Just a warning up front: in preparing for this Indy Lights season preview, I partly revisited the text I wrote last year ahead of the 2020 Indy Lights season. After all, while the 2020 season eventually got cancelled because of the pandemic, many of the names that were scheduled to compete then are back on the roster now. And since several of those drivers basically had to push the pause button on their careers, a lot of what applied in early 2020 also applies now.
What has changed over the past year, and positively so, is the car count. In recent years it was easy for the uninitiated to be dismissive of Indy Lights, because of the small fields of only seven or eight drivers. This year we’re looking at no less than 13 full-time competitors, a very healthy increase compared to the last few years. But regardless of how many cars we have in the field, Indy Lights still very much serves its purpose in delivering the next generation of NTT IndyCar Series drivers.
Just think about it: the 2018 and 2019 seasons both had less than ten full-time drivers, but promoted four drivers that are expected to be IndyCar stars of the future, with Colton Herta, Patricio “Pato” O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay as well as the unlucky Oliver Askew. In that context the news for the class of 2021 is probably even better: because of last year’s cancellation, this year’s field of 13 is absolutely packed with talent and Indy Lights is set for another exciting title battle.
In recent years, that title ended up with Andretti Autosport, making it the undisputed top dog in Indy Lights. This year, however, the team is likely to face a much tougher fight as three new powerhouses are vying to knock it off its perch. Former title winners Juncos Racing have returned after a year of absence, as has Carlin, which pulled out in 2017. Finally, HMD Motorsports have joined forces with Global Racing Group, creating a new four-car tandem that will be a force to be reckoned with.
Andretti: defending the crown
As per usual, Andretti has signed up plenty of names that will feature on anyone’s shortlist of title candidates. Second-year driver Robert Megennis (21) showed some flashes of quality during his rookie year in 2019 and was a solid member of the ‘best of the rest’ group behind Askew and VeeKay. Nevertheless, he will have to demonstrate growth this season and make a real bid for the title if he is to seriously claim a future in IndyCar. He ended the 2019 season strongly and will now need to carry that form into 2021.
Then there is Kyle Kirkwood (22). It is difficult to overstate his qualities: as one insider told me, Kirkwood “is like Pato, Rinus and Oliver all put into one”. That’s a pretty accurate description for the Floridian, who swept almost every open-wheel series he competed in and secured back-to-back titles in US Formula 4 (2017), F3 Americas, USF2000 (both in 2018) and Indy Pro 2000 (2019). The manner in which he won those titles is possibly even more astonishing, with 45 wins and 55 podiums in 69 races. No wonder he’s a sky-high favourite for the Lights title.
Don’t expect Devlin DeFrancesco (21) and Danial Frost (19) to just sit by and watch though. The Canadian stormed onto the Road to Indy last year and immediately grabbed second in Indy Pro 2000, after spending quite some time atop the table. Flush with backing and a fast learner, we can expect great things from DeFrancesco. As for Frost, the young man from Singapore finished third in his second year in Pro and has displayed a lot of raw talent in recent years. But given his tender age, it might be too much to expect a title bid from him already this year.
HMD/GRG: taking aim at Andretti
The four Andretti boys will face stiff competition from the HMD/GRG train, which claimed the first three places in Spring Training earlier this month. As expected, young Chicagoan David Malukas (19) was confirmed early for a second year in Lights with the team that carries the name of his father’s HMD trucking business. His rookie season was decent, considering he was only 17 at the time, and more regular podium finishes and a first win will have to be his initial targets this year. If he manages that and then some, there is no reason why he couldn’t fight for the title.
GRG, meanwhile, contributes to the four-car outfit with two Scandinavian drivers. Linus Lundqvist is the obvious star of those two, after his all-devouring Formula Regional Americas campaign in which he clinched the title by winning 15 of the 17 races. That landed the 22-year-old a Lights scholarship, but he also brings solid backing from the Swedish motherland. Truth be told, the field in FR Americas wasn’t the strongest and both Lundqvist and Malukas ran largely unopposed. But based on pre-season form and his experience, expect Lundqvist to feature up front this year as well.
The other GRG driver with Nordic roots, Danish-American Benjamin Pedersen (21), is a slightly less sure bet at first sight. Pedersen, whose father founded GRG, spent the last two years in British F3 without setting the world on fire, and also ran some races in Euroformula Open and FR Americas. At the same time, he was right up there with his teammates in Spring Training, so don’t count him out.
Juncos and Carlin: returning for more
Switching to the teams reacquainting themselves with Lights: Juncos has signed up sophomore Toby Sowery (23). The Brit lost his seat when Belardi folded, but unlike Rasmus Lindh he managed to find a new home. Sowery had an encouraging rookie year in 2019, scoring one win and three podiums on the way to third overall. While he couldn’t keep up with Askew and VeeKay, he proved to be more consistent than Megennis and ended the year on a high. Can he make a title run this year?
His teammate is the reigning Indy Pro 2000 champion and owner of easily the coolest name in motor racing. Having said that, I’d say Sting Ray Robb (19) is at best a dark horse for top honours this year. The young man from Idaho took his good time to get up to speed in Pro, and while he will benefit from the experience of Juncos and Sowery, it would be unfair to ask for too much in his rookie year.
The strongest ace for Carlin, returning for the first time since bowing out in 2017, will be Tasmanian devil Alex Peroni (21). A solid runner in FIA F3 who showed flashes of brilliance from time to time (and survived that crash at Monza), he has adapted quickly to a new environment and comes with solid backing from leather boots maker Blundstone (which are really good, I might add).
That leaves us with three drivers: Nikita Lastochkin is following his car, after Exclusive Autosport sold its Lights chassis to HMD, but the 30-year-old Russian never classified better than fifth in five years of Road to Indy competition. Christian Bogle (20) is facing the challenge of a lifetime after graduating straight from two years in USF2000 (17th and 15th overall) to the second Carlin car. That also applies to young Canadian Antonio Serravalle (18), who has struggled in Pro for two years and is now joining Lights in a private entry run by his father.
If you want to follow the Road to Indy sessions and races this year, make sure to download the Road to Indy TV app to follow your favourite driver. This year, Road to Indy TV is planning a bigger-than-ever daily live show for every race weekend – and if you don’t have access to the app, you can also go to the Road to Indy social channels or the Roadtoindy.tv website. (Please note: in the US, Indy Lights broadcasts are a part of the NBC Peacock subscriber package)