Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.
“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”
“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”
The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.
Mikhail Aleshin’s time with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for 2017 has come to an end, the team confirming on Saturday that Aleshin will miss the final four races of the season.
In a statement, SPM said Aleshin will focus instead on the development of SMP Racing’s LMP1 prototype. He’d been confirmed to do that this year anyway, but this now sees his IndyCar time with the team at an end.
No replacement driver was listed. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at the Toronto weekend while Robert Wickens ran on Friday at Road America, owing to Aleshin’s immigration issues.
The release, posted on social media, is below; Aleshin later posted a statement himself.
Likable Colombian Sebastian Saavedra made what felt like an eighth different comeback to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend – he’s had more comebacks than Cher and he’s only 27 years old.
And for the second time in as many opportunities this year, with a second different team, manufacturer, aero kit and type of course, Saavedra did exactly what he needed to raise his stock for a more permanent return to the series.
Saavedra was announced under cloudy circumstances for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda entry this weekend, as the team wouldn’t elaborate at first on Mikhail Aleshin’s absence.
But reports emerged over the weekend that this appears likely to be just a one-race sit down for the Russian, not a permanent replacement. Aleshin was on site at the weekend and still posting photos to social media with the team, which one doesn’t do if they’re to be let go.
Alas, for Saavedra, he faced a challenging situation regardless of Aleshin’s circumstances. He hadn’t driven on a street course in two years and the Toronto he last drove, in 2015, was a different circuit compared to the one he did this weekend. With the pit lane side swap and additional circuit changes, including new paving and other elements, it was always going to be a tough mountain to climb despite Saavedra’s parts of seven years and 60-plus starts in IndyCar.
Plus, compared to Indianapolis where there is a week of practice before qualifying – 30 hours – Saavedra would only have a pair of 45-minute practice sessions on Friday and then a further 45-minute one Saturday morning before qualifying.
Understandably, Saavedra was a bit off pace to start the weekend but he did nothing but improve from there. He was 2.8 seconds off P1 in first practice, and 2.1 down on teammate James Hinchcliffe, but those gaps dropped from there to 1.8 and 0.6 (second practice), 0.8 and 0.4 (third practice) and 1.0 and 0.6 (qualifying) respectively. His fastest race lap was only two tenths off Hinchcliffe, good for 15th.
In the race, from 20th on the grid, Saavedra was always likely to go off sequence and was among those who caught a break by the timing of the Lap 23 yellow. He’d pitted before the yellow and then leapfrogged into the top-10 following that caution when those who hadn’t pitted made their first visit to the pits.
Saavedra could have dropped back from there but didn’t, instead scrapping and fighting to hang onto a top-10 spot, which was always going to be an excellent result given the circumstances this weekend. He ran as high as seventh, matching his car number for the weekend.
Although he fell behind Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon in the final stages, 11th was still a very solid result for him to cap off the weekend.
“I feel like that is a very successful weekend in the books,” he reflected after the race. “I’m very appreciative of the whole Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization for taking me in and just making me feel like I’m home.
“I felt the same throughout the race and had a pretty solid car. We kept clean for the first stint, just tried to stay away from trouble, and when I started pushing, the car was there for me. Great strategy from the SPM guys and getting me out of those reds [Firestone alternate tires] and getting me some free time for me to do my thing.
“It played off perfectly with those yellows, and we managed to get in with the guys up front which changed the speed of the race for us. We had the car to do it. We’re proud of the pit stops, proud of the strategy and of course having a good car makes my life as a driver a lot easier.”
Saavedra adds SPM to a list of teams he’s driven for since 2010 that also includes Bryan Herta Autosport, Conquest Racing, Andretti Autosport, Dragon Racing, KV Racing Technology, Chip Ganassi Racing and Juncos Racing. Most have come in partnership with his longtime supporter Gary Peterson of Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc. (AFS), and the AFS signage was present on the red and black No. 7 car this weekend.
Peterson told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Dave Furst during the weekend that “sometimes I feel like a pimp” in trying to make opportunities happen for both himself and Saavedra.
But given how well Saavedra’s done in tough jump-in circumstances this year – at Juncos in the team’s IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500 when he drove well from 31st to 15th and now with SPM in this abnormal one-off drive, coming from 20th to 11th – he’s provided two glimpses at his potential as he looks to return on a more regular basis.
Toronto veteran Sebastian Saavedra has been called up to replace Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda this weekend, a surprise driver change ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).
In a statement, the team said Aleshin would be on site for support but would not provide any further comment at this time. The No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda will also feature AFS Racing branding and support, owing to Saavedra’s longtime supporter Gary Peterson.
“We welcome the opportunity to compete with Ric and Sam at a venue where Seb and I have had great success in the past,” Peterson said in the statement.
Aleshin was delayed getting to the last road course race at Road America last month owing to immigration issues, and Robert Wickens filled in for him in the Friday practice sessions. But Aleshin’s return occurred as of Saturday morning for that race, and for Iowa Speedway last weekend.
Saavedra, meanwhile, has one prior start this year with Juncos Racing in partnership with AFS at the Indianapolis 500. He’s also worked with the No. 7 car’s engineer, Blair Perschbacher, previously in his IndyCar career.
At Toronto, Saavedra has six past IndyCar starts from 2011 through 2015, with Conquest Racing, Dragon Racing, KV/AFS Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. His best finish is 15th in Toronto race two, 2013.
Saavedra also has three starts there in Indy Lights competition. He won from pole for AFS/Andretti Autosport in 2009 and finished second with the same team in 2012.
SPM joins Bryan Herta Autosport, Conquest, Andretti, Dragon, KV, Ganassi and Juncos as teams Saavedra, who’s still only 27, has driven with in his career.
Interestingly, Wickens was available as there’s no DTM race this weekend and the Guelph, Ontario native was home – posting training video from a lake in Muskoka on Wednesday on his Instagram page.
Keen-eyed observers will have noticed Aleshin’s car having switched from the full SMP Racing red, white and blue livery in the past, to a red and black Lucas Oil and ARROW livery this year for Aleshin’s car.
Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.
“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.
“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.
“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”
Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.
“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.
“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.
“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.
“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.
“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”