By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
Nicolas Dapero began the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires as an unknown in the paddock. The Argentinian finished sixth in the 2015 Brazilian F3 Championship with five podiums and a fastest lap in 12 races before going to race in the United States.
After an interesting 2016 season, Dapero will be moving up to Indy Lights for 2017 with the same team he raced with in Pro Mazda in Juncos Racing.
Dapero began 2016 with pairs of tenths, sevenths and eighth place finishes. However, he scored a third place finish at Lucas Oil Raceway, leading to a remarkable turnaround in the second half of the season.
What caused such a dramatic change in performance?
“He did an amazing job, he was very green when we started, he had no experience,” Team Owner Ricardo Juncose told Motorsports Tribune. “We put him on our driver development program which is complicated […] but right before Lucas Oil Raceway we went to a private test there on the oval and that was his first oval experience and he was impressively good.
“At that time we changed a bit the way we worked with him kind of on the mental side the way we approached him and the way we communicated things. He really liked the ovals and I think he lost a bit of the respect he had for the car, so he was still kind of behind it, still respecting the car too much under the limit at the time. So after that oval test, he lost respect and he was more confident to be so close to the wall and drive the car to the limit all the time. He was the fastest driver at the oval test, and then we went to LOR and he was fastest, missed pole by nothing against drivers with a lot of experience and high quality drivers like Pato O’Ward.”
Juncos pinpointed that moment as the “turning point” for Dapero and tweaking the communication.
“It was a turning point I think, the oval test. Like I said, I think he lost a bit of the respect he had for the car and the way we approached Nico, the way we started communicating the technical aspects and the way we modified a bit the way he expressed on the technical side on the feedback and that’s I think the key,” Juncos said.
For Dapero, the test at Lucas Oil Raceway took the fear out of driving the car. By being close to the wall lap after lap after lap, his driving mentality changed and his results showed the difference.
Following Lucas Oil Raceway, Dapero earned four top 5 finishes out of five races and in the last three races of the season at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca triple-header, he was the only Pro Mazda driver to score podium results in all three races with a pair of thirds and a victory in the second race.
“The plan was to do another Pro Mazda Championship with two seasons in Pro Mazda, but I really can see the problems that Pro Mazda has so [Nico’s] father said that they don’t want to race between seven or eight cars. They want to go to Europe or what can we do [for 2017]? So we decided to test him with Indy Lights and take a look and see how he adapted to the car and he was fantastic. He was driving really good, he was fast.”
Juncos believes that Dapero is “ready for Indy Lights” and highlighted that his driver enjoys racing in America.
“We did the open test with everybody at the Indianapolis GP [road course] and he was third in one of the sessions and when everybody put new tires on in the morning he was a tenth off I think of P1,” Juncos said.
“Then we did more testing and he really improved every time. So it’s not going to be easy but we’re going to do Indy Lights. If you ask me, he’s ready for Indy Lights, doesn’t have the experience, he’s driving really good, it’s not going to be easy but at least we’re keeping him here, he likes American racing, he’d like to become an IndyCar driver so that’s the way to go.”
With Dapero and last year’s Indy Lights championship runner-up Santiago Urrutia nearing an opportunity to IndyCar, the next generation of South American superstars could be closer than we think.