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.”

Colton Herta, Bobby Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of Rolex 24 at Daytona overall win

Herta Rahal Rolex 24
IMSA, BMW Motorsport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though they have opposed each other in the NTT IndyCar Series the past four seasons, the Rolex 24 at Daytona union of Bobby Rahal and Colton Herta seems natural.

Bryan Herta scored his first CART victory with Team Rahal during a 1996-99 run before Colton was even born, and the ties built then

“It’s very cool,” Colton Herta, 22, told NBC Sports. “Obviously Bobby is a legend in the sport that I normally compete in in IndyCar, a three-time champion and won the Indianapolis 500 (in 1986). It’s really cool, and I’ve known Bobby forever. My dad drove for him in the ‘90s in CART and so that transpired into me getting to know him growing up, so it’s really cool and an honor to say you drive for Team RLL.

“We’re not talking about our Indy cars and setups and stuff. We’re talking about how we can make our sports cars faster that we’re driving that weekend. So it’s a completely separate thing, and honestly, I see it as a completely different sport in that aspect. There is no hard feelings over anything in IndyCar and we can just go racing.”

Rahal’s team is known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, but it’s branded as BMW M Team RLL for its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – signifying its status as the operating arm for BMW, which essentially foots the bill and calls the shots on car development and driver selection.

But Rahal, whose Hall of Fame career was launched by his sports car successes, plays a vital role as team principal. So it’s a special throwback to have having Herta in both of the team’s new BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes.

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“We, of course, compete against Colton almost every weekend in IndyCar racing, and I really wish he was with us in that series,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But he’s certainly proved himself to be one of the fastest guys out there and of course, his father was my teammate for several years. We go back a long way. So it’s really fun for me to have Colton with us. For both personal and professional reasons.”

This won’t be the first time Herta has driven a sports car for BMW Team RLL. He made six starts in the BMW M8 GTE from 2019-20 and was part of the winning GTLM team at the 2019 Rolex 24 in his debut.

With seven victories and nine pole positions through four IndyCar seasons, the California native has proven adept at getting up to speed quickly in whatever he is driving. Last year, a Formula One test for McLaren Racing nearly led to an F1 ride in 2023.

“And it’s not just speed,” Rahal said of Herta. “I think he brings a lot of good judgment. When he won the 24 Hours (in 2019), it was a horrible rain, and as an 18-year-old, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And really helped put us in a position to win that race. So he’s smart. He’s obviously very capable. And so he’s a plus for us to have.

“Having said that I would say all our drivers bring attributes that are unique. I won’t say our drivers are better than anybody else’s. Only the race will tell that, but I feel very confident the drivers we do have are equal to anything that’s out there.”

Herta will be teamed with Philip Eng, Augusto Farfus, Marco Wittmann, Connor De Phillippi, Nick Yelloly and Sheldon van der Linde in this year’s Rolex 24.

It’s an unusually long list of co-drivers because Herta is in a unique situation – listed as the fourth driver for both BMW’s No. 24 and No. 25 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category.

The step up from GT racing to the new premier hybrid class will be major for BMW, which will race a prototype for the first time in two decades.

But there also is special meaning for Rahal, who put himself on the map with an overall victory in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona (co-driving with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman).

“This was the biggest race I won at that point, and at a time in my career when it probably could have gone away more easily than continued,” said Rahal, who recently turned 70. “It was a nexus point at my career. We had a very trouble-free race. Great strategy. As a 28-year-old whose career was kind of iffy, winning this race was a huge turning point for me (and) very, very special and meaningful.

“I can’t think of anything better than if we start our GTP relationship with BMW on a winning note. For me, (GTP) is where we’ve wanted to be. We’ve always been a company that has raced for overall victories, particularly in IndyCar. We’ve had a long relationship with BMW mainly in the GT category, which has been a tremendous honor for us. We won a lot of races (in GT). Won Daytona a couple of times. Won Sebring a couple of times. So those are great victories and things we’re proud of, but for us now, we’re running for overall victories. We worked hard to get to this point and are thrilled to be partnering with BMW to be able to do that.”

Though the GT success provides a great foundation, the leap to prototype is a massive undertaking. BMW also was the last of the four manufacturers to commit to GTP, getting the green light in June 2021, five months after Porsche Penske Motorsport had been announced (Cadillac and Acura are holdovers from DPi, the previous premier prototype division).

Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M, has described the transition as “a GT is more of a bulldog, the LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches.”

Though it had the latest start among the four automakers, BMW has tested with furious intensity over the last several months, recently hitting Sebring and Circuit of the Americas.

Before getting 25 laps across both cars on the Daytona International Speedway road course in last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, Herta had a handful of days testing at Daytona and Bowling Green, Ohio.

The new hybrid system will put a complicated menu of buttons and options on the steering wheel that Herta still was digesting. The car is a high-downforce, high-speed car that bears some similarities to an Indy Car, and Herta does have prototype experience as the LMP2 winner at last year’s Rolex 24 (on a team with Pato O’Ward).

“I’d say the deceleration feels a little different,” Herta said. “The way the brakes changes throughout the brake zone is different. And that’s all done because of the regeneration, and it might regen more at the beginning or more at the later end of the braking zone. But it changes the balance and the way the brake bias is set. There is a little bit of an adjustment period, and you do need to be on your toes with making adjustments inside the car as you drive it. So it’s a little bit more of a handful initially when you get in, but once you get a few laps under your belt and understand how all the systems work, it is a friendly car to drive.

“It’s close to being representative with IndyCar lap times. I don’t think it’s quite as fast, but definitely a huge chunk faster than the GT cars. And a little bit more of a different driving style with obviously a lot more downforce and power.”

Known for being smooth, Herta and the rest of the GTP field will be extra careful about being gentler on the equipment while managing a track clogged by 61 cars with reliability at a premium. Parts supplies are scarce for the GTP cars, and there also are major concerns about the durability of the hybrid engines in their 24-hour debut.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really big endurance race and not a sprint race how this race usually is,” Herta said. “Even the DPis were so reliable, and you could smash the curbs for 24 hours and hammer the throttle, and you wouldn’t have that much of a worry of breaking or blowing an engine or a gearbox.

“It seems with this new formula, everyone is still getting to grips, so maybe reliability will be more of a key and a little more of what we’d see in the ‘80s and early ‘90s of it being more of an endurance race. But it’s still too hard to say. For sure BMW has had great success not only in IMSA but all around in sports car racing as a whole. It shows they have a program that’s capable of winning endurance races and at a very high level.”

Though Herta is uncertain how much time he will have in each car, BMW M Team RLL already has settled his biggest concern of ensuring his seat insert fits well in each car. The main challenge then becomes adapting with each car featuring distinct seat positioning and setups based on the other three drivers.

It also will be a shot at history. Herta is trying to become the third driver to win the overall and score multiple podium finishes with the same team in the top category (a feat also accomplished in the 1968 and ’70 races).

“It’ll be a good opportunity for me to have two chances at winning,” Herta said. “Not a lot of people get that. It’s going to be a really cool dynamic of being able to drive both cars. For sure, it’s a little different, but it’s part of the job. You need to be able to adapt very quickly. I really feel like that’s something that can be taught. You hop around in all these different cars long enough, you learn some tricks to get up to speed a little bit quicker. Hopefully that plays into my advantage, but it is a very exciting opportunity that I think will be very interesting to see how it goes.

To be used in each car, Herta will need to make a minimum drive time of two hours. Rahal views Herta as “an insurance policy to a large degree” if a driver falls ill or gets injured.

“There’s no question he’s up to the challenge,” Rahal said. “Colton’s a race car driver, and race car drivers want to be in the car. So I’m sure naturally a guy like Colton or any other would want to be in a regular basis on the starting rotation, but the way this race is and the difficulty, and of course these cars are going to exact more energy from the drivers than the cars in the past, I think he’s going to get more than his share.”

He also will be running wheel to wheel against familiar teams – Indy 500 winners Team Penske (Porsche), Chip Ganassi Racing (Cadillac) and Meyer Shank Racing (Acura) all have GTP entries.

Herta laughs about even competing against his IndyCar car owner, Michael Andretti, who just became a partner in Wayne Taylor Racing’s championship-contending GTP team.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “Not only do you have these great manufacturers but these amazing IndyCar teams. So it’s pretty cool to see the crossover. I know these teams are very well respected in North America and the manufacturers they bring are respected all across the world. It’s a really cool championship and really cool era of sports car racing that’s dawned here.”