New cars, new teams, new drivers and a kindled enthusiasm. There is a lot to be excited about as the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire series begins with the double header Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Peninsula Pipeline this weekend.
The brand new state-of-the art Dallara IL-15 is powered by a 450 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged Mazda MZR-R power plant, that also features an additional 50 horsepower push-to-pass. The dazzling new Motegi wheels will be shod with a “stickier” Cooper slicks and the whole package will be brought to a halt by PFC brakes.
The driver pool has never been deeper with talented returning drivers like Jack Harvey and Matthew Brabham, matched up against talented American rookies like Spencer Pigot, RC Enerson and Kyle Kaiser, and joined by European interlopers like Max Chilton and Ed Jones.
No. 4 – Felix Serralles – Belardi Auto Racing
2015 will be Felix Serralles’ seventh year of racing. The native of Ponce, Puerto Rico started his career off in the U.S.A. before spending the past four seasons racing in Europe. The Team USA Scholarship winner and successful Skip Barber racer moved overseas in 2011 to contest various Formula Renault series, before moving onto Formula 3 (F3) in 2012. The 22 year old completed a successful season of British F3, finishing in third place behind champion and fellow Indy Lights competitor Jack Harvey and ahead of Formula 1 rookie Carlos Sainz, Jr. The following two seasons (2013 and 2014) saw Serralles battle strong fields in the competitive FIA European F3 Championship. During that two year span, he captured two podiums and 29 top 10’s (most fields were 25+ cars), on the way to 11th and 12th place championship finishes. While that may not appear to be impressive to our American eyes, you have to drill down a little deeper when looking at the results on the European “ladder”. In each of his F3 seasons, Serralles handily beat his teammates, which needs to be weighted fairly heavily when judging talent. So far during pre-season testing, Serralles has shown top six speed on the road courses and was also the quickest rookie (oval) driver that tested on the 1.5 mile oval at Miami-Homestead Speedway. Belardi Auto Racing is one of the more experienced teams in the paddock and Serralles, coming from an F3 background, has a ton of seat time. Those two factors should meld together well and it would not be surprising to see this effort fight for a top six spot in the championship.
No. 5 – Juan Piedrahita – Belardi Auto Racing
Juan Piedrahita will be contesting his sophomore year in Indy Lights. Last year, the 22 year-old drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and this year he has made the switch to defending champions, Belardi Auto Racing. 2015 will mark Piedrahita’s sixth Mazda Road To Indy season. He has competed in USF2000 (1 season) Pro Mazda (2.5 seasons) and Indy Lights (1 season) and over that time has collected nine podiums and 17 top five finishes. His best championship finish is seventh, which he has achieved in all three series. So far in pre-season testing the Bogata, Colombia native has been in mid-back of the pack, except on the oval at Miami-Homestead Speedway, where he was near the top of the time sheets. Contending for top fives once in a while and a top seven spot in the championship would be considered a successful season.
No. 7 – RC Enerson – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
RC Enerson will be skipping a rung of the Mazda Road To Indy ladder when he makes the transition to Indy Lights after spending the past three years contesting the USF2000 championship. The 18 year-old vice champion of USF2000 had five wines, nine podiums and 11 front row starts, leaving him only nine points behind 2014 champion Florian Latorre. After his first two seasons, where he showed flashes of his potential the New Port Richey, Florida native made a big step in terms of “growing-up” during the 2014 season and from what he has shown during off-season testing, he is putting an even bigger effort into his first season in Indy Lights. Having experienced (and older) teammates like Jack Harvey and Scott Anderson will only hasten his development. Enerson should be expected to contend for podiums and will be an even money pick to win Rookie Of The Year Honors.
No. 8 – Scott Hargrove – 8Star Motorsports
One of two “one-off” deals for the two race Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Peninsula Pipeline, Scott Hargrove and 8Star Motorsports will be hoping a good result turns into more races. Owned by Enzo Potolicchio and based in the Miami, Florida area, 8Star Motorsports are making their first foray into the open wheel world after having success in sports cars. But with noted IndyCar engineer Yves Touron leading the way, the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep.
The 20 year-old Hargrove spent most of 2014 battling fellow Indy Lights driver Spencer Pigot, whether in open wheel cars or sports cars, the two seemed to be joined at the hip. Pigot narrowly came out on top in Pro Mazda, winning the Mazda Motorsports scholarship to progress up the ladder to Indy Lights, while Hargrove beat Pigot to the Porsche GT3 Cup Canada title. In Pro Mazda, Hargrove scored three victories, three poles and had the first or second quickest race lap in eight of 14 races. Hargrove made his Mazda Road To Indy debut in 2012 contesting a partial USF2000 season, and won four races on the way to the 2013 USF2000 championship. Due to funding, Hargrove has had limited testing, but the pairing have shown that they have meshed quickly, leading testing at Palm Beach International and running in the top three on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If, and that is a big if, Hargrove can put together a full season, expect him and 8Star Motorsports to contest for race wins and be in the discussion for a championship.
No. 11 – Ed Jones – Carlin
Fans of various Formula 1 feeder series certainly know the Carlin name, but it is a name that will not likely be familiar to North American open wheel fans. That’s about to change as Trevor Carlin announced that he will be bringing his championship caliber team to U.S.A. to take part in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire series in 2015. The team currently competes in Formula 4, Formula 3, GP3 and GP2. The 18 year old team has plenty of experience working with series partners Dallara (GP2, GP3 and F3), AER (GP3) and Cooper (Avon) Tires (F3). Conor Daly, Takuma Sato, Charlie Kimball, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden are just a few Verizon IndyCar Series names that have driven for the Farnham, UK squad.
The first of two drivers for Carlin is Ed Jones, who will be making the leap across the pond to contest the full Indy Lights schedule with the team he drove for in the FIA Formula 3 Championship last in 2014. The 19 year-olds season started off well when he scored two podiums and four top 10’s in his first two events. However, his progress was halted when he suffered a back injury during the event at the Pau street circuit event. The set-back cost him one-third of his season, but he was able to come back strong, scoring five top 10’s in the last third of the 33 race season. This will not be Jones’ first foray onto U.S. soil, as he took part in the Ferrari sponsored Florida Winter Series in 2014, scoring eight podiums, one pole and three fastest laps. In 2013, the Dubai, UAE born driver won the European F3 Open championship as rookie, even though he missed the first two races of the campaign. His impressive stats line included: six victories, 10 podiums, four poles, and three fastest laps. The former UAE karting champion also has experience in Formula Renault 2.0 and British F3. Jones and Carlin have both been impressively quick right out of the box during off-season testing, and if they can wrap their heads around street courses and ovals it would not be shocking to see them in the championship. That shouldn’t be a problem with experienced Indy Lights engineer Geoff Fickling manning the box for Jones. Fickling was engineer for Gabby Chaves during his Indy Lights championship season in 2014.
No. 12 – Spencer Pigot – Juncos Racing
Reigning Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire team and driver champions, Juncos Racing and Spencer Pigot will be making the move to the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire series as a pair. They will be joined by a familiar face, as Pigot’s Pro Mazda teammate Kyle Kaiser will also be making the jump to the more powerful machines.
Pigot, from Orlando, Florida won six races during his sophomore Pro Mazda campaign to secure a hard-fought championship over rival Scott Hargrove. The former karting champion, who just turned 21, also has two Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda vice-championships to his name. Pigot will have a familiar voice on the radio as he will be joined by his engineer from Pro Mazda, Ernie Gonella, who has been with Juncos racing since it was founded. Pigot showed during off-season testing that the team was quick right off the truck. It’s been said a lot, but there is no reason that he shouldn’t be contending for podiums, starting this weekend at St. Pete.
No. 14 – Max Chilton – Carlin
It’s not everyday that you see a former Formula 1 driver entered in a Indy Lights race, however one of the first Indy Lights (at the time American Racing Series) stars was former Theodore Racing Team driver Tommy Byrne, who won ten races and was championship runner-up twice. Sorry, back on topic. The second driver for Carlin at St. Petersburg will be former Marussia F1 driver Max Chilton.
Chilton spent most of two seasons in Formula 1, and holds the distinction of being the first rookie driver to complete every race. Prior to Formula 1, Reigate, Surrey, England native spent thee seasons in GP2, highlighted by a fourth place championship finish in 2012 while driving for Carlin. Prior to GP2, 24 year-old contested two season of British F3. Originally announced at a test and development driver, it is yet to be seen how many rounds of Indy Lights that Chilton takes part in. He is also part of the factory Nissan LMP1 program, which has a conflict at Le Mans during the Honda Indy Toronto. Whether he only contests these two races, or takes part in more events it is great to see a big name in Indy Lights. If he were to contest the majority of the season, he should be in contention for race wins straight away as he and the team were blindingly quick in pre-season testing at NOLA Motorsports Park.
No. 18 – Kyle Kaiser – Juncos Racing
18 year-old Kyle Kaiser had a breakthrough season in 2014, scoring a victory and four podiums on the way to 6th place finish in a very deep Pro Mazda field. After a successful karting career the Santa Clara, California native made the move to cars in 2011 by competing in the Skip Barber Racing Series. That was followed in 2012 by a move to the Pro Formula Mazda class of the Formula Car Challenge, where Kaiser scored eight victories in 14 races on the way to a dominating championship. Kaiser’s engineer in Indy Lights will be experienced Verizon IndyCar Series assistant engineer Michael Armbrester. The IUPUI engineering grad has experience with KV Racing Technology, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and most recently at Dale Coyne Racing. If off-season testing is any indication, the two have formed an immediate bond that has paid dividends on the time-sheets. It should be another learning year for Kaiser but don’t be surprised to see him sneak up on some top fives.
No. 42 – Jack Harvey – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
The 21 year-old Jack Harvey scored four wins and ten podiums on the way to tying 2014 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire champion Gabby Chaves. The two drivers were also deadlocked with four wins each, so the championship was decided by second place finishes, which saw Chaves come out ahead. Consistency was Harvey’s strong suit in 2014. His worst finish was 5th and he completed all 567 laps the series contested. His impressive first season in the U.S.A. did not go unnoticed at home in the U.K., where he won the prestigious British Racing Driver Club’s Earl Howe Trophy for the best U.K. driver in North America. The Lincoln, UK born driver has been a winner in every single seater championship he has competed in. His racing CV includes two years in Formula BMW (8 wins), two years in British Formula 3 (8 wins and one championship) and GP3 (2 wins).
Racing Steps Foundation is a privately funded not-for-profit that provides young British drivers with finances and personal performance development programs. Founded in 2007 by businessman Graham Sharp to provide support for talent rich, but checkbook poor drivers, the Foundation currently supports drivers in karting, motorcycle racing and single-seater racing.
Harvey will be rejoined by Tim Neff, the engineer he gelled so well with in 2014. Neff has been with SPM since 2001 and most recently engineered Sage Karam to the Indy Lights title in 2013. SPM with Curb-Agajanian hasn’t been the quickest team in pre-season testing, but with their engineering experience it’s certainly WAY too early to even think about counting them out. Harvey is still hands down the favorite to win the Mazda Motorsports Scholarship to contest three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2016.
No. 51 – Shelby Blackstock – Andretti Autosport
Early in the off-season it was not a certainty that Andretti Autosport would return to the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship. But the 2008 and 2009 Indy Lights champions made it official when they announced that Shelby Blackstock would be joining the team.
Blackstock will be part of the Andretti family for the fourth straight season after spending one year in Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda and two seasons in Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire. The 24 year-old who didn’t get his start in racing until after his freshman year of college is coming off two successful Pro Mazda seasons that saw championship finishes of third and fourth. In that two year span the Nashville, Tennessee native scored one win, 13 podiums and 27 top tens. If his mid to top mid pack pre-season testing times are any indication, Blackstock has continued his steady and measured growth as a driver. Top fives race results and a top seven championship finish would be a worthy goal and impressive accomplishment for a driver who got a late start.
No. 71 – Ethan Ringel – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
The third driver in the SPM with Curb-Agajanian stable is Orlando, Florida resident Ethan Ringel. After a successful karting career the 21 year-old spent 2011 competing in SCCA Formula Enterprise races as well as five F2000 Championship Races. In 2012 Ringel made the move to Europe and contested the entire 16 race GP3 calendar. Moving back to the USA in 2013, he made one start in the Indy Lights series at St. Petersburg with Team Moore. 2014 saw the Windermere, Florida native take part in the revitalized Atlantic Championship Series where he scored one win and seven podiums on the way to a fifth place championship finish. Ringel improved his times each and every session during pre-season testing as he continued to shake some rust off. This will a learning year for Jay Howard protege as he learns new tracks and ovals.
No. 77 – Scott Anderson – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
The fourth driver in the SPM with Curb-Agajanian stable, 24 year old Scott Anderson had an “interesting” debut in Indy Lights with Fan Force United in 2014. But he showed a lot of perseverance after a scary crash in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida. Anderson bounced back with two top 5’s for the under-funded FFU effort. After a successful karting career the Fort Collins, Colorado moved onto SCCA Spec Racer Ford and Late Model racing before making the jump to Skip Barber in 2009. His time in “Skippy” saw him win one Winter Tour Championship, one Western Series Championship and in 2011, he was the Skip Barber National Champion. Using the MazdaSpeed scholarship that came with that victory, Anderson made the move to the Mazda Road To Indy. In 2012, he scored two wins and six podiums on the way to a 3rd place Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda championship finish while driving for Belardi Auto Racing. A jump up the ladder to Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire with Juncos Racing in 2013, saw Anderson score one podium and seven top 5’s on the way to a 5th place championship finish. Anderson could surprise some people if they only consider his Indy Lights results from last year. A steady driver that doesn’t make many mistakes, Anderson’s times from testing have been in the same time-zone as the rest of his SPM teammates.
No. 83 – Matthew Brabham – Andretti Autosport
The second “one-off” driver for the Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Peninsula Pipeline will be piloting the familiar familial No. 83 for Andretti Autosport. The third generation didn’t have a ride until ten days ago and isn’t sure when he’ll be in a car again, and admitted that he had it easy (winning two consecutive Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarships) up until this point. The 21 year-old will be in a comfortable setting having driven for the Indianapolis based Andretti squad in Indy Lights (2014) and Pro Mazda (2013). The 2012 USF2000 and 2013 Pro Mazda champ struggled (for him) with results last year, scoring one win and three podiums on his way to fourth in the Indy Lights championship. The dual Australian/American citizen only had one opportunity to test the new Mazda powered IL-15, but rust shouldn’t be a problem since he has been testing and racing in the Andretti Autosport FIA Formula E program. Brabham needs to drive within himself at St. Pete and allow the results come to him. Two top fives would go along way to showing potential sponsors that he could be a championship contender.
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