Judging by the opening day of Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires Spring Training at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the competition this year in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires is going to be intense.
A dozen of the 15 contenders expected to challenge for a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million to secure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2018, including the Indianapolis 500, took the opportunity to test on the 1.485-mile oval. After six and a half hours of running, no fewer than four drivers had posted a time within a mere 0.0468 of a second of the pace set by Nico Jamin. The French rookie, who won the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, ultimately ended the day with bragging rights and the fastest time of 28.6991, an average speed of 186.278 mph in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Dallara-Mazda IL-15.
Fellow rookie Colton Herta – 16-year-old son of 1993 Indy Lights Champion and two-time winning Indy 500 team owner Bryan Herta – virtually matched Jamin’s time with a best of 28.7089 (186.321 mph) at the wheel of the sister No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry.
Santi Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, driving for Belardi Auto Racing and winners of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in each of the past two seasons, also were within mere fractions of the ultimate pace with laps at 28.7328 and 28.7459, respectively.
Morning pace-setter Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada, at the wheel of the No. 28 Andretti Autosport entry, ended the day fifth fastest on 28.8601, narrowly edging out Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist in the fastest of the Carlin cars on 28.8640.
The tone had been set during this morning’s three-hour session when the top six cars were separated by a scant 0.0966 of a second. Kellett, who scored a best finish of third last year in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, led the way with a lap of 28.9072 seconds, an average speed of 184.937 mph. Hot on his heels were Leist (28.9419), Herta (29.5925, Urrutia (28.9703), Jamin (28.9767) and fellow rookie Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport) on 29.0038.
The focus now will switch over to Homestead-Miami’s 2.21-mile road course, where teams and drivers from the first two rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – will test over the next two days, followed by one final day of running on Thursday for the Indy Lights teams.
Nico Jamin, No. 27 Andretti Autosport: “It was my first time with the superspeedway wings, and the speed out there is absolutely crazy but I love it. Andretti gave me a great car today. We worked on a lot of different setups and ended up very strong to get the best lap at the end. You can feel the speed building up a lot quicker and you can really feel the aero balance changing in traffic. We did some pack running today with the other team cars which was very interesting. It’s a big jump from Pro Mazda but I am fortunate to have Andretti helping me through it. I feel very comfortable with the car and ready to head to St. Pete.”
Colton Herta, No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing: “This was my first time with the speedway wings and it went quite well. It’s good prep for Indy and it looks as though if we can be quick here, we can be quick there. It’s been a pretty easy transition for me from Europe. The car is fantastic and the Cooper Tires work well. It’s a good combo and it seems to produce good racing. There was a bit more cloud cover this afternoon and when the track cooled everything worked better and that’s when we saw the quickest times. It’s a good baseline for St. Pete, which will be a big race for me. It’s where the Yankees do their spring training and where the Steinbrenners live, so I’m counting down the days.”
Santi Urrutia, No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing: “It’s good to work with the Belardi team; I like the team, I like the way they work. I have good teammates and I have the same engineer from last year so it’s good. I am happy to get back to an oval. It’s been a while since I’ve driven one. We focused on our pace and didn’t run much in traffic. Since we’ll use this wing at Indy, we worked on wing setup and downforce. I’m happy with my position. The car was better and better throughout the day. It was a good day for the team.”
About Indy Lights: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires is the third and final step on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. Sanctioned by INDYCAR, the series is operated by Andersen Promotions, which oversees all three levels of the ladder system. The Indy Lights champion is awarded a scholarship valued at $1M toward the Verizon IndyCar Series. The series has a rich history as a development platform for many of today’s top drivers. For more information, visit indylights.com.