By Steve Wittich
They are only digits, but there is no denying that the numbers that Kyle Kirkwood is compiling early in his career are spectacular.
The Andretti Autosport Indy Lights rookie went wire-to-wire in the first Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio, leading all 35 laps on the way to his fifth win of the 2021 season. The 2018 USF2000 and 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion has now stood on the top step of the Road To Indy podium 26 times, giving him an incredible win percentage of 63.4%. In addition, the Jupiter, Fla. native, has now won 52 times in North American junior formula categories.
The 22-year-old has now won all six of his Road To Indy races at the 2.258-Mile, 13-Turn Mid-Ohio Road Course, and ten straight F4 United States Championship, Formula Regional Americas Championship, USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and Indy Lights races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Mid-Ohio) dating back to 2017.
“After a not-so-great race at Road America, it’s nice to come back here and get a win,” said Kirkwood. “Mid-Ohio is one of my favorite tracks, and it’s nice to get the win here. We knew we’d been strong here after testing. That was a perfect race, though David really kept me on my toes for the first ten laps.
“As the track started gaining grip, I gained confidence, especially after I saw David make that small mistake. The Andretti cars have been on rails for the past four weekends, and we really had race pace today. I feel as though this should be our fifth win in a row, and to grab the points lead again after finishing 10th at Road America feels really good – everything’s clicking and I feel we’re back on a roll. We have some good weekends ahead of us.”
The win gives Kirkwood a two-point advantage in the fight for the $1,289,425 advancement scholarship.
The win is the sixth straight for an Andretti Autosport driver at Mid-Ohio, and the team’s eighth overall at the circuit, moving them out of a tie with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on the all-time Mid-Ohio wins list.
Finishing 6.8666 seconds behind Kirkwood was his Andretti Autosport teammate and fellow Indy Lights rookie Danial Frost, who stood on the podium for the second race in a row, the third time in 2021 and the 15th time in his Road To Indy career.
“We had a decent start and managed to get a gap from the guys behind, so it was just a matter of focusing forward,” explained Frost, who moved from eighth to fifth on the points table. “I did my best to get past Malukas, but then he made a small mistake, and I got the position. I’m quite happy. I think that was the maximum we could get today. The charge on Kyle was going to be difficult because we were already a distance behind him. But I’m starting on pole tomorrow, and it’s hard to pass here, so I think we have a good chance. But congratulations to Kyle on the win today.”
Standing on the podium for the eighth time this season was David Malukas (HMD Motorsports), who survived a wild ride at the exit of Turn 9, leaving the Chicago, Ill. native in second place in the championship.
After a pair of laps behind the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires pace car, the front row of Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti Autosport) and David Malukas (HMD Motorsports) brought the field to the green flag on the front straight.
Kirkwood’s advantage when he punched off in the start zone wasn’t enough that Malukas wasn’t able to go side-by-side through Turn 1. In Turn 2, Malukas took a look around the outside of Kirkwood but could not make that move stick.
“I know, I couldn’t believe it, exclaimed Malukas to TSO Ladder regarding his race start. “When we went into (Turn) 1, we were side-by-side, and I was jumping in the seat (cue Malukas making the universal sign for go faster, go faster) and saying ‘let’s go!’
“I put him under pressure into Turn 1, but my whole plan was to brake early and try and get a run into Turn 2. I had to take the outside line, but man, the line here is so thin. When I went wide, I had no grip at all.
“So, going into (Turn) 4, it was too late. If you can’t get it done by Turn 4, it’s just sit back and relax and enjoy. The track was tough the first couple of laps, the car was all over the place, left and right. The first lap was not easy.”
Behind the leaders on the first lap, Megennis dropped his right-side tires off the track after being crowded by Toby Sowery (Juncos Racing), kicking up a dust storm and allowing the No. 51 to gain an advantage.
At the end of the first lap, the running order was Kirkwood, Malukas, Frost, Linus Lundqvist (Global Racing Group w/HMD), Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Benjamin Pedersen (Global Racing Group w/HMD), Sowery, Megennis, Alex Peroni (Carlin), Sting Ray Robb (Juncos Racing), Christian Bogle (Carlin), Nikita Lastochkin (HMD Motorsports) and Antonio Serravalle (Pserra Racing).
The biggest gainer on the first lap was Juncos Racing veteran Toby Sowery, who moved up to seventh from his ninth-place starting spot. His teammate, Sting Ray Robb, lost three spots, dropping from this seventh place starting spot to 10th.
After five laps, Kirkwood’s lead over Malukas was only 0.8 seconds, still within the push-to-pass range. Frost, who won the pole for Race #2, was just outside one second in the final podium spot. Rounding out the top five were Lundqvist and DeFrancesco.
On Lap 11, Malukas missed the apex in the tricky and fast Turn 9, going for a wild ride through the grass at the corner exit.
That allowed Frost to move into second, with Malukas dropping one spot, quickly facing pressure from his teammate Lundqvist. However, Malukas held off the orange and black No. 26, pulling out of the push-to-pass range within two laps.
When he was shown the crossed flags, Kirkwood’s lead over Frost was a comfortable 4.2 seconds over his teammate Frost. Frost’s gap to Malukas was also over four seconds. There were three battles on 2.258-Mile, 13-Turn Mid-Ohio Road Course within one second; DeFrancesco was pressuring Lundqvist for fourth, Sowery was pressuring Pedersen for sixth, and Robb was pressuring Boggle.
Kirkwood’s lead over Frost as they began Lap 22 was just under five seconds. Malukas had lowered the gap to Frost to under four seconds but wasn’t closing the gap quick enough to threaten the Singaporean rookie.
On Lap 23, Serravalle came to pit road.
With ten laps remaining, Sowery took a look around the outside of Pedersen in Turn 4, but the rear of the No. 51 stepped out. The Cambridge, UK native saved the car, dropping behind the No. 24 of Pedersen.
On the next lap, the Juncos Racing veteran got an even better run off The Keyhole, getting further alongside Pedersen in the braking zone, completing the pass for sixth.
With six laps left, Pedersen once again found himself under pressure. This time, the Sailpoint/Sirius/Juniper/DataRobot sponsored No. 27 of Megennis was hassling the Danish driver.
Kirkwood’s lead over his teammate, Frost, was an impressive 7.1 seconds with five laps remaining. Malukas was within 3.5 seconds of Frost.
Further back, Sowery had pulled an impressive 4.7-second gap to Pedersen and was starting to put some pressure on DeFrancesco for fifth, moving to within a second on the white flag lap.
Over the race’s final quarter, DeFrancesco was also catching Lundqvist, finishing 0.7 only seconds behind the Swedish driver.
Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Race #1 Results (unofficial)
|1||28||Kyle Kirkwood||Andretti Autosport||35 LAPS|
|2||68||Danial Frost||Andretti Autosport||-6.8666|
|3||79||David Malukas||HMD Motorsports||-10.4069|
|4||26||Linus Lundqvist||Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports||-13.252|
|5||17||Devlin DeFrancesco||Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport||-14.0368|
|6||51||Toby Sowery||Juncos Racing||-14.6599|
|7||24||Benjamin Pedersen||Global Racing Group wHMD Motorsports||-22.067|
|8||27||Robert Megennis||Andretti Autosport||-22.6861|
|11||2||Sting Ray Robb||Juncos Racing||-43.244|
|12||59||Nikita Lastochkin||HMD Motorsports||-44.942|
|13||11||Antonio Serravalle||Pserra Racing||-6 LAPS|
Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Race #2 is scheduled to get the green flag at 10 am on Sunday.