Indy Lights title battle tightens at Gateway amid mysterious tire issues

The Indy Lights title battle tightened considerably at the Gateway oval in Illinois this weekend, as Chicago’s David Malukas swept the weekend for HMD Motorsports and took over the standings lead from his main rival and fellow American, Andretti Autosport driver Kyle Kirkwood. Meanwhile, Linus Lundqvist of Sweden had a character-building weekend that included a high-speed crash in Race 1 and lost ground in the points, making the fight for the championship a two-horse race for now.

By Jeroen Demmendaal

The weekend was also impacted by a mysterious series of tire issues, which seemed to affect a variety of drivers without any discernible pattern that might explain the problems. During Race 1, the issue hit Lundqvist of HMD Motorsports/Global Racing Group, Robert Megennis of Andretti Autosport and Antonio Serravalle of Pserra Racing, all of whom suffered severe wear of their right-hand tires. In the case of Lundqvist, tire failure even led to a high-speed crash in Turn 3.

The Lundqvist crash cut short Race 1 by some laps and led to some overnight schedule changes imposed on the teams by the series. Race 2 was split into two sections of 35 laps, with a mandatory pitstop the divider between the two race stages. During that pitstop, all drivers had to change both right-hand tires and refuel their cars.

Out of nowhere

The oddity was that the tire issues came out of nowhere. During the Lights test session at Gateway a week earlier, which was run in warmer conditions, the tires performed perfectly for everyone. The randomness of the issues added to the confusion. For example, while Lundqvist experienced a tire failure, Malukas only had some minor blisters and their teammate Benjamin Pedersen had no problems at all. At the time of writing, technicians at Cooper Tires were still investigating the cause of the issues.

As a result of his crash and a ninth-place classification, Lundqvist lost considerable ground in the title race and is now 59 points off the lead. For Malukas, meanwhile, the weekend could not have gone any better. Coming into the weekend 11 points behind Kirkwood, he now leads the standings by three points as the series prepares for its final three round at Portland, Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio.

Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

Over the moon

Malukas was over the moon with his double win, especially following a sobering experience in his last oval race, when he crashed at Indianapolis in 2019. “Huge thank you to the team, they gave me an amazing car,” the teenager said after winning Race 2. “I can finally put the accident at Indy behind me, we’ve overcome that. We’ve proven ourselves. The car was unbelievable from start to finish, just on rails.”

Malukas and Kirkwood also treated their audience to an amazing side-by-side battle in Race 2, which lasted for several laps and underlined the maturity of the two title rivals. Said Malukas: “We knew we’d have to work the high line, so we adjusted the setup for that in warm up so I knew the line, and I knew I could trust the car, and Kyle. I couldn’t stop screaming in the car – that was so cool!”

Respect

“There’s a big level of respect between David and I – and really, among all the drivers on the Road to Indy,” added Kirkwood after the race. “You have to give way on an oval. When we were side-by-side, he kept getting runs on the outside and slowly picked away at me, so hats off to him, that was fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve been that close for that long. We were strong, but just not strong enough so we’re very happy to come away with two second-place finishes.”

Behind Malukas and Kirkwood, Benjamin Pedersen delivered arguably his best performance of the season with two third places. Helped by the misfortune of Lundqvist, he turned out to be the best oval rookie of the weekend – just like the Swede and Carlin driver Alex Peroni, the Danish-American ran his first ever oval races at Gateway. Pedersen moved up to fourth in the standings, just ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco and Danial Frost, and Juncos Racing’s Toby Sowery.

“I am super pleased,” said Pedersen. “This was our first oval but we knew from the test that we had the pace. Everything was new to us, from qualifying to getting used to dirty air, everything. I had a ball, it was so much fun, and I don’t think I could ask for more. This is my first year in this car and we’re learning so much, like tire management. I will take so much from this weekend that I can use moving forward, and it’s good to move up in the championship as well.”

Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

Rough start

Lundqvist, meanwhile, was philosophical after the weekend and indicated that he was not ready to give up on the title just yet. The Swede recovered well from his crash to finish fourth in Race 2, driving the back up car that used to be Nikita Lastochkin’s race car earlier this season. 

“A rough start to my oval experience this weekend. Having a tire issue at 280 km/h and ending up in the wall whilst running P2 in Race 1 hurt,” Lundqvist told fans via his Instagram account. “I’m happy to have walked away from it and I cannot thank the whole team and my mechanics enough for putting the spare car together over night and getting me out for race 2. This weekend could’ve been so much more than a DNF and a P4, but it could’ve been a lot worse. There are still six races to go, and that’s six potential wins. Head down!”

With three rounds and six races left to go in the championship, Indy Lights will return to action at Portland International Raceway in Oregon on September 11-12. 

Standings: 1) David Malukas 371, 2) Kyle Kirkwood 368, 3) Linus Lundqvist 312, 4) Benjamin Pedersen 245, 5) Devlin DeFrancesco 245, 6) Danial Frost 244, 7) Toby Sowery 236, 8) Alex Peroni 228, 9) Robert Megennis 225, 10) Sting Ray Robb 169

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