Open Wheelin’ Blog: The Carlin Connection — Is a Revitalized Indy Lights Era on the Horizon?

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Mazda Road to Indy, Midwest, Southeast, Sprints & Midgets, Verizon IndyCar Series 0 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — Blog by Road to Indy TV Host and Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Indy Lights photo —

We’re over five months removed from the 2014 IndyCar season.The visceral excitement of last year has now faded to a memory. With little racing to fill in the gaps over the winter months, the wait for the 2015 campaign to arrive has been filled with…well, a lot of waiting.

During idle times, we get to talking, and there has been plenty to talk about recently. Counting the last two weeks alone, there has been one race cancellation and one controversial appointment to race control. In the next two weeks, more than one fan favorite will vie for one of few remaining seats in the series, and it’s unlikely they’ll each reach a deal.

This offseason hasn’t exactly moved with forward momentum. All is not lost, however, and if you’ve been looking hard enough, you may find something to be excited about.

Under the wing of the IndyCar Series, there’s a battle brewing in Indy Lights.

Bolstered by a new car and new faces, it’s a new era for Indy Lights on paper. In theory, the future could be even brighter. On IndyCar race day, most eyes will be glued to track in the late afternoon, but some of the weekend’s most intriguing story lines may be right under our noses earlier in the day.

New entrant Carlin comes to the United States from the United Kingdom and they’ve been quick to turn fast lap times and heads in testing. It’s still early, but if Carlin continues to improve, their impact on the series could reach beyond the point standings.

A New Start

During the final week of January, Indy Lights drivers hopped behind the wheel on both the road course and the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Five of the six teams present at Homestead tested earlier in the month at Palm Beach International Raceway. As you might suspect for a new team, Carlin was absent from the first test, but any preconceived notion that the team was behind was immediately put to rest in Homestead.

Indy Lights rookie Ed Jones topped the time sheets on all but one road course session, leading session three by 0.677 seconds over Scott Hargrove and 8Star Motorsports and doing so with the top speed of the first two days, 107.884 mph.

Jones joins the Indy Lights roster after scoring two podiums in European Formula Three in 2014, but without any oval experience. Even so, driver and team managed to place ahead of two Schmidt Peterson drivers, including 2014 runner-up Jack Harvey.

Based out of the south England town of Farnham, Carlin feels right at home on the race track. The team name might not ring a bell to fans stateside, but the list of world-class Carlin drivers from years past points to their prestige in junior formulae. In their teens and early 20s, current F1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat, Marcus Ericsson, Felipe Nasr, and Carlos Sainz Jr.—exactly one-third of the projected 2015 grid—piloted Carlin machinery at some point before reaching the pinnacle.

Carlin has done its talking on the track and on its collective resume, but they began a new challenge with a roar two weeks ago.

They’re here, they’re fast, and they’re in it to win it.

As is always the case in racing though, success isn’t met with smiles unless it’s your team. The long term impact of early testing results shouldn’t be overestimated, but the numbers are a valid litmus test that pass new pressure onto established teams.

There will always be a divide in any series between low budget teams and the upper echelon giants, but it generally takes a few seasons to reach that top tier. Clearly, Carlin can’t be pigeonholed into a true newcomer category, especially factoring in their top notch facilities. It’s worth noting that wind tunnel testing and other extensive private measures are not permitted by the series rules, but the facility can surely benefit them in other legal ways.

Max Chilton: A Familiar Face in a Foreign Place 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Carlin’s arrival is the recent alliance with former Marussia F1 driver Max Chilton.

Chilton was brought on to assist with development at Homestead-Miami and no official word has been given on his 2015 status with the team. Carlin has ambitions to run an IndyCar season in 2016, and even if he never steps foot in the IL-15 again, reading between the lines would lead one to believe there is interest on both sides for him to fill the second seat and later make a run at the big leagues together.

His talent and merit could be argued by some race fans, but a decision to compete in Indy Lights would speaks volumes about Chilton as a driver and about the direction the series may head in the future.

In a sport where having the proper mindset is critical, Chilton would show admirable maturity by racing in Indy Lights instead of holding his nose in the air and viewing it as a step down.

He wouldn’t be the first F1 driver to race in the series. Fabrizio Barbazza, the inaugural champion of what was then called the CART American Racing Series, later went on to race for Minardi, and Pedro Chaves returned from a vain season-long effort to qualify with Coloni in 1991 to drive three years in Indy Lights. In the new era though, Chilton would be the first and the most influential, perhaps going as far as to restore Indy’s image as a world class form of open-wheel racing.

A New Long-Term Outlook?

At the core, the majority of Indy Lights’ issues over the last handful of seasons derives from the series’ stagnant nature. Credit for the revitalized approach belongs to promoter Dan Andersen, but could Carlin become partially responsible for long term success?

Given the status Carlin has attained as a champion overseas, other international teams are watching the 2015 Indy Lights season closely. If Carlin is successful, then it would be very likely to see foreign rivals start up in the series as well. At this stage, it’s still very early and these are rumors at best, but interest has certainly piqued. These teams are not F1 feeders—they compete for junior formula titles on their own merit and Indy Lights offers them a fresh look in an unconquered nation.

In the near future, present Indy Lights rivals must stand their ground. Winning a championship has always been the goal, but now the pressure has ramped up for them to take the fight to Carlin and avoid being shown up by the new guys.

Driver funding will always be central to financing a ride, but if other experienced drivers follow in Max Chilton’s footsteps, then current Indy Lights mainstays may want to reevaluate their driver lineups too.

Belardi brought in 2012 series champion Tristan Vautier at Homestead on the road course, where he finished as high as P3 in the fourth session. The move may have been a shakedown to provide more effective feedback for the team, but Vautier is one of multiple talent drivers who could be spending the 2015 year without a full-time ride.

Is there enough value in Indy Lights now to warrant a return to the division for guys like Vautier and Conor Daly? If not now, could there be for others in a similar position in the not-so-distant future?

A New Horizon

The wide angle view of Indy Lights is unclear, but the 2015 season is starting to focus and all signs point toward another strong season on the track as well as a much-needed boost off it.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For much of the last decade, the Indy Lights brand slipped with each season.

But now? Indy Lights is a totally different animal, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see it treated as such by some important old and new faces.

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