SEBRING, Florida – Sebastien Bourdais’ potential Dale Coyne Racing teammate tested Bourdais’ No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda today at Sebring International Raceway and the one vacated this offseason by Ed Jones.
He logged laps, acclimated well and was pleased with his progress in these decidedly early moments of his INDYCAR career. Then he had some barbecue from catering trays along pit road.
The workload was manageable, though, considering that the candidate was actually two drivers of similar degrees of inexperience at the Verizon IndyCar Series level.
But in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires veteran Zachary Claman DeMelo, 19, and open-wheel prospect Pietro Fittipaldi, 21, Coyne had hopefuls competing aside each other who share qualities he covets for the team's No. 19 Honda in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season: talent, youth and the ability to cultivate sponsorship.
“We’re kind of seeing where they’re at,” Coyne said. “They’ve taken to the car well, so that’s what you want. Is the car intimidating to them or not? And it’s not. So that’s a good thing.”
Claman DeMelo tested the No. 19 on both Wednesday and today, while Fittipaldi assumed the No. 18 today after Bourdais departed to practice and qualify in the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race this weekend at nearby Daytona International Speedway. Other drivers remain as possibilities for the ride in the No. 19 car, Coyne said, adding he would prefer to split the series’ last available full-time seat between two drivers.
Veteran Jack Hawksworth was present at Sebring on Wednesday, but Coyne said the 26-year-old Hawksworth, who has one podium in 49 Verizon IndyCar Series starts from 2014-2016, won’t test with his team because “we know his abilities.”
Coyne said whoever fills the vacancy will contest both ovals and street/road courses. Claman DeMelo and Fittipaldi have each expressed such an interest. Coyne wants his lineup finalized before a Feb. 5 test at Sonoma Raceway – site of the final race of the season – and a Feb. 9-10 open session at ISM Raceway, which hosts the second event on April 7.
“Whoever is going to do those races, we’d want to know before we get to that,” Coyne said.
Claman DeMelo has one Indy Lights win – last season at Road America with Carlin – in 34 starts. He made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut at Sonoma last season, finishing 17th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Fittipaldi, who won the 2017 World Series Formula V8 3.5 championship, had already been scheduled for an Indy Lights test with Juncos Racing on Monday and Tuesday when the Coyne opportunity materialized. His two tests this week marked the first time the grandson of two-time Formula 1 champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi tested an open-wheel car in North America.
“It kind of came as a surprise, the opportunity,” Pietro Fittipaldi said. “I came just to watch the (Indy car) test and then we got the chance to drive the car. I was really happy. We found out last night. (Dale Coyne Racing) brought some seats. We didn’t have my seats. We didn’t have time. And then we got adjusted in the car. Steering wheel, pedals were all good. Then we went out today in the morning and really loved the car. I mean, that has so much grip under braking with the carbon brakes.
“It’s kind of similar to the World Series car I was driving, but this, of course, has more power. It’s sort of weird, like it’s a World Series mixed with an F3 car because you can carry so much speed into the corners. So I really enjoyed it. We’re testing the car, but of course my dream is to be in INDYCAR, in Formula 1. That is my dream since I was little.”
Fittipaldi said possible work as a Formula 1 reserve driver could constitute his contingency plans for 2018.
Coyne said he has fielded numerous inquiries since Jones’ departure for Chip Ganassi Racing was announced. He conceded that a combination of aptitude and financial backing will help formulate his decision.
Fittipaldi is a member of the Escuderia Telmex sponsor/management program founded by billionaire Carlos Slim to promote Mexican drivers. Though he races as a Brazilian, Fittipaldi was born in Miami and his father, Carlos da Cruz, is a Mexican cigar merchant.
Telmex orchestrated Fittipaldi’s move to open-wheel formula series in 2013 after he began his professional career in the NASCAR Whelen All-American series in 2011 because of more lenient age requirements and his affinity for stock cars because his uncle, Max Papis, was then racing in NASCAR. Papis is now an INDYCAR race steward.
Fittipaldi won a Late Models championship as a rookie for Lee Faulk Racing in 2011, Formula Renault in 2014 and Formula 2000 in 2015-16. He expected Escuderia Telmex to convene with Coyne after the test to assess mutual interest and prospects.
“It would be amazing,” he said of earning an INDYCAR ride. “I’ve watched several Indy 500s. Amazing race. If I can get the opportunity to race in INDYCAR, INDYCAR and Formula 1 is a dream. And today I accomplished one of my dreams.”