Linus Lundqvist, a Global Racing Group w/HMD Indy Lights rookie celebrates his a dominant victory in the first race of the 2021 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

By Steve Wittich

It was a race of firsts for Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports and rookie driver Linus Lundqvist. It was a first Indy Lights event, a first qualifying session, a first pole, a first rolling start, and the first visit to victory lane after a dominant drive in their first Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race.

The 22-year-old is the reigning Formula Regional Americas Championship Powered By Honda champion and has now won 16 of 19 open-wheel starts in North America.

“This was the dream, to continue the streak from last year, but we knew how tough this championship has been,” explained the Swedish driver. “Looking at the drivers on this grid, it’s amazing that we were able to get the first pole position of the year and now the first race win as well. It’s my favorite position, to be in the lead and controlling the pace, but you’re still pushing because the field is trying to catch you. You always keep an eye on tire management and manage your laps to his – if there’s a restart, you have to have the tires to keep on pushing. It’s unfortunate for the team that David got taken out in Turn One, otherwise we could have had a good fight on our hands. That will have to wait until tomorrow.”

Rounding out an all-rookie podium was Lundqvist’s teammate Benjamin Pedersen and Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport rookie Devlin DeFrancesco. Toby Sowery (Juncos Racing) and Alex Peroni (Carlin) were the final two drivers in the top five.

The DirtFish/Bell Helmets/The Heart of Racing/Colibri Capital sponsored No. 24 of Benjamin Pedersen on the way to an Indy Lights podium at Barber Motorsports Park Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

“I had a good start, with Kirkwood on the inside, and sent it in a bit late and that momentum sent him into my teammate,” explained second place finisher Benjamin Pedersen. “I feel badly for him. He’s helped me so much in the pre-season and I was looking forward to racing with him. I just kept moving forward, trying to not make any mistakes but keep the pressure on Linus. What a start for this Global Racing Group with HMD effort, our debut on the Road to Indy and in Indy Lights. I can’t say enough about the series, how welcoming they were and how pro everything is. I’m loving every minute of it.”

Lundqvist joins current NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Felix Rosenqvist as Swedish drivers to stand on the top step of an Indy Lights podium.

Global Racing Group w/HMD is the seventh different team to win an Indy Lights race at Barber Motorsports Park.

DeFrancesco is the 15th Andretti Autosport/Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport pilot to stand on the podium at Barber Motorsports Park.

Sowery earned the single bonus point for setting the quickest race lap. The veteran’s 28th lap of the race timed at 72.7718 seconds over a second under the race track record set by Sean Rayhall in 2015.

The 2.0L AER turbocharged engines powering the baker’s dozen IL-15 machines were officially fired for the first time in a year and a half.

After a pair of pace laps, the front row of Lundqvist and Malukas brought the field to the green flag, with the pole-sitter arriving at Turn 1 first.

Unlike their little brothers, the USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 t the exit of Turn 1, Kirkwood’s right front wing made contact with the left rear of Malukas. The No. 79 of Malukas shot to the right and made hard contact with the tire barriers on the driver’s right.

Kirkwood was able to continue but needed to come to pit road for a new front wing. Race control deemed that the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion was responsible for the contact, penalizing him for avoidable contact. Katie Kiel, Peacock’s pit reporter, asked Kirkwood’s engineer Doug Zister about the contact. The multi-championship \ winning engineer thought that his driver was aggressive because of the difficulty of passing at Barber Motorsports Park.

“The start of the race was very unfortunate, just locked up,” explained Malukas.  “I’ve got to look at the video to really know exactly what happened. It all happened really fast. We damaged the wing so we had to replace that and the right tire was cut. We started from the back after the caution and got a couple of positions in the first couple laps, but it became impossible to pass really quick. I think after that we fell into a groove without push-to-pass with it not being available this weekend. I think it would have been a different story if that was enabled, but we did what we could. We finally got the car into a good window, now we just need to get positions.”

Note: TSO Ladder caught up with Kirkwood after the race, and he entirely took the blame for the incident with Malukas and felt terrible for the HMD Motorsports driver. He also noted that he made mistakes in his season-opening USF2000 (2018) and Indy Pro 2000 (2019) races before winning those championships. 

Malukas was checked and released by the INDYCAR medical staff and cleared to participate in track activity. In his interview with Peacock, he stated that he was fine, that the car had moderate damage, and that he wasn’t impressed with the rookie driving.

When the green flag came back out to restart the 30-lap race on Lap 5, the running order was Lundqvist, Pederson, Sowery, DeFrancesco, Peroni, Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport), Danial Frost (Andretti Autosport), Sting Ray Robb (Juncos Racing), Christian Bogle (Carlin), Nikita Lastochkin (HMD Motorsports), Antonio Serravalle (Pserra Racing), Kirkwood and Malukas.

On lap 8, DeFrancesco moved to the final podium position after Sowery got wide at the exit of Turn 6.

After ten of 30 laps, Lundqvist held a 2.7-second advantage over his teammate Pedersen, with DeFrancesco running in third. Sowery was running fourth, with Peroni, Megennis, Frost, and Robb all running within ten seconds of the leader.

With push-to-pass inactive for this race, Kirkwood struggled to get by Bogle, finally making the pass into the final corner on Lap 15.

Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti Autosport) and Christian Bogle (Carlin) battle for position exiting Turn 6 at Barber Motorsports Park Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

The gap between the distinctive orange liveried Global Racing Group w/HMD running one-two remained consistent over the next ten laps. The HPD/Global Racing Group/FX Airguns/Paytrim/JULA sponsored No. 26 of Lundqvist had a 3 second lead with ten laps remaining.

The closest battle on the track was between Andretti Autosport teammates Robert Megennis and Danial Frost for sixth. Their teammate Kirkwood was pressuring Indy Pro 2000 champion Robb for the eighth spot behind them.

After remaining consistent for the first two-thirds of the race, Lundqvist began to pull away from his teammate Pedersen. With five minutes remaining, his lead was 4.4 seconds and growing.

For the first time in the race, Pedersen was facing pressure from behind, with DeFrancesco less than a second adrift of the second-place runner.

The best battle on the track was between Megennis, Frost, Robb, and Kirkwood for the sixth spot with three laps remaining. The foursome crossed the finish line within 1.5 seconds of each other, but the positions remained the same.

Lundqvist received the twin-checkered flags 5.3 seconds ahead of his teammate, who finished 0.6 seconds ahead of DeFrancesco.

Indy Lights Grand Prix Of Alabama presented by Cooper Tires #1 (unofficial results)

1 26 Linus Lundqvist Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports 30 laps
2 24 Benjamin Pedersen Global Racing Group wHMD Motorsports -5.3517
3 17 Devlin DeFrancesco Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport -5.981
4 51 Toby Sowery Juncos Racing -7.7214
5 5 Alex Peroni Carlin -12.5337
6 27 Robert Megennis Andretti Autosport -21.6282
7 68 Danial Frost Andretti Autosport -22.9966
8 2 Sting Ray Robb Juncos Racing -23.3486
9 28 Kyle Kirkwood Andretti Autosport -23.456
10 7 Christian Bogle Carlin -30.1144
11 59 Nikita Lastochkin HMD Motorsports -30.6155
12 11 Antonio Serravalle Pserra Racing -39.4766
13 79 David Malukas HMD Motorsports -30 laps