Four Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires drivers took a step closer to making their dream of competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series a reality on Wednesday.
Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett, Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman DeMelo participated in a private team test at Road America. The 4.014-mile permanent road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is site of the next Verizon IndyCar Series race, the KOHLER Grand Prix, on June 25.
Jamin, Kellett and Leist drove Andretti Autosport cars, while Claman DeMelo turned laps in a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry. Per INDYCAR rules, teams can gain an extra test day by running an Indy Lights driver for at least as many laps as the Verizon IndyCar Series driver completes on the day.
Kellett drove an Indy car for the second time, collecting laps in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda. It was also the second Indy car test for Claman DeMelo, who drove James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Honda (shown at right).
Getting their first taste of an Indy car were Jamin, in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda, and Leist, in Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 Honda (shown above)
“It was amazing,” said Leist, the 19-year-old Brazilian fresh off a win in last month’s Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. “It was my first time in an Indy car and I felt really comfortable from the beginning. The team was just amazing. It was my first experience with Andretti as well, but very happy with the performance and I think we did a great job.”
Leist won the BRDC British Formula 3 championship last year and joined Carlin this season in Indy Lights, the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder system. He said the step up to the Indy car was significant, but enjoyed every minute.
“It’s not that much faster in a straight line than an Indy Lights car, but the cornering speed is just unbelievable,” said Leist. “It has so much downforce and it’s so fast through the corners. That is the main difference and it was a place I was losing time (compared to) Rossi. The team told me to believe in the car because it had so much downforce and it could get through there fast.”
Kellett and Jamin drive for Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights program, so their transition to the team’s Indy cars was seamless.
“The big thing with the Indy car is you have so much more downforce – the mid-corner speed,” said Kellett, whose previous Indy car experience came in a test last year at Watkins Glen International.
“What was kind of shocking was, we were talking with some of the engineers beforehand and looking at data. If you shift the speed curve for the Indy car down and overlay it on top of what the Indy Lights car is doing, the length of the brake zones and what you are doing, as far as the inputs, doesn’t really change much. It’s just that everything is kind of shifted by 10-15 mph faster.”
Perhaps the biggest positive for the 23-year-old Canadian was how his feedback on the car paralleled that of veteran Hunter-Reay.
“Seeing what I was doing, like the feedback I was giving on the car matched Ryan’s,” Kellett said. “So from my perspective as a driver, it’s definitely a plus as far as using it for next weekend at Road America with the Lights car.
“Track time is track time and that is always going to be a plus. The big thing there is getting some laps in a faster car, so when you come back in the Lights car, everything will be happening much slower.”
Jamin has already won two Indy Lights races in his rookie season and sits second in the championship. The 21-year-old from Rouen, France, enjoyed his first taste of the twin-turbocharged V-6 power from his Honda and raved how it navigated the 14-turn circuit.
“What caught me by surprise was that it was a lot easier to drive than what I expected, in terms of the drivability,” Jamin (shown at left) said. “The car is extremely smooth and handles the bumps a little bit better than the Indy Lights car, so I think in order to do a really quick lap is going to take more. It’s maybe harder to get to the lead, but it’s definitely a confidence-building car, I would say.”
Jamin turned more than 40 laps split over two sessions separated by a midday rain shower. He is confident the time in the Indy car will benefit his drive to win the Indy Lights crown this year.
“I think it can only be a help because … in only half a day working with the Indy car guys, I learned a lot,” said Jamin, the 2015 titlist in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, the lowest rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.
“I took in a lot of the experience. Also in an Indy car, everything goes much quicker, right? We were going about 10 seconds quicker than we do in the Lights car, so I think when I go back to the Lights car everything might feel a little bit easier and slower.”
As most drivers do when they first experience Road America, Leist raved about the track. He compared it to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and how much it reminded him of tracks in England. The newcomer to North American open-wheel racing would like to follow in the footsteps of other great Brazilians, including current Verizon IndyCar Series stars Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.
“It would be fun for me if I had a chance to one day drive with them,” Leist said. “They are getting old, so they will need to stop one day and I hope that I can be the next Brazilian driver to be in INDYCAR, to win races, win Indy 500s and win championships for Brazil.”
In addition to the Verizon IndyCar Series, all three Mazda Road to Indy levels will compete at Road America from June 22-25. To ticket information for the race weekend is available RoadAmerica.com. The KOHLER Grand Prix airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET June 25 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.