We’re halfway through Indy Lights’ return season, and there are four drivers who can stake a claim for the 2021 title. We run through how they’ve done so far and their chances of making it to IndyCar
This weekend marks the start of the second half of the Indy Lights season, with 10 races having gone by so far with winners from three different teams (of sorts) and a total of nine drivers standing on the podium.
The remaining five rounds includes three different road courses and the series’ only oval visit, and there’s talks that the grid could feature a 14th car soon too. Any new drivers will be unlikely to feature at the front, but how teams use test sessions and to some extent the races could turn around who has the advantage on tyre management and pace going forward.
As the current top four in the standings could end this weekend at Mid-Ohio level on points, it’s easiest to determine that these are the quartet that will continue to fight for the title. But don’t entirely rule out Andretti Autosport’s Robert Megennis and Danial Frost, who were two of the fastest last time out at Road America, and their stablemate Devlin DeFrancesco whose Andretti entry is co-run by George Steinbrenner IV and started the season with a double podium.
Key Average qualifying position (QA), Single-lap pace (AP), Laps led (LL), Formula Scout’s rating of likelihood to reach IndyCar (IndyCar chance)
Toby Sowery BRITAIN Juncos Racing
4th in standings, 171 points (1 fastest lap, 3 podiums) – QA 5.5, AP 100.569%, LL 2, IndyCar chance 47%
As the top two in 2019, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay, went on to IndyCar last year it made Sowery the highest-placed returning driver for the cancelled 2020 Indy Lights season and then the current campaign too.
He originally signed to race with Belardi Auto Racing, before the team closed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, then landed a seat at Juncos Racing and is the team’s lead driver by some way having scored close to 59% of its’ drivers’ championship points this year and also on average qualifying 3.6 places higher than rookie team-mate Sting Ray Robb.
However, Sowery has not yet mounted the title challenge that initially seemed to be on the cards. He started the season with a fourth place and his second fastest lap in the series, but didn’t make the podium until round three on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course. He was very close to pole in qualifying, but couldn’t rival HMD Motorsports’ drivers in race one.
In race two he also initially looked incapable of matching them, but strong tyre management enabled him to close in on the leader and he twice attempted to make an overtake for the win on the final lap, finishing just 0.0283 seconds short.
There was podium pace in Detroit, but Road America was Juncos’s weakest weekend so far despite Sowery briefly leading one race. He crashed out of the other, and he’s now 64 points off the championship lead.
It was a similar story in 2019, when Sowery also had scored 171 points at the halfway point and was 58 back, and while that margin grew to 119 points he did rise from fifth to third in the standings. So maintaining, or improving on his current points-scoring form could move him up a spot or two in the standings if one of the drivers ahead loses momentum.
Could he be champion? Robbie Buhl left it until the 11th race to pick up his first win of the season when he took the 1992 title, Wade Cunningham waited until the season finale (round 14) in 2005, and 1999 champion Orio Servia didn’t even win!
Linus Lundqvist SWEDEN Global Racing Group w/ HMD
3rd in standings, 227 points (2 wins, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps, 6 podiums) – QA 3.4, AP 100.368%, LL 63, IndyCar chance 87%
Only one of the circuits that Lundqvist has raced on this year does he have prior experience of, and this weekend’s Mid-Ohio round will be the only other occasion where he can bring experience to the table. Other than that, it’s all new to the Swede.
His dominant Formula Regional Americas campaign last year earned him his Indy Lights move, and that 2020 season was notable because of how Lundqvist mastered tyre management. Some of his consistent, but dominant, runs to victory were scarily good.
That has absolutely translated to Indy Lights, although there are still some rookie mistakes, and his qualifying pace has been remarkable too. Nobody has more poles than him so far, and he will probably be favourite to start at the front at Mid-Ohio.
What will hurt Lundqvist’s title ambitions is the double-header at the Gateway oval which awards more points than road course rounds, as he was no oval experience and neither does his Global Racing Group team. The HMD outfit it has partnered with does, but only twice with the Dallara IL-15, and has become such a potent 2021 force due to its use of road course test days.
There’s definitely a Scandinavian flavour in IndyCar right now, with Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist racing full-time and Kevin Magnussen cameoing at McLaren Schmidt Peterson. There’s also Rasmus Lindh, who will hope for sponsorship to get back into single-seaters after moving to prototype sportscars in 2020 rather than going against compatriot Lundqvist.
Kyle Kirkwood USA Andretti Autosport
2nd in standings, 227 points (4 wins, 2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 5 podiums) – QA 3.4, AP 100.314%, LL 105, IndyCar chance 93%
Formula Scout understands that while Kirkwood has tested in Formula E, Michael Andretti has already ruled out a move to his team there on the basis that he has an IndyCar future with Andretti Autosport already waiting for him.
The 22-year-old now holds the record for the most wins on the Road to Indy in its current form, and while unlikely, he could also break the same record for Indy Lights.
He’s the only driver to win both races of a round this year, while team-mate Frost is the only one to double up on poles, and he’s the form driver right now despite losing the points lead last time out in an issue-filled race he finished several laps down in. It leaves Lundqvist and his GRG with HMD team-mate Benjamin Pedersen as the only two drivers to have completely every racing lap so far.
Kirkwood may not be favourite for pole at Mid-Ohio, but few will look past him taking two wins now and then again at the end of the year. While he didn’t make the podium at the circuit as a car racing rookie in F1600 Championship Series in 2015, he finished second in all three United States Formula 4 races there in 2016, followed by a pole and a win in 2017, did the triple in both FRegional Americas and USF2000 in 2018, and decimated the opposition in Indy Pro 200 in 2019.
David Malukas USA HMD Motorsports
1st in standings, 235 points (4 wins, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps, 7 podiums) – QA 2.1, AP 100.050%, LL 130, IndyCar chance 63%
The surprise title contender of 2021 has upped his game again and again, and besides hitting a squirrel in Detroit has had a problem-free campaign that has deservedly sent him to the top of the standings and four wins at four different rounds.
That ability to be at the front every weekend has been critical, as his three poles have also come at different circuits and none of which he looked particularly strong at as a rookie (during HMD’s debut season too) in 2019.
The progress made in both one-lap pace and tyre management has also led to a few dominant performances, and if he can rival Kirkwood and Lundqvist early in the races on what is likely to be their strongest circuit, then he could force them into pushing too hard on their tyres and pick up a win at Mid-Ohio.
After that is Gateway, where HMD’s oval inexperience will be evident but also where Malukas has looked naturally quick in the past, and then it’s Portland where the teenager won while racing in IP2000. All the ingredients are there for him to still be the driver with the target on their back when it comes to the final two rounds, and then it’s just a question of how Malukas and his team fare in a title battle.
It’s a situation Kirkwood, Lundqvist and even Sowery are well used to, but it’s a new prospect for rising star Malukas and one that would automatically land him in IndyCar for 2022 if he comes out on top.