As the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires resumes action at Road America this weekend, perhaps its hottest driver is 19-year-old Brazilian native Matheus Leist.
The Carlin driver enters Road America off a strong month of May, in which he captured both his first podium finish (third, Race 2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and his first career pole and win (Freedom 100) in Indy Lights.
“I think we are working very hard this year, so the hard work’s paying off,” Leist told NBC Sports following his Freedom 100 triumph. “We did a great race at the (Grand Prix), I managed to finish third: my first podium. And now, I did my first pole position, with a track record, and won my first race, and the most important race in the championship. It was definitely a great month for me.”
Despite his youth and lack of experience, Leist managed to keep all challengers at bay in what was a dominating victory. And the race became all the more challenging when he faced an early restart after contact between Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett, and Ryan Norman, and a full slate of challengers were ready to slipstream by Leist if he made even the smallest of mistakes on the subsequent restart.
However, as he detailed, thwarting off challengers was made possible because the team prepared a car with a lot of speed in it, which allowed them to trim a little more downforce off the car to help with straight line speed, especially useful on restarts.
“I knew we had a great car, so we went in the race with less downforce than the other guys, which helped me to stay in front. After like 10 laps, I was thinking ‘I can definitely win this race from here,’” he asserted.
The success has seen those in the IndyCar ranks take notice of the 19-year-old. He was acknowledged during the public driver’s meeting for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and was featured in the parade held the day before the 500-mile classic. The success and acknowledgment from those at the highest level is somewhat overwhelming for the 19-year-old.
“Very grateful for everything that’s happening with me. I think this is one of the most important moments of my life. I just won a race in Indianapolis, such a big and great place, and important place. It’s been an amazing time with the drivers (congratulating me). I had a great time at the parade as well, so it was very nice,” he added.
Even better, he had his first test day in an IndyCar last week at Road America, taking over the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda usually driven by Alexander Rossi.
“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!” he said.
A champion of the 2016 BRDC British F3 Championship, Leist remains new to the American racing scene. But, as he explained, the influence of a couple heroes, chiefly Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan, has helped him transition.
“I have quite a bit of contact with Rubens. I used to have dinner with him. He’s a very nice guy with me, he’s always helping me. I know Tony as well, we raced in Brazil last year together in a go-kart race. He’s a guy, as well, who said whenever I want, I can ask him to help.”
And, while he admits Formula 1 was his original focus, Leist is happy to pursue a career in the United States with the Verizon IndyCar Series. “My first goal was Formula 1, but now I’m thinking more about becoming a professional driver than a Formula 1 driver, that’s why I came to IndyCar,” he finished.
Leist sits sixth in the Indy Lights championship, but only trails points leader Kyle Kaiser by 30 points as the series heads to Road America.
Tony DiZinno contributed to this report
Follow Kyle Lavigne.