By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The NTT IndyCar Series will kick off this month at St. Petersburg and the anticipation levels are beyond different than most seasons. All in large part of the series having tremendous momentum falling in their favor.
Among those are an influx of young drivers making names for themselves with some being touted as future Formula One talent. Others are looking for a fresh chapter to their racing careers.
For the rookies, it’s that and more because this rookie class is all about junior formula grads compared to established racers from different disciplines last year. Some come from the Road to Indy ladder while others are hoping to make INDYCAR the place for open wheel racers.
We’ll highlight the aforementioned rookies of Tatiana Calderon, Devlin DeFrancesco, David Malukas, Calum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard, and Kyle Kirkwood.
Tatiana Calderon – No. 11 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Previous Series: Star Mazda Championship (2010-11), Formula 2 (2019), Super Formula (2020-21), and FIA World Endurance Championship (2021)
Best Star Mazda Finish: 3rd (Barber and Mosport – 2011)
Tatiana Calderon has had an interesting junior formula career. She actually began her road to the IndyCar Series a decade ago when she competed in Star Mazda. While she got two podiums, Calderon shifted her focus on making it to Formula One.
It’s been a rocky road for her as the Colombian have yet to fully set the racing world on fire. The greatest example came in Formula 2 where she struggled compared to her late teammate Anthoine Hubert.
After competing in sports cars, Calderon’s grand opportunity arrived as she’ll take over Charlie Kimball’s No. 11 Chevrolet.
For now, Calderon will only run the road and street courses, but she’s ready for the challenge that lies ahead with a team consisting of young drivers.
“I want to be where the best drivers are at, and I think INDYCAR is pretty high up there on the single-seater ladder. I’ve always enjoyed single-seaters quite a lot, as well,” said Calderon.
“It’s an honor to be racing in INDYCAR after I started my career 10 years ago, and I was just watching those races. Yeah, huge privilege in that sense, and I think here in America, in INDYCAR, there has been many female drivers coming through, so I think there is more opportunity at the moment for us here.
“I will obviously make the most out of this opportunity, and I’m really hoping that I can do well and inspire even more girls to join in in karting, in single-seaters, and that they know this is also a great opportunity to showcase that.”
Devlin DeFrancesco – No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda
Indy Lights Podiums: 2 (both third-place finishes at Barber)
2021 Indy Lights Standings: 6th
Like Calderon, Devin DeFrancesco enters the sport as a likely long shot of taking top rookie honors. But there’s optimism from Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport where moving him up to the sport’s top level will suit him much better.
DeFrancesco will be replacing fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe in the No. 29 Honda. It won’t be hard finding him on the track due to its bright dayglo yellow and red look that screams John Menard’s 1990s liveries.
Expectations are there for the man who won the Rolex 24 along with fellow teammate Colton Herta and Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward in the LMP2 category.
“I think we definitely have the potential to be top rookie towards the end of the season. My strengths have definitely always been in the high speed, so ovals is something I take to quite well. I guess you could say I’m quite brave,” said DeFrancesco.
“I think I’ll definitely be quite strong at those events, and the fast road courses, as well. And even street courses. Street courses is something I enjoy, as well. But definitely my commitment in the high speed has always been one of my strengths.”
David Malukas – No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing w/ HMD Motorsports Honda
Indy Lights Wins: 7
2021 Indy Lights Standings: 2nd
When it comes to the Road to Indy, Kyle Kirkwood ruled. However, one man attempted to change him in Indy Lights and that was David Malukas. The two battled hard to outdo each other and while Malukas ended up runner-up in the final standings last year, it was strong enough to earn himself an IndyCar gig.
Malukas replaces Ed Jones and brought his Indy Lights team (HMD Motorsports) with them, whom also take over ownership of the No. 18 after Vasser-Sullivan dropped out.
Time will tell if Malukas will join the likes of Santino Ferrucci, Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean as one of the many recent standouts from Dale Coyne Racing. More than anything, consistency and learning being key for Malukas.
“There’s a lot of new factors going in from INDYCAR with the fuel saving, tire saving,” said Malukas. “That’s all going to be brand-new, fresh and new to me. It’s going to be interesting to see how quickly we can catch onto that, catch onto the strategies, have the consistency with it throughout the rest of the season.”
Callum Ilott – No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet
IndyCar Starts: 3
Best Finish: 22nd (Laguna Seca)
Formula 2 Wins: 3
Best F2 Points Finish: 2nd (2020)
Out of all the rookies, Callum Ilott is the most experience IndyCar driver due to running three races at the end of last year. Ilott was a Formula 2 standout but like many drivers in recent years, couldn’t land a coveted Formula One seat.
The young British racer was confirmed to race full-time at Juncos Hollinger Racing last September at Long Beach.
Perhaps the biggest change this off-season is having a technical alliance with Carlin, a team who were known for success in junior formula. Carlin won’t enter a car, leaving Max Chilton out in the cold.
Both are determined to show their worth as the team, who’ve had amazing success in RTI, hope to be around for years to come. For now, the big picture is utilizing what they’ve learned in those three races.
“It was really crucial from a driver point of view, it was crucial to learn the car, learn the championship and the experience, and then to integrate with the team, but also from the team’s point of view,” Ilott explained.
“I think to get three races in a row, the improvements that I saw behind the scenes through those three races was incredible, and the improvements even from those three races to the tests that we did at the end of the year in Sebring, yeah, it was phenomenal,” Ilott continued.
“I think we can do a good job going into the beginning of the season, but from my side, it was just to get used to the car. It’s a different beast to what I’m used to in Europe. Very, very — I would say almost rally-esque kind of feeling, sliding through the corners, a lot of power under the foot. But really enjoyable car, really enjoyable race, and you’ve got some very competitive guys and teams in this championship.”
Christian Lundgaard – No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
IndyCar Starts: 1 (Indy GP II, finished 12th)
Formula 2 Wins: 2 (both in 2020)
Best F2 Points Finish: 7th (2020)
Another Formula 2 standout in Christian Lundgaard already wowed people last August at Indianapolis. Driving the No. 45 Honda for RLL Racing, Lundgaard qualified the car in fourth, ahead of Indy GP winner Rinus VeeKay and eventual champion Alex Palou.
His race didn’t back up his raw speed but nonetheless, it impressed the team enough to land him a full-time ride.
Lundgaard replaces Takuma Sato who’ll drive for Dale Coyne w/ Rick Ware Racing, joining veterans Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey as the organization hope the now-three full-time entries can compete for wins and podiums.
Retrospectively, Lundgaard was glad the Brickyard weekend was the site of his IndyCar debut. He’s also aware that going forward, he’ll have to acclimate himself into non-European style circuits, notably street courses.
“I know I tested at Barber, but the track is very European, and I’m used to the European tracks,” said Lundgaard. “For me to start there was a good benchmark, but once we get to Nashville, Detroit, those kind of circuits, I wouldn’t say I’m going to struggle more, but I’ll probably need more time compared to the others because they’ve been there.
“But at the same time I’m here to win, so I’ll do everything in my power to do so.”
Among the power he’d like to control is be more than just a rookie standout, but a man that can go toe-to-toe with the big boys.
“The rookie championship is one thing, but there’s also a main championship to win,” Lundgaard commented.
“I’m not going to say that I’m going to, but I’m going to try and hard as I can to. I race to win. I don’t race to finish second or third. But we’ve got a good lineup in the team, and I’m sure if we can learn from each other.”
“Graham is a strong racer, and if I can extract as much from him as possible, I think we have a very strong lineup.”
Kyle Kirkwood – No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Indy Lights Wins: 10
2021 Indy Lights Standings: 1st
Career Road to Indy Wins: 31
There hasn’t been a driver that’s set the Road to Indy ladder on fire like the Floridian standout. With a combined total of 31 RTI wins and winning championships everywhere he’s gone, Kirkwood is expected to be the favorite to succeed Scott McLaughlin as the top rookie.
However, Kirkwood’s quest to an IndyCar ride hit some bumpy roads. At one point, Kirkwood was in the running of joining Andretti Autosport pending on one piece of the puzzle. The potential of Andretti tackling Formula One by buying a stake of Alfa Romeo’s team that might’ve led Colton Herta competing there.
The deal fell through, keeping Herta in IndyCar and on top of DeFrancesco getting the Andretti ride, Kirkwood was let go from Andretti. It was a way for him to find other opportunities and that came from AJ Foyt Racing. He’ll replace Sebastien Bourdais in the iconic No. 14 Chevrolet where the focus is once again on racing.
Among the focal points for Kirkwood is help elevate the Foyt camp from back of the field purgatory to a regular contender for podiums.
“Our goal is to progress the car as much as possible. I need to learn myself as a new INDYCAR driver, as a rookie,” said Kirkwood. “I think we can build off of each other and maybe grow something great. There’s some big things happening with the team, a lot of new people onboard, some new development going on. I think we have the good chance of turning some heads this year.”