were rewarded with three consecutive championships in USF2000, the next tier in Indy Pro 2000, and the top step, Indy Lights, before graduating to IndyCar in 2022 with the storied but underwhelming A.J. Foyt Racing team.

Kirkwood showed promise at Foyt's team, but it was the call to join Andretti Autosport this season where the 24-year-old phenom has demonstrated his full potential. Winning the prestigious Long Beach Grand Prix in April and the Nashville Grand Prix in August, Kirkwood has become a two-time IndyCar race winner while among his F2-trained rivals, only Lundgaard has tasted victory.

If there's a counterargument to sending young domestic talent abroad for their open-wheel education, it lives within Kirkwood, who is primed to lead the renamed Andretti Global team into the future with Herta. Drivers educated in F2 are making their presence felt, though, and that's unlikely to change in the years ahead.

"There are some good kids developing in NXT, man," O'Ward said. "Christian Rasmussen, Nolan Siegel, and some more who are quite good. And the F2 guys are looking over here, hard, and they're getting looks back from our teams. The competition to be here is intense."