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.