Just three years ago at Pocono Raceway in July 2013, Indy Lights had eight cars, and no immediate plans for a new car or a new management direction.
At the next race at Toronto, plans were announced for Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions to take over series operations. A new car, the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, was launched the following May and tested in the fall, ahead of a 2015 race debut. The support of Cooper Tires and Mazda has also been huge.
Now, 2.5 years later after the nadir for the series, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires enters not just with double the field to 16 cars, but with half of them as realistic win contenders for 2016.
Things are on the rise in Indy Lights and if you’ve still got the “yeah, but the car count is bad” jokes in the upholstery, then put them away. Chances are, you haven’t been paying attention.
This week marks the start of the Mazda Road to Indy season and without further adieu, here’s a look through the Indy Lights grid for 2016:
VETERANS: Kyle Kaiser, RC Enerson, Ed Jones, Felix Serralles, Shelby Blackstock, Zach Veach, Juan Piedrahita
ROOKIES: Zachary Claman DeMelo, Santiago Urrutia, Andre Negrao, Heamin Choi*, Neil Alberico, Dalton Kellett*, Dean Stoneman, Felix Rosenqvist, Scott Hargrove*
*Note: Choi, Kellett and Hargrove all have two starts or less in Indy Lights. The remaining six make their debuts at St. Petersburg.
The defending champion team has a busy year from an operational and organizational standpoint, as it breaks ground on its new facility in Speedway, Ind. while also continuing its six-car effort in the Mazda Road to Indy. The odds of a title are far better for Juncos in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires though, rather than in Indy Lights.
- 18-Kyle Kaiser: The 20-year-old American assumes team leader role with Spencer Pigot’s graduation. Looks to improve from sixth place last year. Should win his first race, and could contend for the title, but isn’t the outright favorite.
- 13-Zachary Claman DeMelo: The Quebecois rookie is only 17, with some F3 experience and a wealth of karting background. Has podium potential, but may find it tough to stand out in a deep field.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The most dominant team of the Indy Lights era has one, perhaps two title contenders in its four-car arsenal for 2016. The team has strength in numbers but with all other teams boasting at least two or three cars, it will be harder for SPM to lock out the top of the leaderboard.
- 7-RC Enerson: One of two preseason title favorites. It’s easy to forget Enerson is only 19, but has been a Mazda Road to Indy staple since 2012. Should win multiple races and boast the consistency needed for title success.
- 55-Santiago Urrutia: The Pro Mazda champion has impressed in testing and should win at least once. Must improve on ovals, where he struggled in Pro Mazda.
- 17-Andre Negrao: The Brazilian GP2 veteran has a good head on his shoulders and the potential to surprise, although it remains to be seen how many races he’ll do.
- 77-Heamin Choi: The Korean driver isn’t the highest-rated on the grid and will look to keep it clean in his starts. This car has been mentioned as a possible ride share this season, and Scott Anderson tested at Barber this past week.
After its incredible start and arrival to U.S. soil last year, Carlin’s only gone bigger and bolder for 2016. The Trevor Carlin-led team has one of the series’ top engineers in Geoff Fickling, and arguably the deepest driver lineup among the teams.
- 11-Ed Jones: The Dubai-based Brit, who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, must be considered the other of two preseason title contenders. Jones won his first three starts last year and seeks later season consistency to match his undoubted pace if he’s to secure the Mazda scholarship to advance.
- 4-Felix Serralles: Serralles has past team experience and flew mostly under the radar in 2015. He’s a good bet to finish higher than seventh this year, maybe fourth or fifth, and should secure his first road and street course win.
- 22-Neil Alberico: In a deep rookie class, where Alberico excels compared to Dean Stoneman and Felix Rosenqvist among others is with track knowledge. Needs to adapt to the Indy Lights Cooper Tires a little better. Another potential winner and a possible rookie-of-the-year, with a top-five championship finish a realistic target.
Andretti Autosport’s expansion from one to three Indy Lights cars is among the bigger changes of the offseason and one that should pay dividends.
- 51-Shelby Blackstock: Blackstock, 26, enters as team leader and should improve from 10th in points last year. The question is how high. Needs regular podiums and a potential first win.
- 28-Dalton Kellett: While not a world-beater, the 22-year-old Canadian is one of the smartest drivers in the series. Kellett is among the most experienced in the Mazda Road to Indy and seeks consistency, with the occasional podium thrown in for good measure.
- 27-Dean Stoneman: Along with Belardi’s Felix Rosenqvist, Stoneman is the wild card to watch this year. A true talent and a great story, the 25-year-old Englishman has only had sporadic open-wheel seasons in the last few years after beating cancer.
Belardi Auto Racing
The Brian Belardi-led team is consistently good on ovals but will need to measure up to stiffer competition on road and street courses. The driver lineup though should be an upgrade from 2015.
- 5-Zach Veach: After a year out of the cockpit, 2016 is very much a make-or-break year for 21-year-old Veach’s career. Smart, experienced and determined though makes for a good combo. I’d be surprised if Veach isn’t a race winner this year, although a title run would be a minor surprise.
- 14-Felix Rosenqvist: The 24-year-old Swede is one of the most talented Europeans to head to North America in some time. How he balances learning the tracks with adapting to the series, plus splitting his time with sports cars, will be the keys to his success. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win multiple races and contend for the title.
Team Pelfrey, although it’s the same name as its Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams, operates independently. It’s the former 8Star Motorsports team, run at the 8Star headquarters in Pompano Beach, Fla. and is led by Gary Neal (team manager) and Yves Touron (engineer), and now owned by Dale Pelfrey. A nightmare Phoenix test where two engine issues occurred hampered preseason testing, but resiliency is the goal for Indy Lights’ newest full-time team.
- 2-Juan Piedrahita: The 23-year-old Colombian is Pelfrey’s lone full-season driver and high on experience within the Mazda Road to Indy. Given the variables against him though, success might be harder to achieve.
- 3-Scott Hargrove: The 21-year-old Canadian has incredible upside and potential, having won a USF2000 title and nearly a Pro Mazda title. Confirmed only for St. Pete, Hargrove is this team’s best bet for success if a deal can be reached for him to see out the season.
Indy Lights has an 18-race schedule, with two races apiece at St. Petersburg, Barber, the Indianapolis road course, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Single races occur at Phoenix, Indianapolis, Iowa and Boston.