IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Why VeeKay could lead an ECR revival
Analyzing the big topics ahead of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, Rinus VeeKay appears to have the potential to steer Ed Carpenter Racing back to Victory Lane for the first time in four seasons. Does he feel the same way?
Conversations with a couple of seasoned IndyCar veterans a couple of weeks ago led to two interesting comments.
“You know when you’re watching a driver and he just looks real fast right out of the box?” said one. “Well that’s how VeeKay was. He’s ****ing good, especially for a rookie.”
The second assessment was even more succinct: “Looks like Ed Carpenter’s got his new Josef Newgarden.”
That’s the level of expectation that surrounds Rinus VeeKay – full name Rinus van Kalmthout – 2019 Indy Lights runner-up. The 19-year-old Dutchman has a strong résumé, having finished second in the USF2000 championship, won the Pro Mazda (now Indy Pro 2000) title, won the F3 Asian Winter Series and last year accrued six wins on his way to runner-up in the Indy Lights points race.
He swiftly impressed Ed Carpenter Racing in a rookie test at Portland last August, then again during the off-season at Mid-Ohio and most recently he led a four-car IndyCar test at Sebring. While no one can yet say for certain just how strong VeeKay will be, there are certain members of IndyCar’s Big Three teams who right now are expecting him to be a regular thorn in their side.
Ever since Newgarden left ECR at the end of 2016, there have been question marks about the team’s performances on road and street courses. Did the team lose its way? Was JR Hildebrand doing a good enough job in 2017, or was he still suffering the lingering after-effects of having spent his formative IndyCar seasons without an experienced teammate? Spencer Pigot – like Hildebrand, a former Indy Lights champion – proved to be a hair quicker than JRH more often than not in his first full season at this level, but if there were doubts over Hildebrand, how much did Pigot’s marginal superiority mean? Was Pigot starting to plateau too early? Sure, he got on top of Jordan King in 2018 and comprehensively outshone Ed Jones last year – but then no one knew how to quantify them, either!
And so the doubts mounted up – and actually increased whenever Pigot (or, less frequently, King or Jones) would conjure an impressive performance, apparently out of thin air. Why couldn’t those days come more frequently? If it was hard to judge the team and its drivers from the outside, it was even tougher within the walls of ECR’s Indy raceshop: self-assessments followed a circular path with no conclusion.
The signing of Conor Daly for road/street courses plus the Indy 500 was hardly going to alleviate that problem, since no two people seem to agree about the Indiana native’s strong points. This writer felt that, for a guy who spent most of his junior formula days on road and street courses, Daly adapted well to ovals, and his 2019 performances seemed to endorse the view that they may even have become the best part of his game. Others felt that he was far better on tracks that included right turns and that he was lacking oval chops.
The truth is, Daly hasn’t enjoyed enough consistency in his career to draw a fair picture of him. But it now seems beyond doubt that, in VeeKay,, he’s about to face the strongest intra-team opposition of his IndyCar career. The teenaged rookie is brimming with confidence – even if he does admit he was taken aback by how quickly he’s adapted to the ‘big cars’.
“Yes, it was a surprise,” he tells Motorsport.com. “It is the best-suited car for me that I’ve ever driven in. The Indy Lights car was one of the hardest for me to adapt to, but even before I’d driven a lap in the IndyCar, just sitting in it, I felt like I’d done it for a few years. It’s hard to explain but it felt very much like home, almost immediately and that same feeling stayed once I really started pushing the car on track.”
One of the more obvious explanations would be the aeroscreen bringing the IndyCars’ weight distribution forward in 2020, because VeeKay is a guy known to enjoy his cars having a very positive front end to help turn-in. But the fact is that he has now shone with the cars in both 2019- and 2020-spec, so what has caused that immediate click between man and machine?
“I don’t know actually,” he admits. “I don’t have enough experience to really give an opinion on that, but I do think it will be easier for me to adapt to the aeroscreen than it will be for a veteran driver. I don’t mean the view from the cockpit; I mean the weight change, the handling change. It is in my favor as a rookie, I think, because I’m new, and I didn’t know the car for a long time without the screen.”
With three days of testing under his wheels, VeeKay has had all the warning he needs regarding fitness requirements for handling a 2650lbs car with no power steering, and he is aware that over the remaining pre-season test days he must absorb and retain knowledge from other experiences too.
“Yes, I have been training very hard!” he asserts. “I was doing that even in Indy Lights, but of course the IndyCar is harder in every aspect, so I have stepped it up to make myself one of the fittest guys out there this season.
“It will be tough learning a lot of new stuff as a rookie, for sure, but we have quite a few tests and I think I’ll learn what I have to learn before the first race. Things like tire saving, like we had to do in Indy Lights because we weren’t supposed to make pitstops unless something went wrong, is not such a big thing in IndyCar because you can stop and change tires if you feel the grip is gone. So pushing harder throughout a stint is important because for sure everyone around you is doing that too.”
VeeKay, as driver of the #21 ECR-Chevrolet, is not having to share his ride with Carpenter, but is instead the full-timer who gets to experience all types of track, which of course means ovals. In the three steps of the Road To Indy ladder, there aren’t many oval events but VeeKay was a solid victory contender in all of them, winning at Gateway in USF2000 and scoring podiums on left-turn-only tracks in Pro Mazda and Lights.
He says: “You’re right, I don’t have much oval experience, but you’re also right that I do seem to adapt quite well to them. I think I’m getting pretty good, which is important because you either have talent for ovals or you don’t. I’m lucky to have one very good teacher for them, and that’s [two-time Indy 500 winner] Arie Luyendyk. That guy definitely knows how to turn left!
“And of course I will be able to go to Ed as well – I can learn a ton from him because he’s the guy with the same car and totally up-to-date experience. If we have the same setups and I think the car feels bad and he says it’s good, then it may be because I’m not sure or not experienced enough. So having Ed there to give advice will be huge; he should make me a lot better.”
Yes, without question. But so too VeeKay could return the favor and make Carpenter’s team a lot better. VeeKay even hints at that himself, although he pauses to consider whether there is a more modest way he can phrase it. There isn’t.
“I think Ed’s team is more competitive than they’ve shown the last few seaons,” he says finally, “so although we maybe look like an underdog in the Rookie of the Year fight, I think we can show some strong performances, get some nice results. I already feel very at home at the team and I have a lot of confidence in them. I really feel like I’m in the right place.”
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