Carlin Racing saw 2015 as the perfect opportunity to join Indy Lights, and that has upped the ante for everyone else.
The renowned kingmaker of European motorsport has arrived on U.S. soil to do business in Indy Lights. Carlin Racing, which fielded winning junior formula cars for drivers such as Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Rosberg, Will Power and Robert Kubica is planning to provide the same service on this side of the Atlantic.
And that, as much as burgeoning grid numbers, is a ringing endorsement of the newly revitalized Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2015.
“I’ve always had a fondness for racing in the States ever since I worked out there,” says team founder and principal Trevor Carlin, “and although I ended up returning to Europe, that affection for the American motorsport scene was still there. So I was looking for that moment where circumstance meets opportunity, as they say. Well, the business in Europe has gone better than I ever could have imagined before I set it up, and it’s solid and stable. That was the circumstance sorted out; and then when the new Indy Lights car came along, there was the opportunity. And so here we are.”
Since Takuma Sato won Trevor’s team its first championship – the 2001 British Formula 3 crown – 11 more have been earned by Carlin drivers. And it’s worth noting just how current and relevant the team is. Only last year, Felipe Nasr finished third in GP2, and this year he becomes a Sauber Formula 1 racer. Tom Blomqvist took second in the Formula 3 Euroseries and will race for BMW in DTM. And Alex Lynn, who became Carlin’s first GP3 champion, has signed with reigning GP2 champions DAMS Racing and has become test driver for the Williams F1 squad. The message is clear: Carlin graduates are heading somewhere.
“Well, certainly the idea behind our Indy Lights team is to do the same for drivers in America as we have in Europe,” says Carlin. “Racing is an expensive business, but the Mazda Road To Indy is about pushing drivers with talent, not necessarily money, all the way to the top. I like the system here, because IndyCar teams are a lot more amenable to actually helping their drivers find funding, rather than saying ‘Go and find this huge sum!’”
With 16 examples of the Mazda AER-engined Dallara IL15 expected to be on the grid for Round 1 in St. Petersburg, Carlin knows the competition will be stiff. To this end, he’s hired Geoff Fickling, who was race engineer for reigning Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves, and before that, Jack Hawksworth.
“We’ve leaned heavily on Geoff’s expertise,” says Carlin, “especially for the ovals. The first time I saw our car rolling down pit lane with the weirdest setup I’d ever seen on a Carlin car, I was nervous. When I saw them barreling into a turn at 175mph, I was even more nervous and had even greater respect for the mechanics. But, obviously, all the tracks of all types will be new to us, so Geoff’s going to be essential in getting us up to speed, and I have full faith in him doing that. He’s the right guy for the job.”
It seems reasonable to assume that Carlin will indeed be title contenders. Dubai-born Ed Jones has shown promise in junior formulas and has been at or near the top of the timesheets in pre-season Indy Lights testing, and although his teammate hasn’t been announced, ex-F1 driver Max Chilton has been helping Carlin’s test program and has been quick. Make no mistake, that second Carlin car is a good seat.
One of the team’s prime rivals will be a driver who won Carlin the British Formula 3 title in 2012, Jack Harvey, who this year heads a four-strong lineup at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Harvey was runner-up in the Lights championship last year, and therefore many people’s automatic choice as favorite, despite he and the team having to learn a new car.
But Chaves proved the quality of the Belardi Auto Racing squad in 2014, and his replacement at Belardi, Felix Serralles, is a fiery competitor who was a multiple race winner in British F3. Last year’s ProMazda champion, Spencer Pigot (ABOVE), graduates with Juncos Racing, and the guy he beat to the title, Scott Hargrove, has joined 8Star Motorsports, the stalwart sports car team having been lured to open-wheel racing by the Indy Lights makeover.
“Honestly, I think Indy Lights is going to be like IndyCar,” says Pigot when trying to assess his principal rivals in the season ahead. “From race to race, we won’t know who’s going to be strong, but we’ll have to assume everyone is! I believe that Juncos Racing is going to put myself and Kyle [Kaiser, teammate] in the mix at the front of the pack, but right now, I have no idea who we’ll meet when we get there!”
NATURE OF THE BEAST
Spencer Pigot on driving the Dallara IL15-Mazda AER
Juncos Racing’s Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot may be about to embark on his rookie season in Indy Lights, but he did get a chance to try the old Lights car before switching to his new mount, the all-new Dallara IL15. The difference, says Pigot, is huge.
“The engine is more powerful. It’s AER’s Mazda 2-liter turbo, with 450hp and 500 when you’re on push-to-pass. But its delivery is different from the old normally-aspirated motor, more like the current IndyCar engines according to James Hinchcliffe and Scott Dixon, and they should know as they’ve tried both. So that sounds like a good deal.
“The other thing you notice coming out of a turn is that the new car is lighter, so the power-to-weight-ratio is a big step up; it’s got a really nice kick to it, and I think that will make it more demanding. Obviously, Indy Lights don’t do pit stops so I think we’re going to have to really look after the tires, especially the rears. Again, that’s good prep for IndyCars.
“The chassis is a big step forward, too. There’s a lot more downforce so you can brake really deep into the corners, and where the old car used to have understeer, the IL15 is positive; it just goes where you point it.”
Given the new car’s speed on ovals during testing, tire management will be important there, too, says Pigot.
“I think you’ll see a lot of drivers win races by being smart as well as fast, so the 2015 Indy Lights champion will be ready to move up to IndyCar, for sure.”