NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The front of Marcus Ericsson’s car was sent flying into the air after colliding with the rear of Sebastien Bourdais in the opening laps of the inaugural Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee Sunday.
He busted his nose, maybe even his suspension as well, and was slapped with a penalty by IndyCar for avoidable contact in causing the wreck that retired Bourdais from the race.
But, a plethora of cautions, pit strategy, and a little bit of luck had the Swedish driver from Chip Ganassi Racing somehow find his way to the front of the race and winning his second race of the season in dramatic fashion in a closing-laps duel with pole-sitter Colton Herta.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Ericsson in Victory Lane. “It shows that in IndyCar anything can happen. But with the right crew and the right car, you can get the job done. I just can’t believe it.”
Ericsson Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon came home second. James Hinchcliffe had his best result in two years in third.
The race was hyped by many IndyCar fans as “the next Long Beach” and had an atmosphere “rivaled to that of the Indianapolis 500.” With a field of 27 cars, it was the largest field of IndyCar drivers for a non-Indy 500 race since the Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2013.
On a brand new track with some of the narrowest turns in recent memory and a bridge with a long, fast straightaway, the carnage was apparent in the first 20 laps.
The first of four cautions came in that span, the first being Dalton Kellett stalling after nearly completing the first lap. Bourdais and Ericsson’s aforementioned collision on a restart followed. Then on Lap 20, a literal traffic jam happened with Penske teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud colliding in a narrow portion of the track forcing Pagenaud head-on into the wall and causing an 11-car pileup behind them.
After a red flag stopped the race for the clean-up, all the cars involved were able to continue.
Ericsson inherited the lead for the first time when Herta surrendered the lead to pit during a caution caused by Rinus Veekay. Herta cycled out fourth and quickly regained two spots on the subsequent restart.
Three more cautions would follow, sending the rhythm of the race into a tailspin and into a battle with waining sunlight thanks to a 5:30 p.m EDT start time. Adding to the caution time was an incident in which water mysteriously appeared on the racecourse.
Water and wrecks aside, the duel came down to Ericsson and Herta with 20 laps to go. Ericsson was on older red tires while Herta was on fresher primary black tires, which had proven to be the faster tires throughout the weekend.
But, Ericsson had more push-to-pass at his disposal and he made use of it on the long straights to keep Herta in check, while also having to save fuel in as the laps and sunlight went away.
“I had a very big fuel number to hit,” Ericsson said. “But to keep Colton behind while saving fuel, I think it’s one of my best performances of my career.”
As Herta was straining to wear down Ericsson with five laps left to go, Herta strained a little too much on the exit of Turn Nine off the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, locking up his right-front tire and slamming into the tire barrier, thus bringing a heartbreaking end for the driver who arguably had the fastest car on the track all day long.
Another red flag lengthened the race into even more growing darkness, but on the subsequent restart, Ericsson was able to hold off his teammate, Dixon, in the two-lap sprint to claim his second victory of the season and his career.
The duel between Herta and Ericsson likely salvaged what turned into a very long day for both IndyCar drivers and fans alike. With nine cautions, all of which involved multiple cars trying to navigate the extremely tight quarters of the racecourse and nearly having more caution laps than green flag laps, the race never developed much rhythm until the final 20 laps.
Despite the setbacks, nearly 50,000 fans were on hand for the event.
Looking ahead to the next race in less than a week’s time in Indianapolis, Alex Palou, who finished seventh, still holds the lead in the overall championship standings. Scott Dixon moved into second place in that regard and sits 42-points back. Ericsson is now fifth and has scored more points than anyone in the entire field since the Indy 500.