PALMETTO, Fla. – Judging by the opening two races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 12-13, this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season seems set to be a thriller. Five drivers representing four different teams claimed podium finishes and the top three point contenders are separated by just two points as the 16-car field heads next to the famed Phoenix International Raceway oval in Avondale, Ariz., for Round Three on Saturday afternoon, April 2. The 90-lap Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix will serve as a precursor to the evening’s Verizon IndyCar Series headline event.
This weekend marks Indy Lights’ return to PIR for the first time since 2005, although the developmental series has a storied history on the 1.022-mile oval dating back to 1986 when it was first introduced as the American Racing Series. The championship has evolved steadily since then, and now serves as the third and final step on the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel ladder which provides scholarship-funded opportunities for drivers to progress from the grassroots of the sport via the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
The advent last year of a new Mazda turbo-powered Dallara IL-15 equipment combination has resulted in a 25 percent increase in the field for the 2016 season, and indications from a recent pre-season test day suggest a wide-open contest is in store featuring a variety of formula car champions from around the world on the starting grid. The existing qualifying lap record of 22.887 seconds (160.755 mph), set by Canadian Claude Bourbonnais, and the race lap record of 23.227 seconds (158.402 mph) which stands to the late, lamented Greg Moore, both set in 1995, also are likely to take a beating.
Second-year Indy Lights driver RC Enerson, 19, from New Port Richey, Fla., posted the fastest time of the official preseason test with a lap at 21.8721 seconds (168.214 mph) for seven-time driver championship-winning team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian. Rookie teammate Santiago Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, who won last year’s Pro Mazda Championship, plus a Mazda scholarship to assist in his graduation to Indy Lights, was fastest in one of the two sessions, barely a tenth of a second shy of Enerson’s best, while the top 14 contenders were separated by a mere 0.4857 seconds after a full day of running.
Enerson and Urrutia will be hoping to bounce back from a disappointing first race weekend of the 2016 season, where each managed only a solitary top-five result and are currently placed ninth and eighth, respectively, in the point standings.
Felix Serralles (Carlin), from Ponce, Puerto Rico, currently leads the way on 49 points, having claimed a win and a fourth-place finish in Florida. Serralles also has good form on the ovals after winning last year at the famed Milwaukee Mile.
Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, from Santa Clara, Calif., accumulated just one point fewer than Serralles in St. Petersburg, courtesy of a pair of podium finishes and a pole position, while reigning FIA European Formula 3 champion Felix Rosenqvist (Belardi Auto Racing), from Varnamo, Sweden, lies just one point further adrift after romping to an accomplished victory in Race Two.
A long list of potential winners also includes Dubai, UAE-based Englishman Ed Jones, who won three races for Carlin in 2015; Zach Veach (Belardi Auto Racing), who is returning to Indy Lights this year after finishing third in the 2014 title-chase; Team Pelfrey’s Scott Hargrove, from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, who won the 2013 USF2000 championship and finished second in Pro Mazda in 2014; and Englishman Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport), whose resume includes victory in the 2010 FIA Formula 2 Championship and second place in the 2014 GP3 Series.
A pair of 45-minute practice sessions will take place on Friday, April 1, at 9:00 a.m. MST and 1:00 p.m., followed by single-car qualifying at 4:30 p.m. The green flag for Saturday’s race will fly at 1.30 p.m. Live streaming shows of all sessions will be available at indylights.com, indycar.com and on the Road To Indy TV App. Saturday’s race will air on NBCSN on Wednesday, April 6, at 2:00 am EDT.
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