Testing for the 2022 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season continued Tuesday, Feb. 1 and Wednesday, Feb. 2 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and the only thing predictable about the series remains unpredictability.
Thirteen drivers turned laps on the 2.258-mile circuit in Northern California that includes the iconic “Corkscrew” turn. A few takeaways:
Who’s the boss? Benjamin Pedersen of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports appeared to be the main man of preseason after leading both days of testing last month in Florida, at Sebring International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But after two days this week at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, it’s anyone’s guess who will be fastest when the season opens Feb. 25-27 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
2021 Indy Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires champion Christian Rasmussen was quickest Tuesday for Andretti Autosport, .011 of a second ahead of Pedersen. But Andretti Autosport newcomer Sting Ray Robb jumped to the head of the class Wednesday, .268 of a second ahead of Pedersen, with the top time overall from the test. Rasmussen slipped to eighth Wednesday.
Robb and Pedersen were the only drivers in the top five both days. Pedersen was No. 2 both days, while Robb was third quickest overall Tuesday before leaping to the top of the charts Wednesday.
Pedersen still has been the most consistently quick driver through four days of testing in January and this month. He led both test days last month and was second both days this week. That’s the kind of speedy consistency that wins championships.
Tight field: Just like at Sebring, there weren’t many gaps among a healthy chunk of the field at Laguna.
Just seven-tenths of a second separated the top 11 drivers Tuesday, with the gap growing to 1.3 seconds among the top 11 Wednesday.
At the sharp end of the field both days, just three-tenths of a second separated the top five Tuesday. That gap grew to eight-tenths Wednesday, mainly because of Robb’s outstanding lap that gave him breathing room from the rest of the field.
More than Abel: Both Jacob Abel and his family Abel Motorsports team jumped to Indy Lights from Indy Pro 2000 this season, a daunting task for driver and crew.
But if this test is any indication, both driver and team appear ready for the leap.
Abel finished an impressive fifth overall Tuesday, just three-tenths behind leader Christian Rasmussen and the mighty Andretti Autosport team, which has fielded the car for the season champion in the last three Indy Lights seasons. On Wednesday, Abel ended up seventh, nine-tenths behind Robb.
That’s an impressive start in Indy Lights for Abel, a 20-year-old sophomore at Butler University in Indianapolis.
The Force is with them: The Force Indy team and driver Ernie Francis Jr. are making an even bigger leap this season than Abel and his family team, but there also were signs of progress this week in Northern California.
Force Indy made its team debut last season in USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires, with African American driver Myles Rowe scoring a victory at New Jersey Motorsports Park. In December 2020, African American business leader and former racing team manager Rod Reid announced the formation of Force Indy with the focus on hiring men and women of color, including mechanics, engineers, staffers and drivers, as part of the Race for Equality & Change initiative from INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year, the team decided to skip Indy Pro 2000 and climb to Indy Lights with Haitian American driver Ernie Francis Jr. as it pursues the eventual goal of competing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Francis is seven-time Trans Am champion but only began open-wheel competition last year, winning three races in the Formula Regional Americas Championship in a car that has nearly 200 fewer horsepower than an Indy Lights car.
There were understandable growing pains evident Tuesday, as Francis was 2.6 seconds off the pace set by Rasmussen. But that gap to Robb’s leading time slimmed to just 1.4 seconds Wednesday. Francis was just nine-tenths of a second behind Hunter McElrea of Andretti Autosport, who ended up third that day.
It looks like it may be sooner, than later, for Francis and Force Indy to battle with the veteran teams and open-wheel drivers of Indy Lights. The learning curve is real, but it appears to be flattening with every session.
Up next: The countdown clock continues to click toward the start of a new era for Indy Lights under Penske Entertainment Corp. ownership, as the season opener is Feb. 25-27 on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.