Brabham reflective, focused heading into St. Pete Indy Lights one-off

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In theory, it all seemed so simple for Matthew Brabham. Win the USF2000 title. Win the Pro Mazda title. Win the Indy Lights title.

Then use the Mazda scholarships achieved from each of the three to easily progress into IndyCar, and the job was more or less done of advancing through the entire Mazda Road to Indy ladder.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

The only problem for “Matty Brabs” was that without the third, he not only didn’t get the opportunity to take his talent into IndyCar this year, but was left on the sidelines altogether except for a handful of appearances with Andretti Autosport in both the FIA Formula E Championship and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, heading into this weekend’s Indy Lights opener in St. Petersburg.

The Australian American prodigy didn’t enjoy the same level of success in Indy Lights he had the previous two seasons. As a result, he’s had to go to the well to learn about the value of building business relationships and finding sponsors to keep his budding career afloat.

“It’s been a different experience to say the least,” Brabham told MotorSportsTalk in the run up to the St. Petersburg.

“I’ve been spoiled in the States to be honest with you. Having the Mazda scholarship help has been great, but it almost made me relaxed. Now this new side, you have to push and work tirelessly to find the sponsorship.

“It’s a good and important life experience for me. At the same time this is good for my career and the business side. This has all been a big help because the business side has never been my strong suit.”

Indeed Brabham has spent this winter – the first in the last three years where he didn’t win the championship at the previous level – in a new world.

He’s still staying fresh and active, thanks to two appearances in FIA Formula E with Andretti when called up as the team’s reserve driver.

“You can’t try too hard at first. I learned that the hard way with the FE races,” Brabham admitted. “I was on it but overstepped it. It was a good experience, and now I’ve almost become a veteran at getting the late call-ups.”

That experience, plus keeping his face on site at both Daytona and Miami, has been critical to his getting to race at St. Petersburg this weekend in the No. 83 car.

Brabham re-enters a similar team environment. He’s working with his FE engineer in Dave Seyffert, and his former Pro Mazda teammate in Shelby Blackstock.

“We worked very well together in Mazdas and he’s really good at sorting the car out,” Brabham said of Blackstock. “We’re good friends. He knows how to nail down the setup. It’s good to get the Pro Mazda team reunited as the year was very successful for both.”

His first test in the new Dallara IL15 chassis came on Monday at Homestead, after previously doing simulator work this winter. Brabham expects the turbo on the new AER-powered car to be the biggest adjustment from the previous chassis.

“Quite honestly there’s not a disadvantage not being at the test,” Brabham said. “Right now I am relying very heavily on Shelby from testing. I’ve still been at the testing, onlooking. You gather info from that and that gives you confidence. You have to put it together with your own approach and theory, and take that into apply it at St. Pete. You just go with the flow.

“Yeah paddle shift and push to pass is there, but the hardest thing for me I think is going to be the turbo and how that works. Shelby’s commented on that a lot. I have been talking to my dad (Geoff) and he had the opportunity in the Nissan (GTP). It’s quite a handful, he said, dealing with 1000 horsepower and the turbo kicking in! This is less, but it will still be an adjustment.”

Racing at St. Pete keeps Brabham’s name active, and while a huge result is the goal he’s just as keen on ensuring he doesn’t drop off the radar.

“It’s been massive actually – being at these other races – and the reason I wanted to run St. Pete so bad,” he said.

“It’s so easy in motorsports to drop off the radar and be forgotten. You’re only as good as your last race, but you have to have a last race to start off!”

He’ll no doubt hope this isn’t his last race weekend, as he prepares for the weekend in the team’s second car as one of 13 entered for the season-opening doubleheader.

IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area.

The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full IndyCar season. The team showed improvement at Thermal, and Grosjean (who was fourth fastest on Day 1) said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”