The Indy Lights season begins this weekend in St. Petersburg, with the presence of several very promising drivers creating much anticipation for R.J. O’Connell…
It’s safe to say that?in the thirty-year history of the Indy Lights series, the last step on the ladder to IndyCar, there has never been as much interest as there is in the build-up to the 2016 season.
A number of factors have made Indy Lights a series to watch in 2016, even more so than some of the more established Formula 1 feeder categories in Europe. Last year, the launch of the beautiful new-generation Dallara IL-15 chassis and Mazda-AER turbocharged engine, and the arrival of European powerhouse team Carlin, spurred a great deal of interest going into the season, and out of a strong top tier of drivers, American rookie?Spencer Pigot emerged as the champion – and is now set to make his IndyCar debut in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg.
This year, the series gets a big boost with the acquisition of two of Europe’s most decorated young drivers, as well as the top two drivers from last year’s Pro Mazda title race. Three teams have expanded from last season, while one new team has stepped up to challenge Indy Lights after successes in Pro Mazda and USF2000.
As little as three years ago, despite the presence of star drivers like?champion?Sage Karam,?Carlos Munoz, Gabby Chaves, and?Jack Hawksworth, and a four-car photo finish at Indianapolis that quickly went viral, most races drew as few as eight?entries, with only six running full-time. This year, sixteen cars will enter the first race in St. Petersburg. As most feeder series’ entry lists have shrunk in 2016, Indy Lights’ roster has almost doubled over three years. Andersen Promotions, who operate the Road to Indy’s three series, deserve the utmost praise for their role in Indy Lights’ remarkable turnaround.
Indy Lights is one of the few feeder series with “crown jewel”?events of their own, headlined by the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, held on the Friday before the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. The series also headlines the Road to Indy finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a stand-alone event held the week before the IndyCar finale at nearby Sonoma Raceway.?It’s also the only top-level feeder series that runs on ovals, a unique draw to IndyCar that distinguishes it from Formula 1 and its main feeder categories.
Eighteen races make up the Indy Lights calendar in 2016, run as a support series to the IndyCar Series. Three new venues are added for 2016: The one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway, the famous Road America circuit, and a new street race in the Boston Seaport region.
Here is PaddockScout.com’s guide to the teams and drivers that make up perhaps the most enthralling Indy Lights lineup in history.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are bringing four cars to St. Petersburg, two of which we know are full-time entries. With seven Indy Lights titles to their name, SPM are the most successful team in the Indy Lights paddock – the benchmark by which all other teams are measured. That success for SPM in Indy Lights has parlayed into success in the major leagues of the IndyCar Series. In 2016, they are again projected to be the strongest team in Indy Lights.
RC Enerson of New Port Richey, Florida, is the 19-year-old ace of SPM this season, taking over the role from two-time series runner-up?Jack Harvey. Enerson was fast in all three pre-season test sessions, and at the February test in Phoenix, he shattered a series lap record that had stood for over twenty years.
Last year, he proved that the monstrous leap from USF2000 to Indy Lights was not a bridge too far, winning from pole position at Mid-Ohio and racking up four podium finishes, excelling in all types of circuits. He survived a frightening shunt at Toronto completely unhurt, and took his championship to the final round at Laguna Seca. Enerson could very well be the favourite to win it all in 2016, but he faces stiff competition, and perhaps the most formidable opponent?of all is from within his own team.
Enter?Santiago Urrutia of Uruguay, the reigning Pro Mazda series champion – the first driver from his home country to win a major racing title, and graduating to Indy Lights with a $590,000 USD scholarship from Mazda, just as Spencer Pigot did last year.
Also just 19 years old, Urrutia was the quickest rookie in the Phoenix test, and the fastest driver of all at the final tune-up at Barber Motorsports Park last weekend. If this form continues into the regular season, he could very well be crowned the sixth rookie champion in the last seven years?- banishing the hard-luck 2014 run in GP3 to an afterthought, and giving Santi the chance to succeed the legacy that national racing hero?Gonzalo Rodr?guez?left behind with his untimely death in 1999.
Former?GP2 and FR3.5 driver Andre Negrao surprised many just by turning up at the Phoenix test, and surprised many more by posting extremely competitive times in both Phoenix and Barber – far and away looking more impressive than the Sao Paulo native?had in recent years competing in Europe. If?Negrao?stays on for the full season, and if his testing form is representative of the genuine article, he could be a sleeper pick to win at least once this year. In the fourth SPM car is third-year veteran?Scott Anderson, who was ninth last year with SPM, and claimed?his first Indy Lights podium at the Indianapolis oval.
Trevor Carlin saw a new opportunity in Indy Lights last year, and made an immediate impact on the series as Emirati rookie?Ed Jones?became only the third driver, and the first rookie of the three, to win their first three consecutive Indy Lights races of the season. The other two were former champion?Paul Tracy and the legendary?Greg Moore. Max Chilton also made the most of his curious shift to Indy Lights from Formula 1, winning in dominant fashion at Iowa Speedway just a day after his friend and former teammate?Jules Bianchi passed away – which helped secure his?graduation to IndyCar for 2016.
As brilliant as Jones was at the start of 2015, battling back from repeated back injuries sustained a year prior that threatened his racing future, he could not sustain his white-hot start. He crashed hard in the final laps of last year’s Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, he clattered into title rival Harvey at Mid-Ohio in a race that he utterly dominated, and just four?podium finishes in the last thirteen races weren’t enough to keep him from losing the title to Pigot, and second place to Harvey.He returned in pre-season testing as a consistent front-runner, and he returns to Indy Lights in 2016 with unfinished business and all the motivation in the world to take the championship.
Jones has two new teammates for 2016:?Felix Serralles jumps to Carlin after finishing seventh in his rookie year with Belardi Auto Racing. Five DNFs and a disqualification hampered Serralles’ ambitions of a title run, but the Puerto Rican driver who excelled in the British and European F3 championships from 2012 to 2014 still broke through with a maiden victory in the Milwaukee Mile – and could easily step up into the realm of the title contenders this year.
In a third Carlin entry is 23-year-old rookie?Neil Alberico, the runner-up in Pro Mazda last year with four victories. Backed by the same Rising Star Racing initiative that continues to support?both Spencer Pigot and?Josef Newgarden, the Californian is eager to succeed both Newgarden and Pigot as IndyCar stars of the future, though he?struggled a bit in testing in comparison?to his veteran teammates – 2016 could be a learning year for Alberico.
Established as a perennial powerhouse in the IndyCar Series,?Michael Andretti’s team expands from one to three full-time entries for 2016. They couldn’t get the budget to fund?Matthew Brabham?for a full season last year, and rookie?Shelby Blackstock finished a distant tenth in the championship last year. So for Andretti Autosport, 2016 is a year of rebuilding, and they could not have acquired a better driver to boost their efforts?than former Formula 2 champion and GP3 Series runner-up,?Dean Stoneman.
If you know the story of Stoneman’s victory over life-threatening testicular cancer in 2011, and his valiant fight to return to racing as a top performer in single-seaters, sports cars, and even powerboats – you’d know that the setbacks of last year, a winless campaign in Formula Renault 3.5 and a quick exit from the Red Bull Junior Team after just one season, are just that – minor setbacks, in the grand scheme of things.
In his first test at Phoenix?- his first ever test on an oval, it should be stated -?Stoneman was immediately quick, displaying a few?glimpses?of the same oval prowess that led fellow Brits like?Nigel Mansell and the late?Dan Wheldon to IndyCar glory. However, he and the rest of the Andretti Autosport team struggled at the Barber test – perhaps a sign that Andretti Autosport still has a ways to go to catch the likes of SPM and Carlin. Stoneman should still be a threat to win multiple races this year.
Returning for his second season, Blackstock was solid, if slightly unspectacular, as an Indy Lights rookie last year. “Shelbilly” finished better than or equal to his starting position in every race in 2015, and completed 669 of 687 racing laps – more than every driver except Ed Jones. Better results are expected out of the former roadie-turned-racer?from Nashville, Tennessee in 2016 – but growing up as the son of American country music legend?Reba McIntyre, Blackstock knows that the crowd loves a spectacular encore.
The second Andretti rookie is Canadian?Dalton Kellett, a surprise promotion given his Pro Mazda record over the last two seasons – he finished tenth in the standings in 2014 and 2015, with just two podium finishes to his name in that span of time.
Belardi Auto Racing
The signing of reigning European Formula 3 champion?Felix Rosenqvist was the move that put Indy Lights on the map as a “must-watch” series in 2016 from an international perspective, and establishes?Brian Belardi’s team as a legitimate contender, just two years removed from winning the title with Gabby Chaves.
Rosenqvist had done it all in his decorated F3 tenure – in addition to his European F3 title, he’d won both the prestigious Macau GP and the Zandvoort Masters race twice, and the Pau Grand Prix in 2014, adding to a whopping total of 35 wins and 76 podium finishes over six years in the category. Make no mistake, Rosenqvist could have – no, should have – moved up sooner if not for frustrating budget issues blocking his upward progress to a championship such as GP2.
At the advice of manager Stefan Johansson, who recently advocated Indy Lights as a more effective feeder category than the likes of GP2, Rosenqvist is shifting to the Road to Indy to try and break into IndyCar – an arena?where?fellow Swede?Kenny Brack?excelled for many years, and is still remembered fondly as a former?champion of the Indianapolis 500.
Rosenqvist?will relish the new circuits and challenges of Indy Lights, especially on road and street circuits – but he wasn’t as quick in the oval test at Phoenix compared to some of his rookie rivals. It will also be a busy year for Rosenqvist in life after F3, as he is?also driving for Mercedes-AMG in the Blancpain Sprint Series alongside former Indy Lights champ?Tristan Vautier?- in an arrangement that thankfully creates no clashes between the two series.
Across the garage, Zach Veach?has returned after spending all of 2015 as a radio analyst for the IMS Radio Network and, crucially, not racing competitively at all (aside from an IMSA one-off at Laguna Seca). The 21-year-old native of Stockdale, Ohio was third in the Indy Lights championship with three victories at Andretti in 2014, and has been on IndyCar teams’ radars as one to watch?since he was a teenager.
He’s yet to race the IL-15, but he adapted to the new car very well and showed no signs of “race rust” in testing.?Veach will?be motivated to outperform his new teammate, and return to Indy Lights exactly where he left off two years ago – as a solid front-runner and a threat to win every weekend.
Last year, Juncos Racing stepped up from Pro Mazda along with Spencer Pigot and?Kyle Kaiser, winning six races and the Indy Lights title with Pigot.
Northern California native Kaiser returns to pilot the number 18 entry after a solid rookie season in 2015, finishing sixth in the championship. While he wasn’t quite as dynamic as Pigot last season, Kaiser picked up two podium finishes in Toronto and Laguna Seca, and has a lot of room to improve in year two.
Opposite Kaiser is Canadian rookie?Zachary Claman DeMelo, the youngest driver in the field at 17 years old, and perhaps the most unknown quantity in the field this season – in only his second year after graduating from a decorated career in karting.
DeMelo’s most prolific single-seater experience to date comes from a handful of races across the three major Formula Renault 2.0 series, and several wins in the club-level MSV Formula 3 Cup, where he was the only entrant in his class for most of the time. Kaiser was the decisively quicker driver throughout pre-season testing, and should be expected to pick up the lion’s share of Juncos’ big results in what projects to be a much tougher sophomore season for the team.
Dale Pelfrey’s team acquired 8 Star Motorsports’ Indy Lights operation in the off-season, securing the team’s step up to Indy Lights after five great seasons in Pro Mazda and USF2000. They have a strong record in those series, with Jack Hawksworth winning the Pro Mazda title in 2011, and Urrutia winning it last year. In 2015,?Sean Rayhall emerged from relative obscurity to win two Indy Lights races for 8 Star in a limited schedule, so the team already has a strong foundation for success in 2016.
Colombian?Juan Piedrahita enters his third season with as many different teams. He secured his first podium finish in Indy Lights last year at the Milwaukee Mile with Belardi, but in six seasons in the Road to Indy’s series, he’s never won a race at any level, and has yet to finish higher than seventh in a championship table. This is most likely a make-or-break year for Piedrahita.
A second car is entered for Canadian?Scott Hargrove?at St. Petersburg, just as it was last year at 8 Star, when he finished fourth and sixth in his only two Indy Lights races?of 2015. For the second straight year, the former USF2000 champion and Pro Mazda vice-champion from Surrey, British Columbia is promised nothing after this first round, but Hargrove and Pelfrey are currently?working?to secure him a full-time deal for 2016.
Hargrove was very impressive at the final pre-season test at Barber, and given his recent form in USF2000, Pro Mazda, and even the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada that he’s dominated for the last two years, it?would be a real shame if a promising driver like Hargrove was relegated to “one-and-done” status again this year.
Pro Mazda and USF2000
Also kicking off their seasons in St. Petersburg are the lower Pro Mazda and USF2000 classes. The former isn’t particularly well-supported in terms of numbers this year, but there is plenty of quality. After helping Urrutia to the 2015 crown, Pelfrey will surely be leading contenders again after signing Weiron Tan (pictured above), a four-time winner last year. Patricio O’Ward is also back with the team – but only for two events at present – while Aaron Telitz steps up from USF2000.
The two men that beat Telitz in the lower series last year – Nico Jamin and Jake Eidson – also move up, both with Cape Motorsports. Juncos Racing have a strong line-up, keeping hold of Garett Grist and Will Owen and bringing in Jake Parsons and Nicolas Dapero from Asia and South America respectively. Telmex-backed Jorge Cevallos makes a comeback from health issues, joining JDC Motorsports.
The USF2000 entry is strong for the final season before a new car is introduced. Leading returnees will be Cape trio Anthony Martin, Parker Thompson and Nikita Lastochkin, as well as Luke Gabin at JAY Motorsports and Pabst Racing’s Yufeng Luo and Garth Rickards.
Victor Franzoni is back (with ArmsUp Motorsport) after a short Pro Mazda stint, as is Jordan Lloyd at Pabst (pictured below) after winning the Australian F4 title. Lloyd’s fellow Antipodean James Munro leads a rookie line-up at Pelfrey alongside Formula Renault convert TJ Fischer and F1600 graduates Jordan Cane and Robert Megennis.