Why IndyCar's Dutch ace can bring glory to Ed Carpenter Racing
Rinus Van Kalmthout’s tweet last June, after he took a strong runner-up finish in the first Detroit IndyCar race, stood out to this writer. Posing with his trophy, his face was fixed in a startled yet thrilled expression, like someone who’d just walked into a surprise party full of friends he hadn't seen in years. Above the image was written the words, “I also have this face with my helmet on”. One suspects there’s an element of truth in that.
Known Stateside as 'VeeKay', he exudes exuberance in an IndyCar, whether he’s on a flying lap or in the middle of a duel. However, serious he is in debriefs, out on track he just seems to be having fun, revelling in his own talent, knowing he’s one of the best at what he does.
The Dutchman was the same way in Indy Lights in 2019, wringing dry his Juncos Racing car in order to bridge its slight performance deficit to the Andretti Autosport entry of Oliver Askew. Ultimately, he came up just short against the rapid Askew, but did enough to convince Ed Carpenter of his talents. The Ed Carpenter Racing boss had spied a similarly promising talent 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.
Of course, there is always a major learning curve in IndyCar for even the most talented rookie, and in a 2020 season lacerated by the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECR found it tough to find track time for its new star. Testing was virtually non-existent and practice time was pinched. Should a team fail to hit the sweet spot throughout the reduced two-day events, they were in danger of suffering two kidney punches: to make up a 14-race season, five of IndyCar’s race weekends that year were double-headers.
Despite this exceedingly difficult environment, VeeKay’s latent promise was obvious. In only his second IndyCar start, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, he finished fifth. At the Indianapolis 500, he qualified fourth. He charged into sixth and fourth in the two races on Gateway’s 1.25-mile oval. And on returning to the IMS road course for the Harvest Grand Prix, he took pole and finished third.
In 2021, VeeKay took the next step – the realisation that consistency is vital in a series as closely fought as IndyCar. His first victory, on the IMS road course (clearly a happy hunting ground for both he and ECR), and the aforementioned second place in Detroit, played a large part in VeeKay lying fifth in the championship at the halfway point of the 16-race season. But so too did the fact that he showed restraint in his second Indy 500.
After becoming the youngest ever front-row starter and leading over 30 laps, VeeKay was doubtless frustrated at falling out of contention on race day, but he didn’t hurl it at the wall trying to attain the unattainable. He instead finished eighth and scored 56 points – more than you get for victory in a ‘regular’ IndyCar race.
However, after Detroit, everything went wrong. VeeKay fell off his bicycle while training and broke his collarbone, forcing him to miss the Road America round. He qualified 11th on his return at Mid-Ohio, but thereafter team-mate Conor Daly had the edge in terms of one-lap pace. VeeKay also made a small but significant misjudgment in the race at Gateway, causing a three-car accident.
He insisted he hadn’t returned to action before his injury had a chance to properly heal, yet it seemed as if VeeKay wasn’t quite the driver he was. He finished outside the top 15 in the last seven races, never bettering his run to 16th on his Mid-Ohio comeback. Compared with fellow young stars Alex Palou, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, VeeKay seemed like an also-ran.
He’s not allowing that to happen this year. His fuel saving expertise at the St. Petersburg season-opener after a compromised strategy salvaged sixth place and showed just how far he’s come. Now, off the back of a brilliant pole and third place finish at Barber Motorsports Park, he’s returning to the scene of his first victory and lies seventh in the championship after four rounds. That puts him ahead of all the Andretti Autosport contingent, both Meyer Shank Racing drivers, and other proven race winners.
"I think we’re gaining new knowledge quicker than other teams and so we’re catching them, and I think that gives us positive morale, which keeps us pushing hard" Rinus VeeKay
“We definitely have started as we intended, leaving last year far behind us,” VeeKay tells Autosport. “My goal was to be as strong as we were in the first half of 2021, and I think maybe we are even better than that. All our hard work, and Chevrolet’s hard work, is paying off.”
One of VeeKay’s aims in the offseason was to improve his feedback to engineer Matt Barnes, provide more detail in his descriptions of car behaviour, and become more fastidious in figuring out what he and the car need to shave off the next tenth or two-tenths. VeeKay feels his current form is legacy of that effort.
“It definitely feels like we’re talking the same language now,” he muses, “where maybe we had some confusion in the past. After spending so much time with Matt, he knows what I mean when I say certain things and he knows what I need from the car to give my best. But I also think the teamwork has improved, not just me and Matt.”
Barnes explains: “Like a lot of young guys, such as Pato and Colton [Herta], Rinus was one of those guys who came into IndyCar and was immediately fast – it came naturally, he didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it. At that point, the tendency is to not really examine why you’re fast, so then you don’t understand why you’re slow when you’re slow.
“We’ve spent a lot of time getting Rinus to understand what makes him fast so that he can tell us what he needs to go quicker still, and encouraging him to think back to when we weren’t quick and figure out what was holding us back. Processing all that will mean he gives better feedback and it’ll help him break through to the next level. And now we’ve built a rapport where he can trust me and I can trust him.”
The pair of them trust the ECR #21 crew, too.
“Last time I looked we were fifth or sixth best of the 26 entries,” says Barnes, “so I’m happy with the pitstop performance. In the first four races, we haven’t lost any places on pitlane, and that’s a good metric.”
VeeKay concurs: “In the offseason, I wanted to get better at hitting my marks exactly when I come into the pits, but you’ve seen the crew has improved too. Our pitstops are really strong now, and that can be so important when you’re fighting for a win. You saw at Barber – OK, my out-lap [after the second stop] was not my best – but we came into the pits just ahead of Pato and came out the same distance ahead, so we showed we can match McLaren even in a high-pressure situation. We can compete at the top level.”
But can they really? Could VeeKay truly contend for a title from the seat of an ECR-Chevy, as Newgarden did in 2016? VeeKay doesn’t backtrack his comment, but does clarify it.
“Well, it’s always difficult of course, because as a team we’re still learning a lot,” he says. “But that’s the thing – I think we’re gaining new knowledge quicker than other teams and so we’re catching them, and I think that gives us positive morale, which keeps us pushing hard.
“I honestly feel, if we keep this rate of improvement, and knowing our best tracks are yet to come, I think we can finish between seventh and fifth in the championship, and then I think there’s definitely a chance for us next year to fight for the championship. Our progress is really impressive now.”
That sounds like VeeKay is already settled on racing for Carpenter for a fourth season. As with any other query, he responds in a straightforward manner.
“Well, yes, I would like to stay with Ed,” he says, “but it’s also true that I’m a free agent at the end of this season and there has been a lot of interest from other teams, which is nice. For me, what I want is to be challenging for the championship – I believe I have what it takes to win it. If I believe I can do that with Ed’s team, then I have no reason to leave. I really like it here.”
There are many parameters by which to gauge the merits and depth of a team, and one of those is how well the engineering department responds to major rule changes. In IndyCar, there’s a big technical shift arriving for 2024 when the series adopts 2.4-litre engines with hybrid units, creating very different power delivery and further increasing the mass of the car. Handling, and therefore tyre wear, will be affected. Yet VeeKay believes ECR can keep pace with its more illustrious rivals.
"He races very smart now, he knows how to go to the edge and be aggressive without going over that edge, so I think he’s going to be very strong at the Speedway this month, and the rest of the ovals… and everywhere else, we hope!" Matt Barnes
“The amount of understanding they have shown with this car, they can do that again with the next car,” he states firmly. “Now I think we come to each race with a better car right off the truck, and then we also are better at deciding what direction to go to make it even stronger and how to evolve it as the track changes. So we are better at the raceshop and at the track.
“So I think when the new engines come in 2024, it will be a big difference, but this team will be one of the quickest to understand how to get the best from it.”
Will that require Ed Carpenter to be running three entries? There’s a growing school of thought that for a team to be a potential title-winner in this IndyCar era, it needs to run more than two cars, and that Scott Dixon’s 2018 triumph with just one team-mate was the exception rather than the rule.
This year, VeeKay and Daly are full-timers at ECR, with Carpenter running the ovals in a third car (rather than sharing the #20 car with Daly as in past years). And then Paretta Autosport’s return with Simona De Silvestro and in partnership with ECR will mean there are three more tracks (Road America, Mid-Ohio and Nashville) where VeeKay can pool feedback with two team-mates.
“Honestly, it is nice to have a third car,” says VeeKay. “Simona is a pretty good driver who should be able to give me and Conor some extra data that we need in practice sessions, so I think that will be good. When Ed is in a third car I have seen it as a real positive that fits in with this team naturally. I don’t think it hurts our way of working at all; I just see benefits.”
“I just see benefits” could be VeeKay’s motto: he really is the buoyant guy portrayed in his aforementioned tweet. If, for example, you sympathise with him over the lack of testing allowed since his arrival to IndyCar because of lockdowns and restrictive rules, he’ll shrug it off.
“I think that hurt veterans more than rookies, because they were all trying to understand the new handling of the cars with the aeroscreen,” he says. “I had only two tests without the screen so I was still getting used to an IndyCar in general in 2020; I wasn’t feeling this big contrast that experienced guys felt. I could just focus on the handling of the car we had.”
And it’s ECR’s progress with that handling, the ability of the team to counteract the top heavy car’s tendency toward understeer, that is extracting the best from VeeKay.
Like most of the fastest drivers, he prefers a ‘pointy’ car, so he can use inherent rear-end instability to pivot the car rapidly at turn-in and get it straightened up as soon as possible, thereby reducing the duration of lateral load on the tyres and allowing him to go full-throttle sooner on exit. As Barnes has observed, “the progress Chevy made with driveability this year has a been a big help for Rinus, because he likes to go back to full throttle as soon as possible!”
Barnes is convinced that VeeKay’s ever-improving analytical approach will boost his fortunes beyond the stop-go tracks. Running the full IndyCar schedule obliges a driver to be strong across several different disciplines, and while VeeKay did win a Pro Mazda race at Gateway in 2018, he’s still seeking his first top-three on an oval in the ‘big cars’. Barnes has zero qualms over his driver’s ability to deliver however.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh Rinus is fast on ovals but he hasn’t hit the wall yet,’ and actually that’s not true,” he points out. “He had that crash in testing at Indy last year, and in his first ever IndyCar race, at Texas in 2020, he crashed in first practice and then the race as well. So he’s been over the limit a couple of times and knows the consequences.
“I think he races very smart now, he knows how to go to the edge and be aggressive without going over that edge, so I think he’s going to be very strong at the Speedway this month, and the rest of the ovals… and everywhere else, we hope!”
VeeKay, unsurprisingly, agrees with his race engineer’s enthusiasm, believes the elongated sessions at IMS pay off beyond the 500, and he explains it in his unique way.
“I love all the practice time we get at Indy,” he says. “You really get into a rhythm, and it… helps you melt into the seat for the rest of the season! I honestly feel that.
“As I said, I think our best tracks, as a team, are still to come, and they are a mix of all the different types. I’m very positive.”
That much is clear. It’s written all over his face.