Two series have been rebranded, there are big names moving up and down the single-seater ladder, and the calendara contains new and returning challenges for IndyCar’s support series this year
Although IndyCar has grown in popularity worldwide over recent years, its support series haven’t always followed it on an upward trend. Indy Lights suffered from small grids and had one season cancelled entirely, the Freedom 100 race on the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval became a race of the past and the progression into IndyCar seats for the Indy Lights champions has become harder despite the long-running system of providing a handy scholarship fund.
That last point is on a lot of minds as 2022 champion Linus Lundqvist is without a drive, following the decision by the series’ new promoter Penske Entertainment to overhaul the scholarship and therefore not provide the cash required for the step up.
But there were positives to takes from Penske’s first year in charge, and heading into 2023 it is making more changes to bring the series closer to IndyCar, which it owns. The first, to end the long-running partnership with Cooper Tires and bring in Firestone, means the United States’ two top single-seater series now have the same spec tyre supplier.
This winter it announced a name change, with Indy Lights now known as Indy Nxt. Penske says the series is now “guided by an ethos” aiming to “relate to Generation Z [people born in the mid- to late 1990s and 2000s]”. But rather than grow its social media presence, as IndyCar did, it instead moved more broadcasting behind paywalls to match IndyCar’s television presence.
The positive mood in the paddock has proven to be well-placed though, as the grid has boomed for this year and team boss Michael Andretti told Formula Scout that “finally the IndyCar scene [has realised] how important Indy Nxt is to their future”. Several IndyCar teams now have their own young driver development programmes, and the Indy Nxt scholarship fund being changed again to guarantee $850,000 to the champion to spend on two IndyCar events in 2024 including the Indianapolis 500 and the rookie orientation tests at the IMS and Texas ovals.
So with these changes in mind, what and who should we be looking out for on the IndyCar support bill in 2023?
How Firestone’s tyres will change the pecking order
Teams got their first taste of the all-new rubber in a ‘private’ test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in January, and the feedback from what is considered a high-degradation track was that they have a very different compound to get used to.
HMD Motorsports’ Josh Green said the tyres deliver more grip at the start of a run, and don’t have an extreme drop-off on a short run, which suggests that drivers who push hard at the start of a race may not suffer as quickly as they would have in previous years. However the drop-off in pace from the tyre could still be huge once the tyre gets to a certain age.
With nine cars on the grid, HMD will have a huge amount of data to pool from and it already sounded like in testing that the team was making quick progress in learning the tyres. Andretti Autosport has a four-car line-up and no other team has more than two cars, so expect HMD to take the early advantage when the season gets underway.
The impact of grid growth
There are already 18 drivers confirmed for the 12-round season, meaning it could start with the largest grid in over a decade.
Three rounds take place on street circuits, and having more cars on track could lead to more drama. It may also be a noticable factor in the two oval races, as it’s unknown how drivable the tyres are on ovals, and could lead to more costly driver errors.
Having more cars on track will perhaps be felt most though in qualifying. HMD should be able to co-ordinate to make sure their drivers don’t get in the way of each other, and they will need to be on top of their strategy when it comes to drivers coming in and out of the pits as there are only so many cars the team can service or change the tyres of at once.
Utilising the tow at tracks with long straights will also be something HMD can put time into while other teams’ drivers may simply be looking for some space on track to be able set a flying lap without traffic.
Indy Nxt grid size
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After four years and three titles in Formula Regional, the Williams junior finally moves up the single-seater ladder. Some say she’s more than proven herself by now, but others think her time in W Series has posed more questions than answers.
For all that the all-female W Series did for visibility and providing seats for drivers without needing them to bring hundreds of thousands of pounds to race, the centrally-run championship’s reputation for actual driver development was scant.
Using a lighter steering rack than the standard one for the FRegional car left Chadwick in particular unprepared for when she raced in other championships in the same category, engineers who joined for occassional events found a lack of technical freedom as the series sought to have as equal machinery across the grid as possible, and after her first Indy Nxt test Chadwick immediately noted the “amount of adjustability within set-ups” after “being quite restricted” in W Series.
Her enthusiasm about all aspects of the Dallara IL-15 shows her willingness to integrate herself into its demands and find the way to be fast, and even if that does not translate into top results then she will still be bringing eyes from around the world onto the series.
“It starts quite top-heavy. St. Petersburg and then Barber, two of probably the tougher tracks on the calendar, but still it’s good to throw yourself into it and looking forward to that,” Chadwick shared when she announced her Indy Nxt move.
“The physically is definitely tough. The thing that’s the toughest part, or the biggest step up, is the duration of the races. I definitely feel capable for one lap, but now looking at 45 minutes to an hour is going to be the challenge. Something that I definitely feel is achievable with training.
“I’ve driven the car now enough to know what I need to do, and that’s where the winter is going to be busy. But still something that I feel capable of doing.
“It will change a little bit with the tyre change maybe, but it felt like the actual weight of the steering was quite a lot lighter than I’ve been used to, it’s just the fact that it’s quite busy.
“You’re fighting the car a lot, so general cardiovascular, things like that, is higher. So I’ve been working on that over this winter and will continue to work. Hopefully that’s something that isn’t an issue come the first race. And also actually worth noting, Andretti as a team have been super good in terms of trying to help me with steering wheel grips, things like that, they’ve supported a lot because my hands are smaller and everything so that’ve been great.”
The best way to judge Chadwick’s season will be against her three team-mates, who have varying levels of experience.
Andersen’s own series revamps
There was no indication that had Indy Nxt remained under Andersen Promotions’ control then any of the changes over the past 12 months would have happened. But IndyCar’s owner was exerting its influence regardless, so perhaps it was a direction the series was bound to be headed in.
However, nobody was expecting it to make similar moves with the two rungs below for 2023.
The collective ‘Road to Indy’ banner encompassing IndyCar and its three support series has now been dropped, with USF Pro 2000 and USF2000 existing together now with USF Juniors as the ‘USF Pro championships’.
USFP2000 was known as Indy Pro 2000 until last October, and the removal of Indy from its name is symbolic of the separation between the top two series and the ones that sit below it now. At the same time it highlights how interconnected the USF Pro series are, with all three actually using cars with the same underpinnings for 2023, but that runs the risk of each not having individual identities and USFP2000 and USF2000 sounding so alike in name that they can be mistaken for each other.
The 2023 calendar also moves USFP2000 away from IndyCar, with races at Sebring (for the first time since 2010) and a first-ever trip to Circuit of the Americas under the jurisdiction of the United States Auto Club. One of the two oval races is lost, and the remaining Indianapolis Raceway Park round continues to run as a standalone oval event.
USF2000 also heads to Sebring, as the expense of Barber Motorsports Park where USF Juniors will be supporting IndyCar.
Proven drivers choosing to race at a lower level
Having won the title in what was then a Formula 4-spec USF Juniors series last year, Mac Clark [pictured below] had a scholarship to spend on racing in USF2000 for 2023. The thing is the Canadian teenager, who was US F4 and YACademy Winter Series runner-up in 2021, has already shown he’s more than ready to race at a higher level.
Clark drove for DEForce Racing in F4 through 2022, and the team added him to its USF2000 line-up for the season finale. The James Hinchcliffe protege finished fourth on debut, then won his second race.
You can’t rest a case on one weekend in USF2000, but Clark also raced in FRegional Americas in 2022 and won on debut. Two more podiums put him sixth in the points, after missing a round, and only added to the impression he is a driver who deserves to be at the next level. As his 2023 focus is USF2000, with DEForce once more, he should be one of the title favourites.
On the rung above in USFP2000 is another driver who has already proven their abilities further up the open-wheel ladder.
Former Sauber junior Lirim Zendeli has signed with TJ Speed, which is debuting in the series with the cars previously campaigned by Juncos Hollinger Racing, and the 23-year-old German brings experience from FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2. The 2018 ADAC F4 champion spent two years in F3, where he claimed two poles and a win, then raced in F2 through 2021 before his budget ran dry with two rounds to go. Last year he made cameo appearances in both series.
Zendeli did a Super Formula Lights test in November organised by the Monaco Increase Management company that looks after his career and was also responsible for bringing Alex Palou to Indycar. That he and his management then settled on racing in America made sense, but to step down to USFP2000 with a debuting team is a risk that has to return a big reward.
Denmark, d’Orlando and Rowe do battle again
One of the most thrilling championship battles in all of motorsport last year was in USF2000, where Cape Motorsports’ Michael d’Orlando and Pabst Racing duo Jace Denmark and Myles Rowe had a close fight not just in the points table but also wheel-to-wheel on track.
Sometimes it got too close between them, but those incidents added to the drama of the rivalry and ultimately it was d’Orlando who triumphed with victory in the final race of the season.
Denmark and Rowe stay with Pabst for the step up to USFP2000, with Force Indy backing Rowe after Penske Entertainment provided the funding to keep him on the USF2000 grid through last year, and d’Orlando has signed with Turn 3 Motorsport.
Although there are the likes of Zendeli and returning race-winners Kiko Porto (DEForce) and Salvador de Alba (Exclusive Autosport), and even other overseas additions in GB3 runner-up Joel Granfors (Exclusive) and former F3 racer Francesco Pizzi (TJ Speed), there will be a lot of attention on the three USF2000 graduates after the show they put on in 2022.