The ongoing theme through 2014 in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires will unquestionably be one of transition.
The current Dallara chassis, in circulation since 2002, will finally be laid to rest at the conclusion of this year to make way for the Dallara IL-15, which began wind tunnel testing in Italy last week.
And the 3.5 L, naturally aspirated V8s, easily the most eardrum-shattering powerplants in the Mazda Road to Indy, will be replaced by a 2.0 L, turbocharged four-cylinder engine next year that will give drivers an extra 30 horsepower to play with (450 hp, up from 420 hp) and will be equipped with push-to-pass among other modernizing features.
On top of that, the series enjoys a new promoter this year: Andersen Promotions, the outfit responsible for the strengthened foundations and expanding fields in USF2000 and Pro Mazda over the past couple of years.
What does all of this mean for this season in Indy Lights? It should primarily equate to bigger fields, especially as the year goes on as confidence grows and and teams have less reason to hang onto backup cars that will rapidly become obsolete. After a year in which more than one race hosted single-digit car counts, this will be a most welcome shift.
But the only drivers who will have a realistic shot at the battle for the championship will be the ones who show up at St. Petersburg with full-season rides – mainly because that’s what Matthew Brabham will be doing, and he’s the safe bet to be one with whom other title hopefuls will need to keep up.
All eyes will be on Brabham this year, the Andretti Autosport driver who took the Pro Mazda Championship by storm in 2013 and set fire to the record books along the way. The questions being asked by most observers as the Indy Lights season begins center around whether he can repeat last year’s performance and whether anyone else will be given a glimmer of a chance.
He has a number of rivals working hard to ensure this season is not so cut and dried.
Gabby Chaves is looking to be chief among them. The 2013 Indy Lights runner-up may only have claimed one win last season at Mid-Ohio, but podium finishes at 10 of 12 events showed noteworthy consistency. After making a move to Belardi Auto Racing for this season, he posted the fastest lap time at this year’s Winterfest test – only .018 seconds faster than Brabham’s best time but still good enough to raise eyebrows.
Brabham’s teammate, Zach Veach, has reached a critical stage in his career as he enters his second year of Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport, the team he has worked with at every step of the Mazda Road to Indy. Racing alongside Brabham may give Veach his best opportunity yet to find himself in the thick of the title fight toward the end of the season.
The sleeper pick for giving Brabham a run for his money, though, is Alex Baron. Baron landed in the United States last fall with little formula car racing record to speak of and stunned the USF2000 field by winning two of the final four races of the year, including the first one he entered. Belardi Auto Racing snapped Baron up and has skipped him right over Pro Mazda to drop him into Indy Lights this season. If that early promise continues to shine so brightly, his is a name we’ll be hearing often.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this preliminary list of hopefuls is that it doesn’t contain any drivers from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, a team that has typically dominated this series. Apart from Juan Pablo Garcia, who is entering his third full (more or less) season in Indy Lights, the team is populated with relative unknowns. That’s not to say they’re slouches, however. Luiz Razia was on a path to Formula 1 and has spent the last few years in testing roles but has struggled for funding. Jack Harvey was the British Formula Three champion in 2012 and ended the year fifth in GP3 last season. Juan Piedrahita moves up the ladder after spending two seasons in Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports. Any of these drivers may be strong out of the gate with the support of SPM, or they may need some time for growth. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell.
Rounding out the field will be: two cars at Team Moore Racing, fielded for Pro Mazda graduate Zack Meyer and Vittorio Ghirelli, who competed in a partial GP2 season last year; Lloyd Read, who joins Bryan Herta Autosport after competing in Pro Mazda last season; and Scott Anderson, who will race with Fan Force United, a team returning to the series after a one-year absence.
By the end of the year, will we have found it fair to look at this year as Brabham versus the rest? At this stage, it’s all speculation. But in a year with a new promoter, an intriguing field, and a build-up of anticipation as the new formula launch approaches, it should be a lot of fun along the way as we find out.