PALMETTO, Fla. – A high-quality entry of 16 drivers representing nine different nations are set to battle it out for early honors as the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season kicks off this weekend with a pair of races at the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Lucas School of Racing. Indy Lights will be joined by the other two levels of the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development program, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, all in support of the opening Verizon IndyCar Series event on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 11-13.
The advent of a new Dallara-Mazda IL-15 technical package last year has resulted in a 25 percent increase in the field for the 2016 season, and indications from recent test sessions suggest a wide-open contest is in store with a variety of formula car champions from around the world on the starting grid.
A long list of potential winners includes Dubai, UAE-based Englishman Ed Jones, who scored a remarkable double victory for British team Carlin on his Indy Lights debut at St. Petersburg last year; local favorite RC Enerson, from New Port Richey, Fla., who won at Mid-Ohio in 2015 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian; 2014 St. Petersburg Indy Lights race winner Zach Veach (Belardi Auto Racing); and a pair of equally talented rookies, Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson), who steps up to Indy Lights after winning last year’s Pro Mazda Championship, as well as a Mazda Scholarship valued at over $590,000, and reigning FIA European Formula 3 Champion Felix Rosenqvist (Belardi).
“Qualifying on the pole is 90 percent of the job (at St. Petersburg),” says Jones, who finished his rookie campaign third in the points table. “If you can start on pole, you have a very good chance of winning the race so all our efforts are going into that. Last year we were too inconsistent in the points, so we need to work on that this year. Experience will help with that.”
Experience also will be on the side of 19-year-old Enerson, who has raced at the 1.8-mile street circuit each year since 2013, and two years ago claimed a win and a second-place finish in USF2000.
“You always have pressure at your hometown race but we’re going to push it as hard as we can and I’ll treat it like any other race,” says Enerson. “I have good memories of St. Pete. My USF2000 weekend here two years ago was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. Hopefully we can do something like that again – or do even better!”
“I’ve looked at YouTube clips of the (St. Petersburg) race and the track looks very challenging, as a street circuit normally is,” adds Rosenqvist, from Sweden, who has won the prestigious Macau Grand Prix F3 street race in each of the past two years. “You have the walls next to you all the time so if you make a mistake, you’ll pay for it. We’ve tried a lot of different things in testing so I’m feeling very confident, especially on the road courses. If we put everything together, we’ll be up front.”
Rosenqvist topped the timing charts at a recent road course test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and was second only to Urrutia in last weekend’s Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training test session at Barber Motorsports park in Birmingham, Ala.
Other expected front-runners will include Team Pelfrey’s Scott Hargrove, from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, who swept both USF2000 races at St. Petersburg en route to the championship title in 2013; Puerto Rican Felix Serralles, a winner last year in Milwaukee; Carlin teammate Neil Alberico, who won both Pro Mazda races in St. Petersburg last year; Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing), from Santa Clara, Calif., who scored a pair of top-five Indy Lights finishes in 2015; and Englishman Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport), who finished second on the streets of Monaco in last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 World Series.
The Indy Lights cars will take to the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit on Friday, March 11, for a pair of half-hour practice sessions at 8:50 a.m. and 2.10 p.m. Qualifying will follow on Saturday at 7:55 a.m., followed by Race One at 12:55 p.m. Race Two will start at 9:45 a.m. on Sunday. Live streaming shows of all sessions will be available at indylights.com, indycar.com and on the Road To Indy TV App. Sunday’s feature race will air on NBCSN on March 24 at 11:00 pm ET.