10.22.2015 – Despite the fact that we’re just over a month past the end of the 2015 Mazda Road to Indy season, ladder system addicts like myself are already focused on the excitement to come in 2016. There is a great deal of off-season chatter being produced for IndyCar’s feeder program as driver signings, advancement announcements and testing programs are keeping us on our toes, and the three different series in the media spotlight.
While we are all waiting in anticipation to hear confirmation that Spencer Pigot’s management team has secured season-long funding for his rookie IndyCar campaign with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, springboarded of course by the Mazda scholarship he earned by winning this year’s Indy Lights title, we’re also contemplating the players who will line up for the 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship battle.
After launching with a total of 12 full-time drivers for the first season of competition with the Dallara IL-15, Andersen Promotions will be hoping to see the entries jump by 25%, which would put the series at 15 pilots or more for 2016. There are enough cars out there to offer 20+ seats. The field was 75% rookies this past year, which could play into higher than normal returning numbers, providing a strong foundation. It will also raise the level of competition greatly as the sophomore drivers will all have a leg-up on their rookie challengers when we kick off the season in March in St. Petersburg. I expect to see three to five drivers advance from Pro Mazda, led by newly crowned champion Santiago Urrutia, and aggressive marketing of the entire MRTI program into Europe will likely leverage the recent success attained by Jack Harvey, Ed Jones and Max Chilton. Carlin’s connection to the European scene could fill their cars with new international drivers.
While we’ve only seen a couple official driver announcements for 2016, including Ed Jones returning to Carlin and Dalton Kellett graduating from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport, here’s my take on the potential landscape for the series next year.
EXISTING SERIES TEAMS:
JUNCOS RACING (2-3 cars)
We’ll start with the championship-winning squad, Juncos Racing. As a new team in the series, Ricardo Juncos’ drivers and crew turned in a remarkable effort all season, sweeping the third weekend of the year at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, the first of three dominating weekends in 2015. They entered two rookie drivers as well, one who would go on to win six races and the series championship (Spencer Pigot) and one who showed flashes of brilliance during a character-building season (Kyle Kaiser). With Pigot heading off to the Verizon IndyCar Series with his Mazda scholarship under his arm, Kaiser has been confirmed to take the team lead into his sophomore campaign armed with crucial experience and positive momentum after a strong weekend at the finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The team’s second seat will be sought-after for certain, and Juncos’ internal ladder system could provide Kaiser’s teammate from their Pro Mazda squad in the form of Jose Gutierrez and Garett Grist. I believe it would be easy for Juncos to expand to three cars, if the drivers were there.
Potential 2016 Team Drivers:
Kyle Kaiser – confirmed for 2016
Jose Gutierrez – the Mexican has tested the Juncos Indy Lights car and, after two seasons in Pro Mazda, is primed to graduate to the next level
Garett Grist – the Canadian finished strongly in Pro Mazda this year, winning three of the last six races – he is aiming for Indy Lights but could still return to his Pro Mazda team to continue his development
Santiago Urrutia – potential driver for Juncos armed with Mazda scholarship – however, SPM appears to be lead candidate
Timothe Buret – although we have not heard a great deal in terms of any pending advancement, the French pilot excelled in rookie Pro Mazda campaign with Juncos and is said to be interested in taking next step
SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS (4 cars)
As a multi-time championship victor, SPM has built a reputation for winning races and titles. They came so very close to the Indy Lights crown in both 2014 and 2015, and we all know that they will be in the fight again next year. The team’s most successful driver over the past two years is now totally focused on getting a ride in the big show. After two strong runner-up seasons, Jack Harvey is no doubt focusing all his efforts on graduating into the Verizon IndyCar Series for the 2016 despite ending his long relationship with his long-time backer, Racing Steps Foundation. The obvious team choice for the reigning Freedom 100 winner would be Schmidt, who could very likely put Harvey in the #7, or a third car, alongside the returning James Hinchcliffe. Regardless, we won’t see Harvey back in an SPM Indy Lights car in 2016, which leaves two open seats alongside RC Enerson and Ethan Ringel, who have both confirmed long-term programs with the operation. Both American drivers came to Schmidt in 2015 with realistic personal goals and long-term plans to develop. Enerson was the big surprise this season, emerging as a race winner and frontrunner for the title in 2016.
Potential 2016 Team Drivers:
RC Enerson – confirmed for a return in 2016
Ethan Ringel – confirmed for a return in 2016
Scott Andersen – I think that we can speculate that Andersen would most definitely like to return to the Indy Lights series and I’m hearing the team wants him back – he definitely turned things up at the end of the season, however, sports car racing is an option
Santiago Urrutia – potential driver armed with Mazda scholarship – will test with team on October 25-26 at Sebring – SPM appears to have the best chance to sign the young Uruguay pilot
CARLIN RACING (2-3 cars)
It should come as no surprise that talk in the racing community is that Carlin was very pleased with their first season of Indy Lights racing and is looking to expand its line-up to include three to four cars for the 2016 season. The team’s deep involvement in the European racing scene provides a solid driver pool to draw from, which could present an attractive re-direction for any top F3 drivers. Antonio Giovanazzi was the Euro F3 runner-up this year and he would be an exciting addition to the US squad. The team’s recent decision to end their GP3 effort also leans towards a planned Indy Lights escalation. Carlin has already announced that Ed Jones will return to the Lights squad in 2016, which will put them in the hunt for the championship from the get-go. The team also tested Milwaukee Mile winner Felix Serralles at Road America earlier this month.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Ed Jones – confirmed for 2016 (10-19-15)
Felix Serralles – tested with team at Road America
Antonio Giovinazzi – the Italian finished second in the Euro F3 series with Carlin this year – could he follow in the footsteps of Jones and make his way to the Mazda Road to Indy?
ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT (2-4 cars)
Recent news and confirmations out of the Andretti camp signal a total focus on their Indy Lights program for 2016, which would eliminate their Pro Mazda effort next year. At one time, Andretti was the only squad with teams on all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, so it’s a disappointment to see them drop their support of the lower levels. That said, they are energized by the strength of the debut season of the Dallara IL15 car, and have stated that they wish to expand to four cars, should the interest arise. They have confirmed the graduation of Canadian Dalton Kellett to Indy Lights for 2016, and Shelby Blackstock is expected to remain as well.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Dalton Kellett – confirmed for 2016 (09-22-15) – Kellett announced his intent to advanced from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights in September – having now graduated from the prestigious Queens University in Canada with a degree in Engineering Physics, Kellett will be able to devote 100% focus on his racing for the first time in his entire MRTI career
Shelby Blackstock – the return of Shelby Blackstock could be expected, but there is also talk that he may move to 2014 series champions Belardi Auto Racing for the coming year after having tested with the team in late July, an outing which resulted in a major breakthrough for the freshmen Indy Lights pilot at Mid-Ohio
Weiron Tan – if Andretti does indeed shut down their Pro Mazda program, this would leave the Malaysian driver without a team should he elect to stay for another season. Tan was a frontrunner in Pro Mazda and could advance, but like many racers, the strength of his country’s currency could effect his decisions
BELARDI AUTO RACING (2-4 cars)
The 2014 Indy Lights championship injected even more competitive spark into team owner Brian Belardi, who was at one time a college football player in Colorado. This past season tested both Belardi and his team, as they watched fluke mechanical gremlins or on-track driver errors steal several podium finishes. The team is working to re-sign their 2015 drivers Juan Piedrahita and Felix Serralles, although Serralles has already tested with Carlin. The team is working hard to put together a strong group of drivers for the new year, as I’ve learned through sources that former Indy Lights star Zach Veach will be testing with Belardi at Sebring next week, ahead of a potential return to the series in 2016. Veach’s successful 2014 season included three wins, but that was with the old series
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Felix Serralles – I’ve been told that a deal is in place that would bring Serralles back to Belardi for a second season, but nothing has been signed
Juan Piedrahita – the Columbia is expected back in the series in 2016, but if he remains with Belardi is still a question
Zach Veach – potential third car – will test will team at Sebring on October 25-26
Shelby Blackstock – tested with the team last summer, but appears set to remain part of the Andretti family despite a tough year in 2015
TEAM PELFREY (formerly 8Star Motorsports) (1-2 cars)
The most recent news in the Mazda Road Indy community hit the streets on Monday, October 26 when Team Pelfrey announced that they had bought 8Star Motorsports and its Indy Lights team. This single-car operation ran a total of seven weekends this year with Scott Hargrove and Sean Rayhall and scored seven top-five results, highlighted by big wins by Rayhall at Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio. The team’s impressive staff will remain with Pelfrey to manage the program, which has allowed them to extend their ladder system to unparalleled levels, running from F1600 right through to the Indy Lights series.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Juan Piedrahita – if the Columbian is on the move from Belardi, 8Star might be the potential landing spot
Scott Hargrove – the Canadian drove for 8Star last year and performed well at the St. Pete opener – could he potentially be back with the team now that it has been purchased by Team Pelfrey?
Sean Rayhall – after winning two races with the team, there is obvious history there that could have him come back – we are hearing rumors that this might not be happening, however
CHIP GANASSI RACING
Throughout the last off-season and during this past campaign, it was rumored that Chip Ganassi Racing was developing interest in fielding a team in the Indy Lights program. RACER reported this fact earlier this month and published comments from Mike Hull confirming that they would consider a program should a fully-funded driver approach them. While I can understand the value to a young driver in connecting directly with an IndyCar team like TCGR, this is a challenging approach for joining the grid. I would be surprised to see them in the Light paddock in 2016.
RACER’s Marshall Pruett reported yesterday that KVSH owner Jimmy Vasser has charged his General Manager Steve Moore with the task of researching the potential addition of an Indy Lights operation to the team. It’s good to see IndyCar team owners acknowledging the Indy Lights series, but like Ganassi, I can’t see them making the investment in equipment unless they have a funded driver signed to the season.
Foyt was one of the team names that was thrown around during last year’s off-season in regards to IndyCar teams that had shown interest, but we haven’t heard much from them since.
Neil Alberico – the California driver won four Pro Mazda races in 2015 and was in the hunt for the championship through to the season-finale at Mazda Raceway in September, eventually finishing second overall. Alberico is primed for a move to Indy Lights, but he does not have the personal budget to make the leap. As part of the Rising Star Racing program, Neil has a team behind him working to make this a reality so that he can follow in the footsteps of fellow RSR drivers Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot. Alberico has been in discussions with all the team owners, but he still needs to find the necessary budget
Scott Hargrove – the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship runner-up was extremely impressive in his single race weekend with the brand new 8Star team at St. Petersburg, and he has been working continually to get back into the program. Hargrove won seven of his eight races in the Porsche GT3 Cup Canada series this season to stay sharp, and he has dedicated himself to assembling the necessary marketing partnerships to be on the Indy Lights grid in 2016. In speaking with Scott, he has let me know that his program is enjoying positive momentum right now. He’s talking to many of the Indy Lights team owners to stay in the loop and is very optimistic about his chances of returning next year.
Matthew Brabham – the 2013 Pro Mazda champion and 2014 Indy Lights race winner ran the first three races of the season with Andretti Autosport, although he was always at the track ready to drive during the year. We hope to see him back in the program next year.