Nico Jamin’s roll of winning has continued in the first of two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races at the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with his sixth win in his last seven overall starts between three series. This capped off nine sessions of activity for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires today as part of the Mazda Road to Indy Grand Prix Presented by Royal Purple Supporting the Lupus Foundation of America weekend.
Crucially though, this is the second win in his last three starts in Indy Lights, and will move him within a handful of points of his Andretti Autosport teammate, Colton Herta, for the championship lead.
The Frenchman dominated the 30-lap sprint race from pole in the No. 27 DuraMAX Powered by RelaDyne Dallara IL-15 Mazda, en route to his second win this season and third at the IMS road course. He swept the pair of USF2000 races in 2015 with Cape Motorsports, in a year when he won that series championship.
Jamin had to hold off a challenge from the surprisingly quick, and tenacious, Zachary Claman De Melo. The teenaged Canadian had by far his best day in Indy Lights to date, starting and finishing second although it was not as straightforward as the results would indicate.
Californians Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Neil Alberico (Carlin) were third and fourth on the day, after starting fourth and third, respectively. Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist completed the top five for Carlin for his second top-five finish this year.
The 14-car grid, which was already down by one with Pato O’Ward not appearing this weekend, suffered another hit before the race. Juan Piedrahita was unable to start after an accident in practice, which left Team Pelfrey without a driver and the field at an unlucky 13 cars.
Both Herta and Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) advanced four spots from sixth and eighth on the grid up to second and fourth by the end of Lap 1 after a rocket start.
At the end of the first lap, Jamin led Herta, Kaiser, Telitz, Alberico and Claman De Melo, who’d dropped four spots on the opening lap.
Dalton Kellett pitted on Lap 2. Despite improved pace in qualifying it has been a struggle for the Canadian sophomore to back that up with results thus far this year at Andretti Autosport.
The race settled into a quick rhythm over the first third of the race.
At Lap 10, the order was still Jamin, Herta, Kaiser and Alberico, with Claman De Melo having got around Telitz to get back into the top five.
On Lap 12, Nicolas Dapero went off course past Turn 7 at the Turn 8/9 back-and-forth complex. The Argentine rookie resumed after the delay. Meanwhile for position, Claman De Melo got by Alberico for fourth place.
The dramatic moment of the race took place on Lap 14. Kaiser made it past Herta with an aggressive move to the inside at Turn 10, and it appeared there may have been contact between the pair of Californians, that knocked Herta back. An opportunistic Claman De Melo also seized his chance and followed Kaiser through, to slot into third.
Herta’s plunge continued as Alberico got past him for fourth place on Lap 15. With Herta ailing, Telitz was able to get past him on Lap 17 for fifth, but the Wisconsin native who now lives in Minnesota fell victim to Leist’s advances on the same lap.
With his car struggling, Herta opted to pit on Lap 17. The team confirmed this was due to a right rear tire puncture, which was enough to drop him down the order and cost him a significant result in the process. He ultimately ended in 12th place.
After this stop, and into the final 10 laps, Jamin led Kaiser by more than two seconds with Claman De Melo, Alberico and Leist the top five. Telitz was sixth ahead of teammate Santiago Urrutia in the ARROW Electronics-liveried Belardi with SPM entry, Ryan Norman, Shelby Blackstock and Garth Rickards in the top 10.
On Lap 24, Claman De Melo got aggressive again on his former teammate at Juncos Racing, Kaiser. Drafting Kaiser, he got a run to the outside, and nearly chopped back across once he completed the pass into Turn 1. His pace was excellent so he set sail from there to catch Jamin for the win.
What seemed a certainty for the win became in doubt as Claman De Melo carved anywhere from three to eight tenths per laps out of Jamin’s lead, which had been north of 2.5 seconds but quickly dwindled to just over one second with one lap to go.
Jamin held off Claman De Melo by 0.8405 of a second at the finish, with Kaiser continuing his consistent start to the year. He’s finished no worse than sixth in any of the first five races, and this was his third podium.
Alberico banked his fourth top-five in five races with Leist continuing the good day for Carlin behind him.
Pro Mazda champion and St. Petersburg winner Telitz did not seem to have the pace today and was perhaps lucky to escape with sixth, ahead of Urrutia, Norman, Blackstock and Rickards.
With 10th place, USF2000 graduate and Mechanicsburg, Pa. native Rickards has his first top-10 in Indy Lights, completing a four-for-four top-10 day for Carlin and thus ensuring each of the 15 drivers who have started an Indy Lights race this year has at least one top-10 result.
After the race, Jamin admitted he was a bit nervous as Claman De Melo closed the gap in the final stages of the race. He had one close call as both he and Herta locked up into Turn 1 earlier on, but once Herta fell out he was a bit relieved. Jamin has been in the heart of championship battles with his teammates before – he and Telitz both drove for Cape in the year Jamin won the USF2000 title – and has a head on his shoulders to handle the pressure.
Claman De Melo said his race craft has always been strong but his qualifying hasn’t properly measured up. With second on the grid today, his first podium was the goal and was achieved. He said he is working well with his four teammates at his new team, and having switched from Juncos last year he is now meshing with the group he’s got now, as Alberico has aided his transition.
Kaiser drove another smart race. He hailed Claman De Melo’s race craft but both drivers admitted the Canadian’s pass for second was a bit risky, although it was pulled off!
The championship swing sees Herta’s points lead drop. Unofficially he has 110 points to Jamin and Kaiser’s 107 each. Telitz with 89 and Alberico with 88 complete the unofficial top five.
The second Indy Lights race of the weekend is in the 1:15 to 2:15 p.m. window on Saturday.
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