HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Judging by the opening day of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the competition this year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires will be tight.
A dozen of the 15 contenders expected to challenge for the championship and a Mazda scholarship valued at $1 million to secure entry into at least three 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series races, including the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, took the opportunity to test Monday on the 1.485-mile oval.
Nico Jamin, the Indy Lights rookie who won the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, ended the day with the fastest lap time of 28.6991 seconds (186.278 mph) in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Mazda IL-15. The 21-year-old Frenchman was followed closely by four drivers who posted a time within 0.0468 of a second.
“It was my first time with the superspeedway wings and the speed out there is absolutely crazy, but I love it,” said Jamin, who finished third in the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, the middle rung of the MRTI developmental ladder sanctioned by INDYCAR. “Andretti gave me a great car today. We worked on a lot of different setups and ended up very strong to get the best lap at the end.
“You can feel the speed building up a lot quicker and you can really feel the aero balance changing in traffic. We did some pack running today with the other team cars, which was very interesting. It’s a big jump from Pro Mazda, but I am fortunate to have Andretti helping me through it.”
Fellow rookie Colton Herta – the 16-year-old son of 1993 Indy Lights champion and two-time winning Indy 500 team owner Bryan Herta – nearly matched Jamin’s time with a best of 28.7089 seconds (186.321 mph) at the wheel of the sister No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry.
“This was my first time with the speedway wings and it went quite well,” Herta said. “It’s good prep for Indy and it looks as though, if we can be quick here, we can be quick there. It’s been a pretty easy transition for me from Europe. The car is fantastic and the Cooper Tires work well. It’s a good combo and it seems to produce good racing.”
Santi Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, driving for Belardi Auto Racing and winners of the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires the past two seasons, followed closely behind Jamin and Herta with laps at 28.7328 and 28.7459, respectively.
“It’s good to work with the Belardi team; I like the team, I like the way they work” said Urrutia, the 2016 Indy Lights runner-up and rookie of the year while driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian. “I have good teammates and I have the same engineer from last year, so it’s good. I am happy to get back to an oval; it’s been a while since I’ve driven one.
“We focused on our pace and didn’t run much in traffic. Since we’ll use this wing at Indy, we worked on wing setup and downforce. I’m happy with my position. The car was better and better throughout the day. It was a good day for the team.”
The MRTI focus now switches to Homestead’s 2.21-mile road course, where teams and drivers from the first two rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy – USF2000 and Pro Mazda – will test today and Wednesday. Indy Lights returns on Thursday for a day of road-course testing.
All three MRTI levels open their seasons with doubleheader race weekends March 10-12 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.