Alberico’s next step arrives, with Carlin, Rising Star in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

A Dubai-based Brit, a Puerto Rican and a Californian walk into an English pub.

OK, so it’s not a pub but it is an English team now competing in the U.S. (Carlin), but the setup for the joke is that the trio of Ed Jones, Felix Serralles and Neil Alberico sounds like an eclectic combination on paper.

Once the new Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season starts, they’ll be a powerful trio.

While Jones and Serralles head into their sophomore seasons, Alberico makes his long-awaited and deserved step up into Indy Lights, the final rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.

It comes after a five-year odyssey dating back to 2011, the first of two years when Alberico won the Team USA Scholarship (he also won in 2013). It launched him into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship in 2012 and prepared him for his eventual rise up the ladder.

Quite honestly, the luck or timing hasn’t been there for him. Alberico is arguably the most talented driver to have not won any MRTI title the last few years, having come up on the short end of USF2000 (2013) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (2015) titles in recent years. He won four Pro Mazda and six USF2000 races in those two years, and also won the 2013 Cooper Tires WinterFest title in USF2000.

Nonetheless, Alberico has soldiered on, thanks to Rising Star Racing’s support and a longtime friendship with Geoff Fickling, Carlin’s ace engineer.

Alberico, 23, who’s recently moved from Los Gatos to San Clemente, California, finally had the stars align with Fickling after a long courtship to drive for Carlin in Indy Lights this season.

“Since Geoff Fickling and I have been good friends for several years, between racing in America and with his being in California and a supporter of the Team USA Scholarship, he’s had his eye on me,” Alberico told NBC Sports.

“He’s moved around; at Pelfrey, he tried to get me there. Then he was at Belardi and I said, ‘Well, I’ll still be in Pro Mazda.’ So it’s been several years in the making.

“Last year, he landed at Carlin, and immediately introduced me to the team. I’d met Colin Hale (Carlin’s team manager) at Barber and they were curious. It all depended on money and if I won (the title), great, but it would take some work. Once the season was over, more serious conversation would happen.”

The culmination of this step up into Indy Lights comes after two years each in USF2000 and Pro Mazda, a similar path as taken by Spencer Pigot, Alberico’s countryman, Rising Star Racing teammate and fellow past Team USA Scholarship winner.

The Rising Star Racing component – the business initiative led by Art Wilmes to assemble partnerships to help further American drivers careers (more on this in a separate post) – was crucial to Alberico making that next step into Indy Lights, where budgets generally are just over $1 million for a full season.

“To be honest, we didn’t have the money (on our own) to do the full budget,” Alberico explained. “Doug Mockett agreed to fund a test day, and that got the ball rolling.

“Then there’s Rising Star Racing sponsors like PennGrade – their announcement helped make a bigger presence in IndyCar and throughout the sport – so that helps Spencer and I both.

“Both Rising Star Racing and Carlin have gone above and beyond to meet our needs and our situation we’re in.”

Alberico has had two tests, for a total of three test days thus far. The aforementioned first test was a private single-day test to get acclimated with the car, before the second test, a series test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in late January.

Inevitably, the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda took some slight getting used to but wasn’t that big of an adjustment.

“It’s a different driving style to get the most out of the Cooper Tires. There’s a smaller window to run a mega lap in Indy Lights,” Alberico said.

“The brake pressure, the bigger tire and more downforce all exist. You have to make sure you figure that out and be confident with it.

“There’s stages of learning before working on the finer details. Braking is one of them. It’s twice the horsepower compared to Pro Mazda. You have to be a little more gentle on throttle application. Stick to the fundamentals, and see what all the pieces are.”

Alberico noted how impressed he is not just with his teammates, but the Trevor Carlin-led organization.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself in terms of winning; that will come with time,” he said. “I have a really strong team with a good lineup, both veterans and both race winners. Arguably, we’ll have the best data. I think that’s a pretty good scenario versus a one-car team or having another rookie as a teammate. I’ll have some catching up to do, but I don’t expect to be off pace.

“Carlin; it’s really impressive what their resources are. I wouldn’t have signed if I didn’t believe in them. They have an incredible reputation.

“The general reason behind is that, they have a formula system built for success and for winning. That’s why it’s successful. Think of it as a business. It works because of the system to the product. It’ll do well. I think Carlin has that.”

Even though it’s a new team and a new series for him, Alberico still enters with an earlier deal than he did this time last year, when he started his second season with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda.

“Yeah it was tough last year to be honest. I knew the Capes and getting in, it was pretty fluid and seamless. But it couldn’t have been more than two weeks before St. Pete race we finalized the deal,” he said.

“Then the Capes rebuilt the car, we did Roebling Road and did a shakedown. That was my first time in a Pro Mazda car, just a week before St. Pete, since the last race the year before. It was months out of the car.

“This year’s different, and refreshing. You know you’ll get some oval test days. It’s early February. It’s a way better situation this year, and hopefully that helps out.”

Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing

Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.