Rinus Van Kalmthout’s tweet final June, after he took a robust runner-up end within the first Detroit IndyCar race, stood out to this author. Posing together with his trophy, his face was mounted in a startled but thrilled expression, like somebody who’d simply walked right into a shock get together stuffed with pals he hadn’t seen in years. Above the picture was written the phrases, “I even have this face with my helmet on”. One suspects there’s a component of fact in that.
Recognized Stateside as ‘VeeKay’, he exudes exuberance in an IndyCar, whether or not he’s on a flying lap or in the midst of a duel. Nonetheless, critical he’s in debriefs, out on monitor he simply appears to be having enjoyable, revelling in his personal expertise, understanding he’s probably the greatest at what he does.
The Dutchman was the identical approach in Indy Lights in 2019, wringing dry his Juncos Racing automobile in an effort to bridge its slight efficiency deficit to the Andretti Autosport entry of Oliver Askew. In the end, he got here up simply quick in opposition to the fast Askew, however did sufficient to persuade Ed Carpenter of his abilities. The Ed Carpenter Racing boss had spied a equally promising expertise to that of 2011 Lights champion Josef Newgarden, the now double IndyCar champion scoring three wins and an outsider for the 2016 title with ECR.
After all, there’s at all times a significant studying curve in IndyCar for even probably the most gifted rookie, and in a 2020 season lacerated by the knock-on results of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECR discovered it powerful to search out monitor time for its new star. Testing was nearly non-existent and observe time was pinched. Ought to a crew fail to hit the candy spot all through the lowered two-day occasions, they have been at risk of struggling two kidney punches: to make up a 14-race season, 5 of IndyCar’s race weekends that yr have been double-headers.
Regardless of this exceedingly tough setting, VeeKay’s latent promise was apparent. In solely his second IndyCar begin, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s highway course, he completed fifth. On the Indianapolis 500, he certified fourth. He charged into sixth and fourth within the two races on Gateway’s 1.25-mile oval. And on returning to the IMS highway course for the Harvest Grand Prix, he took pole and completed third.
In 2021, VeeKay took the subsequent step – the realisation that consistency is significant in a sequence as intently fought as IndyCar. His first victory, on the IMS highway course (clearly a contented looking floor for each he and ECR), and the aforementioned second place in Detroit, performed a big half in VeeKay mendacity fifth within the championship on the midway level of the 16-race season. However so too did the truth that he confirmed restraint in his second Indy 500.
After changing into the youngest ever front-row starter and main over 30 laps, VeeKay was likely annoyed at falling out of rivalry on race day, however he didn’t hurl it on the wall attempting to achieve the unattainable. He as a substitute completed eighth and scored 56 factors – greater than you get for victory in a ‘common’ IndyCar race.
VeeKay broke his duck on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway highway course in 2021 earlier than his season was thrown into disarray by damage
Photograph by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Nonetheless, after Detroit, every little thing went unsuitable. VeeKay fell off his bicycle whereas coaching and broke his collarbone, forcing him to overlook the Highway America spherical. He certified 11th on his return at Mid-Ohio, however thereafter team-mate Conor Daly had the sting when it comes to one-lap tempo. VeeKay additionally made a small however important misjudgment within the race at Gateway, inflicting a three-car accident.
He insisted he hadn’t returned to motion earlier than his damage had an opportunity to correctly heal, but it appeared as if VeeKay wasn’t fairly the motive force he was. He completed exterior the highest 15 within the final seven races, by no means bettering his run to 16th on his Mid-Ohio comeback. In contrast with fellow younger stars Alex Palou, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, VeeKay appeared like an also-ran.
He’s not permitting that to occur this yr. His gasoline saving experience on the St. Petersburg season-opener after a compromised technique salvaged sixth place and confirmed simply how far he’s come. Now, off the again of a superb pole and third place end at Barber Motorsports Park, he’s returning to the scene of his first victory and lies seventh within the championship after 4 rounds. That places him forward of all of the Andretti Autosport contingent, each Meyer Shank Racing drivers, and different confirmed race winners.
“I feel we’re gaining new data faster than different groups and so we’re catching them, and I feel that offers us constructive morale, which retains us pushing laborious” Rinus VeeKay
“We undoubtedly have began as we meant, leaving final yr far behind us,” VeeKay tells Autosport. “My aim was to be as robust as we have been within the first half of 2021, and I feel possibly we’re even higher than that. All our laborious work, and Chevrolet’s laborious work, is paying off.”
One in every of VeeKay’s goals within the offseason was to enhance his suggestions to engineer Matt Barnes, present extra element in his descriptions of automobile behaviour, and turn into extra fastidious in determining what he and the automobile must shave off the subsequent tenth or two-tenths. VeeKay feels his present kind is legacy of that effort.
“It undoubtedly seems like we’re speaking the identical language now,” he muses, “the place possibly we had some confusion previously. After spending a lot time with Matt, he is aware of what I imply after I say sure issues and he is aware of what I would like from the automobile to provide my greatest. However I additionally assume the teamwork has improved, not simply me and Matt.”
Barnes explains: “Like a number of younger guys, comparable to Pato and Colton [Herta], Rinus was a type of guys who got here into IndyCar and was instantly quick – it got here naturally, he didn’t need to put a number of thought into it. At that time, the tendency is to probably not study why you’re quick, so then you definitely don’t perceive why you’re gradual if you’re gradual.
Barnes says VeeKay is maturing and has larger understanding of his weaker areas
Photograph by: Chris Owens
“We’ve spent a number of time getting Rinus to grasp what makes him quick in order that he can inform us what he must go faster nonetheless, and inspiring him to assume again to once we weren’t fast and work out what was holding us again. Processing all that may imply he provides higher suggestions and it’ll assist him break by means of to the subsequent stage. And now we’ve constructed a rapport the place he can belief me and I can belief him.”
The pair of them belief the ECR #21 crew, too.
“Final time I appeared we have been fifth or sixth better of the 26 entries,” says Barnes, “so I’m proud of the pitstop efficiency. Within the first 4 races, we haven’t misplaced any locations on pitlane, and that’s a great metric.”
VeeKay concurs: “Within the offseason, I needed to get higher at hitting my marks precisely after I come into the pits, however you’ve seen the crew has improved too. Our pitstops are actually robust now, and that may be so vital if you’re combating for a win. You noticed at Barber – OK, my out-lap [after the second stop] was not my greatest – however we got here into the pits simply forward of Pato and got here out the identical distance forward, so we confirmed we are able to match McLaren even in a high-pressure state of affairs. We are able to compete on the high stage.”
However can they actually? May VeeKay really contend for a title from the seat of an ECR-Chevy, as Newgarden did in 2016? VeeKay doesn’t backtrack his remark, however does make clear it.
“Nicely, it’s at all times tough after all, as a result of as a crew we’re nonetheless studying loads,” he says. “However that’s the factor – I feel we’re gaining new data faster than different groups and so we’re catching them, and I feel that offers us constructive morale, which retains us pushing laborious.
“I truthfully really feel, if we preserve this charge of enchancment, and understanding our greatest tracks are but to return, I feel we are able to end between seventh and fifth within the championship, after which I feel there’s undoubtedly an opportunity for us subsequent yr to battle for the championship. Our progress is de facto spectacular now.”
VeeKay says ECR has improved its pitwork and believes it will possibly problem for titles from subsequent yr
Photograph by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
That feels like VeeKay is already settled on racing for Carpenter for a fourth season. As with all different question, he responds in an easy method.
“Nicely, sure, I want to stick with Ed,” he says, “nevertheless it’s additionally true that I’m a free agent on the finish of this season and there was a number of curiosity from different groups, which is sweet. For me, what I need is to be difficult for the championship – I consider I’ve what it takes to win it. If I consider I can do this with Ed’s crew, then I’ve no motive to go away. I actually prefer it right here.”
There are numerous parameters by which to gauge the deserves and depth of a crew, and a type of is how effectively the engineering division responds to main rule modifications. In IndyCar, there’s an enormous technical shift arriving for 2024 when the sequence adopts 2.Four-litre engines with hybrid items, creating very completely different energy supply and additional growing the mass of the automobile. Dealing with, and due to this fact tyre put on, will likely be affected. But VeeKay believes ECR can preserve tempo with its extra illustrious rivals.
“He races very sensible now, he is aware of methods to go to the sting and be aggressive with out going over that edge, so I feel he’s going to be very robust on the Speedway this month, and the remainder of the ovals… and in every single place else, we hope!” Matt Barnes
“The quantity of understanding they’ve proven with this automobile, they will do this once more with the subsequent automobile,” he states firmly. “Now I feel we come to every race with a greater automobile proper off the truck, after which we are also higher at deciding what path to go to make it even stronger and methods to evolve it because the monitor modifications. So we’re higher on the raceshop and on the monitor.
“So I feel when the brand new engines are available in 2024, it will likely be an enormous distinction, however this crew will likely be one of many quickest to grasp methods to get one of the best from it.”
Will that require Ed Carpenter to be working three entries? There’s a rising college of thought that for a crew to be a possible title-winner on this IndyCar period, it must run greater than two vehicles, and that Scott Dixon’s 2018 triumph with only one team-mate was the exception somewhat than the rule.
This yr, VeeKay and Daly are full-timers at ECR, with Carpenter working the ovals in a 3rd automobile (somewhat than sharing the #20 automobile with Daly as in previous years). After which Paretta Autosport’s return with Simona De Silvestro and in partnership with ECR will imply there are three extra tracks (Highway America, Mid-Ohio and Nashville) the place VeeKay can pool suggestions with two team-mates.
“Actually, it’s good to have a 3rd automobile,” says VeeKay. “Simona is a reasonably good driver who ought to be capable to give me and Conor some further information that we want in observe classes, so I feel that will likely be good. When Ed is in a 3rd automobile I’ve seen it as an actual constructive that matches in with this crew naturally. I don’t assume it hurts our approach of working in any respect; I simply see advantages.”
VeeKay and Daly will likely be joined by a 3rd automobile pushed by Simona De Silvestro at choose rounds, which the Dutchman believes will likely be helpful
Photograph by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images
“I simply see advantages” may very well be VeeKay’s motto: he actually is the buoyant man portrayed in his aforementioned tweet. If, for instance, you sympathise with him over the shortage of testing allowed since his arrival to IndyCar due to lockdowns and restrictive guidelines, he’ll shrug it off.
“I feel that harm veterans greater than rookies, as a result of they have been all attempting to grasp the brand new dealing with of the vehicles with the aeroscreen,” he says. “I had solely two assessments with out the display screen so I used to be nonetheless getting used to an IndyCar on the whole in 2020; I wasn’t feeling this huge distinction that skilled guys felt. I might simply concentrate on the dealing with of the automobile we had.”
And it’s ECR’s progress with that dealing with, the power of the crew to counteract the highest heavy automobile’s tendency towards understeer, that’s extracting one of the best from VeeKay.
Like a lot of the quickest drivers, he prefers a ‘pointy’ automobile, so he can use inherent rear-end instability to pivot the automobile quickly at turn-in and get it straightened up as quickly as doable, thereby lowering the length of lateral load on the tyres and permitting him to go full-throttle sooner on exit. As Barnes has noticed, “the progress Chevy made with driveability this yr has a been an enormous assist for Rinus, as a result of he likes to return to full throttle as quickly as doable!”
Barnes is satisfied that VeeKay’s ever-improving analytical method will enhance his fortunes past the stop-go tracks. Working the total IndyCar schedule obliges a driver to be robust throughout a number of completely different disciplines, and whereas VeeKay did win a Professional Mazda race at Gateway in 2018, he’s nonetheless looking for his first top-three on an oval within the ‘huge vehicles’. Barnes has zero qualms over his driver’s capability to ship nevertheless.
“I’ve heard individuals say, ‘Oh Rinus is quick on ovals however he hasn’t hit the wall but,’ and really that’s not true,” he factors out. “He had that crash in testing at Indy final yr, and in his first ever IndyCar race, at Texas in 2020, he crashed in first observe after which the race as effectively. So he’s been over the restrict a few instances and is aware of the results.
“I feel he races very sensible now, he is aware of methods to go to the sting and be aggressive with out going over that edge, so I feel he’s going to be very robust on the Speedway this month, and the remainder of the ovals… and in every single place else, we hope!”
Barnes has excessive hopes for VeeKay on the Indy 500 together with his mix of aggressiveness and savvy
Photograph by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
VeeKay, unsurprisingly, agrees together with his race engineer’s enthusiasm, believes the elongated classes at IMS repay past the 500, and he explains it in his distinctive approach.
“I really like all of the observe time we get at Indy,” he says. “You actually get right into a rhythm, and it… helps you soften into the seat for the remainder of the season! I truthfully really feel that.
“As I stated, I feel our greatest tracks, as a crew, are nonetheless to return, and they’re a mixture of all the different sorts. I’m very constructive.”
That a lot is evident. It’s written throughout his face.
VeeKay took pole for the current Barber spherical, ending third within the race. He believes one of the best is but to return from him and the ECR crew
Photograph by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images