Alfonso Celis Jr., previously a test driver in Formula 1, is set to make his Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires debut at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend.
The 21-year-old Mexican enters the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system after two years as a test driver with Sahara Force India, while also scoring a win, seven podiums and a pole on his way to third place in the 2017 Formula V8 3.5 Series championship.
Undergoing a career direction change is usually never an easy process. For Celis, it is no exception.
“To be honest, that was a really big decision in my life,” said Celis, who will drive the No. 7 Juncos Racing Mazda/Dallara IL-15 in the doubleheader race weekend at Barber’s 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham, Alabama. “I gave away the Formula 1 dream and even the F2 opportunities and everything, and I decided to come here because I see my future here in INDYCAR and I want to drive.”
Celis’ path mirrors that of Max Chilton. Upon leaving F1, Chilton elected to drive a season in Indy Lights in 2015 to learn the tracks and better understand the sport before ultimately finding a home in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The Brit is in his third Verizon IndyCar Series season and first with Carlin. The Indy Lights season, also with Carlin, allowed Chilton to learn many of the tracks – particularly ovals. Like Chilton, ovals are new to Celis, who ran a half day at Homestead-Miami Speedway during Indy Lights preseason testing in February.
“I have zero oval experience except half of (the oval test day),” said Celis. “That’s kind of like the biggest risk. I can’t just jump in an oval in an Indy car (because) I wouldn’t have done them (without Lights experience). That’s mainly it.
“You just have to be smart and, as I want to win, the way of winning is learning in Indy Lights and then get help from the series to be in INDYCAR.”
Celis sought out advice from countryman and former Dale Coyne Racing pilot Esteban Gutierrez, who moved last year from F1 to compete in seven Verizon IndyCar Series races, including two ovals. With a licensing issue keeping Celis from making his Indy Lights debut last month at St. Petersburg, Florida, he has leaned on Juncos Racing teammate Victor Franzoni for insight.
“I think it’s been more productive for me, learning wise, standing down (on pit road) than actually having tested the car because I’ve got so much information now,” Celis said. “I’m like a sponge, I’ve ingested everything.
“I think when you’re driving, you’re thinking about driving and the next corner, so you don’t see the big picture. I’m looking (at) the big picture. It’s been very, very helpful, actually. It’s comparable to having driven the car.”
Celis’ Indy Lights ride evolved from a successful 2014 test for Juncos Racing at Barber in a Pro Mazda car. Team owner Ricardo Juncos sees twice the benefit from signing Celis. He gets a talented driver and furthers INDYCAR exposure in Mexico.
“I think it’s massive and it helps everybody, not just us,” said Juncos, the five-time champion owner in the Mazda Road to Indy (three in Pro Mazda, two in Indy Lights). “He’s a fantastic driver, very talented. We tested him four years ago in Pro Mazda. He never drove the car before, he didn’t know the track at Barber and he sat P1 in the open test against lots of good drivers.
“I know his potential and I know how difficult it is to be really fast with the old car in Pro Mazda. The thing is, everybody should take this (example) and make something with it marketing-wise because it’s happening. People are quitting Formula 1, like this kid, to come to America because INDYCAR is growing. INDYCAR is the future.”
Celis will need to become accustomed to the Indy Lights car quickly this weekend. The series has a single 45-minute practice session scheduled for 1:15 p.m. ET Friday. Qualifying for Race 1 starts at 10:05 a.m. Saturday, with the race at 2:50 p.m. Qualifying at 9 a.m. Sunday sets the field for Race 2, starts at 1 p.m. Sunday. Most sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.
Santiago Urrutia of Belardi Auto Racing takes an eight-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward – also from Mexico – into the weekend.