Meet the Contenders: Matheus Leist

Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist made his mark in his debut season of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. With two races remaining, the teenager is in mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing and still has an outside chance of winning the championship for the Carlin team.

To say that this has already been an epic year for Matheus Leist might be an understatement. The 19-year-old Brazilian came to the United States after winning the BRDC British Formula 3 title, joining 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champions Carlin. A year after he took that championship, he lies fourth in the 2017 title chase, 48 points back, with an outstanding rookie season that saw him earn victories on two ovals, including the prestigious Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Add to that a test in an Indy car, and this has been a season to remember as Leist inches closer to his dream: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Leist might have been a new name in America at the start of the season but he was already well known to the Carlin team, having earned the British F3 title over Carlin driver Ricky Collard. With the team’s championship-winning driver, Ed Jones, graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series, Trevor Carlin’s eponymous team searched for a new driver to bring to the U.S. and looked no further than the driver who had cost them the F3 championship. Leist knew he had a significant mountain to climb with learning a new team, a new car and an entire series worth of new racetracks – in a new country.

Matheus Leist is one of three drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire title. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I knew a few of the Carlin guys from last year” said Leist, “so it was not hard at all to get used to the team. It was much more about getting used to the car, the tires and the tracks and just living in America. The team has helped me so much this year, to improve and to grow as a driver. I felt comfortable with them from the first day. It’s not just about the racing, it’s about being friends as well. I have a great relationship with my engineer Steve Barker and my mechanics Ryan Lall and Rob Hothi. We’re good friends away from the racetrack. I have a great relationship with my teammates as well. I live near Miami Beach, only about an hour from the Carlin shop, so I can go up to the workshop, hang out with them and do some simulator work, which is nice.”

The series schedule pushed Leist into the deep end of the pool at the outset, with his first race in America taking place in the narrow confines of St. Petersburg, Fla. Leist qualified a promising fourth for the opening double-header, but mechanical issues in both races meant he finished back in the field. He showed more form at Barber Motorsports Park, finishing fourth and seventh in the two races on the fast and flowing road course. He arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hoping to turn things around, but it was a well-timed conversation with Carlin team manager Colin Hale that really began to change his mindset.

“In the first qualifying session at the grand prix I was ninth and I thought ‘my God, I’m lost.’ Colin called me into the office and told me that he knew I could be up there, that I could be better than I was showing. From there, I did the fastest lap in Race One, qualified third for Saturday’s race and finished third to earn my first podium.”

Later that month came the series’ marquee event: The Freedom 100, held on Carb Day ahead of the Indianapolis 500. It would be Leist’s first race on an oval, but anyone who expected him to be intimidated could not have been familiar with either the young Brazilian’s demeanor or the oval aptitude of the Carlin team.

“It was so crazy, my first time racing on an oval. I remembered seeing interviews with some of the European drivers saying that they would never race on an oval, that it was crazy. It is crazy, but only a little bit! The first day at Homestead was a bit difficult but it was exciting. It was so fast and so fun. To be honest, after this summer, I’d rather race on an oval than a road course. That’s crazy.

“The car was just perfect that whole week at Indianapolis and I felt very comfortable,” Leist continued. “Everything was perfect. From the first lap of practice to the green flag at the Freedom 100, we did not make any changes to the car – it was just sit down and drive. I was very relaxed the morning of the race. I told my father that it would be a very tough race, because there had been so many passes in the previous years. I was on pole but I did not expect to be out front all race. And then I led every lap and won the race. It was just unbelievable for everyone, with all the people in Victory Lane. I felt like I was dreaming.”

With his Freedom 100 success fresh in his mind, Leist qualified a disappointing 10th for the second oval race of the year, at the .894-mile Iowa Speedway. In hindsight, his sudden appearance at the front of the field at the restart should probably not have been a surprise.

“The week before the race, I watched a lot of races from past years and everyone was saying that you needed to qualify up front because it was so difficult to overtake. When I qualified 10th I thought ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ I was trying to pass another car about 15 laps into the race and I couldn’t get by, so I tried the high line and it worked very well. Coming back to the restart after the yellow, I stayed high and overtook two or three cars in Turn Two. I figured out from there how to win and I think it was one of the best races of my life. It was really cool.”

Before Indy, Leist was 10th in the championship, 52 points out of the lead. But with the podium at the grand prix, the victory in the Freedom 100 and another win on the road course at Road America, Leist found himself in the thick of the title chase, up to second position and only 21 points out. Heading to Gateway, he lies fourth, 48 points behind. It’s a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.

“I was last in the championship coming away from St. Pete and it seemed impossible. I was still figuring out how to drive the car at Barber and getting used to the longer races, and everything changed at Indy. I started dreaming of the championship. I still think I can win, even though it is difficult. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season but I do think it’s been impressive, with the important races we’ve won – especially the two ovals. It doesn’t matter if we win or not, we’ve already done many good things.”

Matheus Leist leads the field at Road America (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Among those “good things” in 2017 was a test of Andretti Autosport’s Indy car at Road America in June. It was almost a surreal moment for Leist, realizing just how far he had come in such a short amount of time.

“It’s crazy to think about it. Colin reminds me that last year at this time I was driving British Formula 3 at Oulton Park, and this year I won the Freedom 100 and tested an Indy car! It was another dream come true for me, it was so amazing. I remember being young and my brother and I talking about IndyCar and Formula One and now I was driving one of those cars. It makes me want to move forward and do my best, to impress people so I can one day be winning the Verizon IndyCar Series championship and the Indy 500.”