His steely Russian eyes didn’t blink. Mikhail Aleshin couldn’t have been more serious.
Two days before finishing 16th at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America on June 26, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver insisted his team was on the verge of producing stronger race results.
“I’m really confident we’re going to do it,” Aleshin said.
Those are just words unless a driver can back them up, which Aleshin did after Road America in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda. He finished fifth at Iowa, sixth at Toronto and led 33 laps at Mid-Ohio before a pit-road incident with Josef Newgarden denied him a shot at victory. That proved to be a prelude for the next race, the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, where Aleshin won his first pole and finished second.
After a year away due to a lack of sponsorship, the first Verizon IndyCar Series driver from Russia showed he could race up front this season with 120 laps led at Mid-Ohio and Pocono. The late-season surge improved him to 15th in the final point standings.
“The guy has got true raw talent,” said team owner Sam Schmidt. “In 2010 in Formula Renault 3.5, he beat Daniel Ricciardo, who is a very highly respected F1 guy now. So you know the talent is there. We’ve just got to give him a car and when he’s making his way around these tracks for a third time next year, he’ll be a week-in and week-out force to be reckoned with and somebody that can push James (Hinchcliffe, his teammate) to that next level as well.”
Aleshin was in position to win the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, but a crew member sent him out of the pit box into the oncoming Newgarden. Instead of fuming about the mistake, Aleshin handled the adversity with class and told his crewman “forget about it.”
The driver admits he’s been learning to not overreact.
“I’m teaching myself to be patient, which is hard because my character is not to be very patient,” he said. “I’m not a very patient person.”
The patience has been rewarded. And the Pocono pole wasn’t a fluke. Aleshin had turned practice laps comparable to his teammate before May’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Hinchcliffe won the pole and Aleshin qualified seventh.
Finally winning the Verizon P1 Award for the Pocono pole proved something to Aleshin and his competitors.
“The pole meant a lot to everybody,” Schmidt said. “Poles in this deal are very tough to come by, especially with the Honda package. That was only Honda’s second pole of the year (Hinchcliffe with the first). That was a huge accomplishment. It does a lot for your psyche. We should have won Mid-Ohio. We should have been on the podium at Watkins Glen. These are all momentum things that are very positive.”
Engineer Blair Perschbacher said Aleshin particularly enjoys the high-speed ovals.
“He really wanted to show he was on the same level as James,” Perschbacher said of Pocono.
Aleshin, 29, debuted with only one podium finish in 2014, when he was a runner-up at Houston. But he had several solid runs, including a sixth at Long Beach, sevenths at Detroit, Texas and Sonoma and an eighth at Milwaukee.
“It’s showing what he can do,” Perschbacher said. “If you look at when he’s done open wheel before, in Formula Renault where he’s beaten some guys who are in Formula One now, he’s now showing in coming to America and with a big climate change what he can do.
“He did a lot of sports car racing last year, which I think helped him learn a lot, but it’s just getting back to doing these tracks. It’s a very competitive series. If you’re off by a tenth or two of a second, you end up 17th instead of 12th. It’s much harder. He’s focused a lot on doing as well as he can, and he’s coming back to tracks he did in 2014 and he’s sort of gotten more comfortable with the team and more comfortable with the tracks.”
Aleshin was adamant about wanting to return to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for this season and beyond. Both he and Hinchcliffe are locked up for 2017.
“Now that we’ve got those two done, it’s a matter of firming up with all of the key individuals on the team and hopefully continue on and win races,” Schmidt said. “This deal is all about chemistry and continuity and it’s been a building process for us. Starting in 2011 with one car and then having two cars from 2012 on, we’ve never had the same guy in the second car for a second season. Really, Mikhail coming back for a second season, even though there was a year gap, I think you can really see the chemistry and the morale and the continuity building toward the last half of the season, when we were clearly the fastest Honda at most tracks if not all and right up to the front with the top five to eight guys, which is where we want to be.”
Aleshin has reiterated how much he enjoys the challenge of the series.
“Yeah, it's a great series, definitely, one of the best series in case of drivers because it's very competitive,” he said. “Really cool tracks. I love it.”
Where racing in this series once relied upon belief and learning patience, Aleshin has now replaced that with confidence.
“The good news is he loves Indianapolis, he loves the series, he loves the circuits,” Schmidt said. “He doesn’t like the Formula One stress and anxiety that’s over there. I think he’s found a home. He likes everybody here and we’ve built a team around him now, kind of like we built a team around Simon (Pagenaud) back in the day. He doesn’t want to go anywhere.”