Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion Gabby Chaves got his first taste of Verizon IndyCar Series machinery last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It proved a natural fit.
Chaves, the Colombian American who captured the Indy Lights title on a tiebreaker over Jack Harvey at Sonoma in August, sampled Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ No. 77 Honda previously wheeled by Simon Pagenaud. It’s his second open-wheel test this offseason, having also run the new Dallara IL15 Indy Lights chassis.
Immediately, Chaves, who was one of three drivers testing for SPM at Homestead (Rodolfo Gonzalez, Rocky Moran Jr.), was on pace.
“It being my first time in the car, I didn’t know what to expect,” Chaves told MotorSportsTalk at Road Atlanta this weekend. “But I got comfortable within the first few laps, with the team, the engineer … I felt right at home.
“It’s impossible to compare apples to apples, but we had a good reference lap from Simon, which was the fastest they’d gone there. At the end of day, we were quicker than that.
“We made good progress, good changes; the most important part was that I felt really comfortable. It didn’t feel like my first time.”
Chaves returned to the SPM fold after making his Indy Lights debut with them in 2013. While seeing some familiar faces, most of his crew were new including engineer Ben Bretzman, who has not yet determined whether he will move with Pagenaud to Team Penske or stay with SPM.
For Chaves, who lost out on the 2013 title to then-teammate Sage Karam, he described how difficult it is to make the jump to IndyCar, even with the $750,000 scholarship available to help in the budget-gathering process.
“Yeah man, what really sinks in, I didn’t realize how tough it would be to put together a season without the scholarship,” Chaves explained.
“I always thought even if I didn’t win, I would have a good possibility to move up. But now I’ve experienced how tough it is – even with the scholarship. It’s sunk in that I’ve won, and that gives me a much bigger opportunity to help me move up.”
Chaves will race at least the Indianapolis 500 and a likely partial season deal, while still working towards a full-season program.
Where is a question to be determined. Per the Indianapolis Star and other sources to MST, James Hinchcliffe’s deal with SPM is expected to be announced Tuesday, and assuming Mikhail Aleshin returns from his Fontana injuries, that would fill up SPM’s two full-season cars.
A potential third car for SPM could be an option – the team has run a third in each of the 2013 and 2014 Indianapolis 500s – or Chaves could work to bring budget to another open slot on the grid.
Meanwhile, in terms of his racing this weekend, he starred in his fourth start with the DeltaWing on the team’s home turf at Road Atlanta.
Chaves led a handful of laps while sharing the DWC13 coupe with Andy Meyrick and, ironically, SPM’s third driver in the 2013 ‘500, Katherine Legge. The team finished a season-best fourth overall.
“As a driver, anything with wheels I can get my hands on, I try to drive the wheels off of it!” he said. “This is one of those opportunities, part of a factory team, development project. We’ll look back in a few years and I was one of the drivers who helped develop that car.
“To me, it’s a huge opportunity to drive this car, and to be part of the Don Panoz legacy. He’s so well known within the motorsports paddock, to be affiliated with his project, means a lot.”
Chaves is working towards a return to the DeltaWing program for the endurance races in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup, which are unlikely to conflict with any IndyCar weekends.