Pop on your helmet, lock down that visor and cinch your belts tight, as the 18 race battle for the 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire title, $1million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship and three race Verizon IndyCar Series ride that goes with it begins right now.
AND, IT’S GOING TO. BE. AWESOME!!!
The top-rung of the American open wheel ladder has gone from eight car fields and life-support only two years ago, to what TSO rates as the deepest Indy Lights field since 1999, with at least a dozen drivers that could contend for victories.
So what’s changed? A gorgeous new Mazda powered Dallara with all the latest technology, a schedule that is more driver friendly, and most of all, a commitment to the kids who are the future of American open wheel racing by Dan Andersen and his Andersen promotions crew.
Of the 16 cars entered for the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Lucas School of Racing double-header, eight will be piloted by veterans and eight will be piloted by rookies. Of some note, only one of the past five Indy Lights champions has been a veteran, with Gabby Chaves winning the title as a sophomore in 2014.
The larger fields could certainly play a larger role in deciding the 2016 Champion. In the past five seasons, a poor finish caused by a mistake, generally wouldn’t make or break your championship. But with more cars on the grid, poor finishes will be amplified more than ever, and while one DNF might not kill your season, more than one will put a serious dent in any driver’s championship plans. Watch for the more experienced and mature drivers to manage their results and maximize their points.
This year’s pair of races will be the 17th and 18th that have been contested on the Streets of St. Petersburg. Previous winners include: current Indy Lights driver Ed Jones, IndyCar star Marco Andretti who won the inaugural Indy Lights race in 2005, current IndyCar drivers Jack Hawksworth and Josef Newgarden, and Rafa Matos, who’s three wins top the St. Pete win chart.
Current Indy Lights teams with wins at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg include: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (7 victories), Andretti Autosport (3 victories) and Carlin (2 victories).
Does winning the season opening race at St. Petersburg matter? Not really. Of the seven times that Indy Lights has opened up on the shores of Tampa Bay, the winner of the inaugural race has gone on to win the season championship three times.
TSO’s (Steve) predictions:
- Number of different race winners: 8
- Number of drivers with a chance to win the title heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September: 4
- Freedom 100 winner: Zach Veach
- Champion: a coin flip between RC Enerson, Ed Jones and Felix Rosenqvist
- Rookie of the Year: Felix Rosenqvist
After a false-start that saw three drivers make six forgettable appearances in 2012, Juncos Racing made a proper leap from their Pro Mazda success into the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship in 2015. Leap might not actually be descriptive enough. The two car team led by former driver Ricardo Juncos and technical director Ernesto “Ernie” Gonella vaulted into the 2015 Indy Lights championship when Spencer Pigot scored six wins and the championship in his rookie season.
Pigot, the recipient of the $1million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship has moved onto the Verizon IndyCar Series with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but Kyle Kaiser will return and will be joined by rookie Zachary Claman De Melo.
Heading into his second Indy Lights and fourth MRTI season, Kaiser will need to limit his mistakes to improve on his two podiums and sixth place Championship finish in 2015. Not known for mistakes prior to last year, and not certainly not lacking in race pace, the 20 year-old should find himself in the mix for wins and possibly even the championship in 2016. The Santa Clarita, California native has had past success on the Streets of St. Petersburg with two podiums and five top fives in six visits to St. Petersburg, so don’t be surprised to see the InterVision/NetApp/Juniper Networks sponsored No. 18 near the front this weekend.
At only 17 years age, Claman De Melo is the youngest driver in the field. The Montreal, Quebec native won numerous provincial and national karting championships in Canada before moving to Europe in 2015 for his first season in cars. De Melo gained plenty of seat time in Europe, competing in the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC, Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, and Formula Renault 2.0 Alps series as well as winning eight races in the MotorSport Vision Formula Three Cup. With the deep field, this should be a great year for De Melo to learn the North American circuits and grow as a driver. Getting accustomed to much higher horsepower and downforce while learning new tracks is a lot to throw on a young driver’s plate, but so far in testing De Melo has not set a wheel wrong. The pilot of the Ugg/Seven for All Mankind/Vince/ Vilebrequin sponsored No. 13 appears to be willing to take the wise route and work-up to getting quicker as each session progresses.
After persevering as a one car team in 2015, Andretti Autosport will be back in 2016 with a more traditional multi-car team. Shelby Blackstock returns to the Indianapolis based team in 2016 and the sophomore will be paired up with Andretti Autosport Pro Mazda veteran Dalton Kellett, and European veteran Dean Stoneman. The extra data provided by engineering grad Kellett and GP3/F2/WSR 3.5/GP2 veteran Stoneman should help move the team forward significantly in 2016.
Shelby Blackstock will be part of the Andretti family for the fifth straight season after spending one year in USF2000, two seasons in Pro Mazda and 2015 as the teams lone Indy Lights entry. The 26 year-old didn’t get his start in racing until after his freshman year of college and has a total of one win, and 14 podiums in 60 MRTI starts. Despite his late start in racing (and outside of a very tough Indy Lights campaign in 2015), the Nashville, Tenessee native has shown improvement each and every year and 2016 shouldn’t be any different. Blackstock, who will be piloting the No. 51 sponsored by Starstruck, does not make many mistakes, and despite a very deep field, it would not be surprising to see him contending for top fives.
Dalton Kellett, who had two podiums and 18 top 10 finishes in a two season Pro Mazda career is making the step up to Indy Lights in the familiar teal and black K-Line Insulators USA, Inc sponsored No. 28. The 22 year-old, who is a veteran of 58 Mazda Road To Indy starts, recently moved to Indianapolis, Indiana after completing a degree in engineering physics at the prestigious Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and will have racing as his sole focus for the first time in his career. The Toronto, Ontario native is a heady driver with measured race craft who often takes advantage of others mistakes. Don’t expect Kellett to contend for a championship as an Indy Lights rookie, but definitely look for him lurking right around the top five when the checkered flag falls.
The third member of the Andretti Autosport Indy Lights squad and pilot of the Stellrecht sponsored No. 28 is European open wheel veteran Dean Stoneman. Stoneman, a 25 year-old “rookie”, began his racing journey in 2006 contesting various Formula Renault championships before winning the FIA Formula 2 Championship as a rookie in 2010. Stoneman, who was signed to compete in the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 campaign was forced to withdraw after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in February of 2011. A resident of Southhampton, England, Stoneman took the year off of racing to contest the biggest race of his life, the one that saw him beat cancer. Stoneman tested an Indy Lights car for Andretti Autosport in 2012, but instead of making the move to the U.S.A. took to the water, dominating the P1 SuperStock Powerboat Championship. In 2013, Stoneman returned to cars, with five wins, 10 podium finishes and two poles in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB Series. A move back to open wheel cars and GP3 followed in 2014, where Stoneman finished second in the Championship to Alex Lynn with five wins and six podiums. Gaining Red Bull support in 2015, Stoneman moved to the Formula Renault 3.5 series where four podiums netted him a fourth place championship finish. If Andretti can make improvements in their Indy Lights program, Stoneman is talented enough that he should be contenting for wins and the championship. The only thing that might hold him back is his inexperience on ovals and having to learn brand new tracks each weekend.
European junior formula stalwarts Carlin didn’t waste any time making their mark in America with the trio of Ed Jones, Max Chilton and Nelson Piquet scoring score four wins, seven poles and 13 podiums during the teams debut Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire season. The Trevor Carlin led team has expanded to three cars in 2016, with returnee Jones joined by one time F3 rival and Indy Lights sophomore Felix Serralles and Mazda Road To Indy veteran, but Indy Lights rookie Neil Alberico.
After spending the first four years of his formula car career in Europe, Ed Jones will return to Carlin for a sophomore Indy Lights season and a chance to win the championship that the Dubai born driver missed by only 33 points in 2015. After three wins, seven podiums, three poles, 148 laps led and four quickest race laps in 2015, the 20 year-old’s quick but steady style might very well pay dividends in a larger field where minimizing your poor finishes will be the key to winning the $1million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship. The No. 11 sponsored by Jebel Ali Resorts and Hotels found victory lane twice at St. Petersburg in 2015 and Jones will be looking to repeat that feat to get the jump on his championship rivals.
Joining Jones in the Carlin brilliant blue No. 4 will be fellow Indy Lights sophomore Felix Serralles. The Ponce, Pueto Rico native got his racing start in the U.S.A. (USF2000 and Skip Barber), but in 2011 made the move to Europe where he remained until coming back to race in the Indy Lights championship for Belardi Auto Racing. The 23 year-old had an up-and-down rookie campaign that included one win, two podiums and more often than not, pace that did not equal results. The Milwaukee Mile winner has shown during testing that he is right on pace with Jones and if he can cut down on mistakes, should find himself in the hunt for wins and the championship.
All Neil Alberico, the third Carlin entry and MRTI veteran, does is win races and score podiums. Unfortunately, the Los Gatos, California native’s 10 wins and 21 podiums in 58 career MRTI races has netted him two second (USF2000 in 2013 & Pro Mazda in 2015) and one third (Pro Mazda in 2014) place championship finishes. Fantastic results, but not quite enough for the lucrative advancement scholarships. Fortunately for Neil Alberico, he has strong backing from Rising Star Racing and Doug Mockett, who have made it possible for the 22 year-old to make the jump to Indy Lights in 2016. So far in testing, Alberico and his Rising Star Racing/Penn Grade Motor Oil/ Mobe/Doug Mockett & Company No. 22 have struggled to come to grips with maximizing his tires while on a qualifying simulation, so his ultimate times don’t look quite as competitive as he would like. However, his race pace has been on point and while wins and a championship would be asking a lot from the rookie, Alberico should be expected to hang out around the top five all year.
Belardi Auto Racing
Belardi Auto Racing had a mixed results in 2015, but were still able to extend their consecutive seasons with a win streak to three, when Felix Serralles won the oval event at the Milwaukee Mile. The Brownsburg, Indiana based team joined the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire series for the first time in 2011, and won their first race with Peter Dempsey at the wheel of a thrilling Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013. The Brian Belardi owned and John Brunner managed team, who captured the 2014 Indy Lights crown with Gabby Chaves, has signed two highly touted drivers from very different backgrounds in an attempt to take back the title from Juncos Racing.
Joining the team, rejoining the Indy Lights series, and becoming an automatic championship contender will be Zach Veach. The 21 year-old has three wins, five poles and 10 podiums in two previous Indy Lights seasons with Andretti Autosport. The Stockdale, Ohio native was forced to miss a season open wheel competition when a potential Verizon IndyCar Series ride failed to materialize at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t keep busy. The avid rock climber contested an TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, served as an instructor at the MINI Performance Motoring School at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, drove an IndyCar two seater, and served as a driver analyst on the INDYCAR Radio Network (it must be nice to be young). Veach had a year of “rust” to shake off, but has quickly gotten his No. 4 Mazda powered Dallara up to speed. The combination of experienced veterans Veach and engineer Kent Boyer should contest for wins right out of the box in St. Pete.
Veach’s teammate Felix Rosenqvist is one of the more highly decorated European drivers that has ever made the move to the American Open Wheel ladder. The 24-year old is the reigning FIA European Formula 3 Champion. The Värnamo, Sweden native has 28 F3 wins to go along with his first (2015), second (2013) and third (2012) place championships. Rosenqvist topped the time-sheet in his first official Indy Lights test in the Karlsson Svensson Projekt No. 14 on the Miami-Homestead Speedway road course and finished second the recent spring training at Barber Motorsports Park. Street circuits can sometimes be a problem for drivers new to American open wheel racing, but that should not be a problem for the easy going Swede who has won the last two Macau Grand Prix on the very concrete lined Guia Circuit With what Rosenqvist has shown so far in testing, he should be an immediate contender for wins and one of at least six names mentioned as a Championship contender. So what “could” hold him back? Focus. Rosenqvist, who has been supported by Mercedes for most of his F3 career, was recently named a reserve driver for the German manufacturers DTM squad and will also team-up with former Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier to pilot a Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the Blancpain Sprint Series. Expect his manager and mentor, former F1, Indy Car and sports-car driver Stefan Johansson, to keep him laser focused on each different task.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
The seven-time Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship winning Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian will be aiming to win their first overall crown since Sage Karam won the title in 2013. With seven championships and 68 victories, the Indianapolis based team has set the standard in the Indy Lights paddock for over a decade. Leading the team as the only returnee will be RC Enerson. He will be joined by 2015 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire Champion Santiago Urrutia, GP2 veteran Andre Negrao and a rotation of drivers, beginning with Scott Anderson in the the fourth car.
Even though he just turned 19 years-old, RC Enerson will start the 2016 Indy Lights season as one of the early favorites to win the title. Enerson began 2015 on a three year Indy Lights plan to get to the Verizon IndyCar Series, but after exceeding expectations with one pole, one win and five podiums in 2015, don’t be surprised to see continued growth and a serious championship run in 2016. So where does Enerson hold an advantage over his championship rivals? On the high-speed left-turn only ovals. Enerson scored the most points of any driver on the three oval events in 2015, and started off 2016 by scorching the field during an open test at Phoenix International Raceway. The Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Lucas School of Racing is Enerson’s home race, and after being taken out in Race #1 and suffering a mechanical in Race #2 last year, the New Port Richey, Florida native will be hoping for a better start to his season.
In last year’s TSO Pro Mazda preview Steve predicted that Santiago Urrutia would be competing for top fives by the end of the season. Steve was just a little bit off. The 19 year-old Urrutia scored three wins and 15 top fives (out of 17 races) on the way to a convincing Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire Championship. Even though he is an Indy Lights rookie, don’t be surprised if the the Montevideo, Uruguay native is in the championship hunt as the season rolls into September. Mentored by former Verizon IndyCar Series driver Eliseo Salazar, Urrutia has been at or near the top of the charts at all three official series tests. The Mazda/SPM with Curb-Agajanian sponsored Soul Red No. 55 was second fastest on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course, second quickest at the Phoenix International Raceway oval test and topped the most recent test at Barber Motorsports Park.
Competing in Europe since 2008, Andre Negrao is an experienced driver that should provide a mature teammate to help push his two 19 year-old teammates to become better. The 23 year-old already has three seasons of Formula Renault 3.5 and two seasons of GP2 experience, and while his results weren’t outstanding, Negrao was always competitive with his teammates, which in Europe can be just as telling as overall results. After missing the Homestead-Miami test, the Campinas, Brazil native impressed in Phoenix (3rd quickest lap) and Birmingham (9th quickest lap – within a half a second of the top lap turned by his teammate Urrutia). If experience in high downforce, high horsepower cars counts for anything, it won’t be surprising to see the Novac Sports sponsored No. 17 piloted by Negao hanging around the top half of the deep Indy Lights field in 2016.
With 61 Mazda Road To Indy starts to his name, Scott Anderson is certainly one of the more experienced Indy Lights pilots. The 26 year-old will return to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian for a second year, and is expected to share the Anderson Podiatry Centers/Laser Therapy, Surgery and Neuropathy/Curb Records sponsored No. 77 with Heamin Choi and possibly James French. The Fort Collins, Colorado native is a steady and mistake free pilot who will have to show a little more pace if he wants to compete with this deeper Indy Lights field.
With the announcement in October that they would be absorbing the 8Star Motorsports Indy Lights program, Team Pelfrey became the only Mazda Road To Indy team that currently competes on all three steps of top level American open wheel ladder.
The Indy Lights program will be based out of the former 8Star Motorsports shop in Pompano Beach, Florida, while the Pro Mazda and USF2000 operations will continue to be operated out of the team’s current home base in Palmetto, Florida. Team manager Gary Neal, engineer Yves Touron and an experienced team of mechanics from the 8Star operation that won two Indy Lights races in 2015 have remained with the new organization and they should be competitive from the first practice in St. Petersburg. The team will head into the first race with Juan Piedrahita signed for a full season and Scott Hargrove signed for the first event.
Although Juan Piedrahita has contested an impressive 82 Mazda Road To Indy races across the three series, he is still only 23 years-old. The steady Columbian native who started his Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire career with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian in 2014, moved to Belardi Auto Racing in 2015 and scored one podium on the way to an eighth place finish in the championship. The driver who is popular among his peers, is always smiling and should be a threat to score top fives on any of the three ovals.
Scott Hargrove, who began the 2015 Indy Lights season with a one-off appearance at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with 8Star Motorsports where he ended the weekend with a solid fourth and sixth, will return for the season opener with the renamed squad. Hargrove is the 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda champion and 2014 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire vice-champion. The Surrey, British Colombia native could not find the funding to continue for the rest of the season in Indy Lights, but was able to keep himself busy by taking part in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Michelin championship. The 20 year-old has 13 wins in 18 races in the last two seasons of the popular one-make championship that utilizes the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. The pilot of the Gap Guard sponsored No. 3 was third quickest in recent testing at Barber Motorsports Park and should be a regular threat for wins and podiums if the funding for a full season can be found.
Weekend Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire schedule
- 8:50 AM-9:20 AM Practice 1
- 2:10 PM-2:40 PM Practice 2
- 7:55 AM-8:25 AM Qualifying
- 12:55 PM-1:45 PM Race 1
- 9:45 AM-10:55 AM Race 2
Don’t miss any of the action
- On TV – the broadcast will air Thursday, March 24 at 11:00 pm ET.
- live timing – Indy Lights
- on twitter –Indy Lights, Cooper Tire, Mazda Racing and TSOLadder
- via the Road To Indy TV app – Android or Apple iOS
- on all social media channels via the #TeamCooperTire and #MRTI hashtags
- on YouTube: