Santino Ferrucci is a bit of an enigma entering the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.
When looking at the crop of rookie challengers this season, it is easy to overlook the 20-year-old from Woodbury, Connecticut. After all, he did compete in four races last year with Dale Coyne Racing. A tumultuous debut in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader was bookended by an impressive 11th-place showing in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.
As Ferrucci makes the complete jump into North America’s premier open-wheel championship after roughly seven years in Europe, he is looking to put the past behind him and start anew in the No. 19 Honda.
“A lot of people still don't know who I am fully, still have a lot of opinions on me,” Ferrucci said. “Being able to have the opportunity to even come and race in INDYCAR has been tremendous, especially from Dale (Coyne, team owner).”
Ferrucci was signed by Coyne in May 2018 after Pietro Fittipaldi was injured in a sports car crash. Ferrucci debuted in the Detroit doubleheader in early June, then returned in a third Coyne entry for the final two races of the season at Portland International Raceway and Sonoma.
“Doing the few races last year was very important. We ran very well in Sonoma and Portland,” Ferrucci said. “(At) Portland, unfortunately we had a couple issues with the fuel sensor, otherwise we would have had a really nice result other than running out of fuel, but racing is racing.”
Ferrucci finished 20th at Portland but bounced back two weeks later with his best result at Sonoma. It wasn’t without its own issues, however. Ferrucci confessed the throttle “was stuck open about 35 percent” around the tricky 2.385-mile circuit.
“It was a very long race, to say the least,” he added. “It's definitely a good steppingstone into this year. I got to work with that (teammate Sebastien Bourdais), got to learn a little bit of the ropes through him, him being the veteran and everything. So it puts me in a good spot at the start of the year.”
It certainly put Ferrucci on solid footing for INDYCAR Spring Training, the two-day open test last week at Circuit of The Americas. Having previously run at the 3.41-mile circuit during a Lamborghini Super Trofeo event in 2016, he called on his experience and navigated through four combined sessions, placing 10th overall with a best lap time of 1 minute, 47.5970 seconds (114.092 mph).
During his time racing in various junior formula categories including the FIA Formula 2 Championship, Ferrucci was a development driver for the Haas Formula 1 team. Coincidentally, he essentially swapped roles with Fittipaldi, who joined Haas over the offseason.
Though he still has a “good relationship” with team owner Gene Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner, Ferrucci said it wasn’t an ideal fit to stay on as he pursues a career in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“It's very difficult task to fit into (a Formula 1) grid,” Ferrucci said. “I honestly don't miss the European side of the sport very much. It's not a very great atmosphere. It's very tough, it's very cruel, it's very demanding. Coming back home here to America, where it's more of a family-run (sport), it's a lot nicer and everything that happens – a lot more forgiving.
“I'm quite happy for the opportunity.”
As Ferrucci looks to the 2019 season, there is still a checklist that includes making his first career oval start. Despite having a rookie evaluation at Texas Motor Speedway during the offseason, the real test awaits at the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May.
“I'm pretty nervous,” Ferrucci confessed. “I've only had one other oval experience in my entire career and that was at Texas for my rookie evaluation last October. It's a different animal.
“For the Indy 500 to be my first oval race, you take everything that Seb tells you to heart. You listen to everything he says. You don't want to put a foot wrong because you want to earn the trust of the veterans, because if they don't want to race with you, you're out, more or less.
“If you listen, you have an opportunity to show that you are sane, that you can race, that you are smart and you are thinking when you get to the April test (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway),” Ferrucci added. “This way, you can at least have a shot and play with the big boys. But it's a lot of prep going into it. It's something that I've never experienced; something that has a lot of excitement behind it, a lot of eyeballs.
“I am very much looking forward to every moment of it.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. NBCSN (12:30 p.m. ET) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.) have live coverage.