Former Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier does the shakedown.
From their modest headquarters in Palmetto, Florida, Dan Andersen and his family have taken control of practically the entire open-wheel developmental system. The "Mazda Road to Indy" ladder system essentially starts with karts, progresses to the USF2000 series, to the Pro Mazda series, and finally to the Indy Lights series.
An Indy Lights series that has, frankly, been struggling. An aging car and an Infiniti engine that hasn't carried an Infiniti badge for years – it has been referred to simply as the generic "Indy Lights engine," much the way the International Race of Champions Pontiac Firebirds lost their identity when Pontiac pulled out – did not exactly represent the business plan that would attract new teams and drivers.
The beginning of the end of Indy Lights' irrelevance started last year, when IndyCar asked Andersen, owner of a very successful contracting company, to take over the series. With some reluctance, he did. And almost immediately, the industry saw progress being made.
Monday, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, we saw tangible proof that this is a new era for the Indy Lights series. Tristan Vautier, the 2012 Indy Lights champion and 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year, took the wheel of the new AER turbo-powered Dallara IL-15 chassis for what the series says was 85 trouble-free laps.
There was a private test at Putnam Park Raceway last week near Indianapolis, not surprising since that is Dallara's U.S. home. But this test was public, and it went remarkably well. Despite the fact that the powerplant has dropped from eight to four cylinders, Vautier's best lap was a half-second faster than Jack Harvey's pole time from the weekend's Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Indy Lights double-header, both of which Harvey won.
"The goal was to come here and do mileage, which we achieved," said Tony Cotman, president and founder of NZR Consulting, which was involved in the design process of the new car. "The car is obviously very fast, so that's good. As I have said all along, it is important for us to get the car in a position that, when the teams get it, all the bugs are sorted out and we can give them a pretty good baseline. It was a lot of work to get the car put together the last couple of weeks and all the partners have done a fantastic job and given us a good starting point."
"We are extremely satisfied with the very first official test for the IL-15," said Stefano De Ponti, head of Dallara's U.S. operations. "There's a lot of happiness for the great job we have done as a group together with Dan Andersen, Tony Cotman, AER, everyone. The car seems to be working very well and the driver is happy. We are looking ahead now for more testing to develop the car to check for more reliability and more speed." Cotman is the former vice-president of IndyCar competition, who hired on as the Indy Lights race director last January.
My first impressions are that the engine is great, the drivability is already right there and the gearbox is amazing.
"My first impressions are that the engine is great, the drivability is already right there and the gearbox is amazing," said Vautier following his morning runs. "The brakes I think are the biggest step forward. They are really, really good. The balance was off at the start obviously, but we made a couple of small changes and the car came alive.
"A really good day," he said, after the afternoon session. "It went very smoothly. We didn't have any major issues which is always good with a brand-new car, and we finished faster than the pole position that was set this past weekend with a 1:13.40. The car is a lot of fun to drive. It's a blast. Everything about it is better than the old car. It's a proper car that prepares drivers better for IndyCar as well. It has very similar characteristics in the way it responds on track - better braking, better acceleration, better everything. So, definitely a lot of potential."
Conor Daly likes it, too
Last week, former Pro Mazda champion and current GP2 series competitor Conor Daly shook the car down at Putnam. "I think it's a massive step in the right direction for the series," said Daly. "It's awesome to be honest. The experience I have got now over in Europe from racing basically all of the Dallaras that are on the market, it's cool to experience this new one and I think it's what the series needs. It's big, it's fast, it's high-tech – it's the future."
The 2.0-liter AER engine is similar to the one that Dyson Racing used last year in their LMP1 car in the American Le Mans Series. It is Mazda-based, but so far Mazda hasn't signed on as the official engine sponsor, but some sort of involvement from the company would make sense.
Testing will continue at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on August 12 and 14 with a four-day test scheduled for the Speedway road course beginning August 18. Vautier and Daly will continue sharing driving duties.
Andersen tells Motorsport.com that the revitalized series is already attracting a lot of interest, ranging from some European drivers and teams, to an Australian V-8 Supercar team. "This really has been a tremendous day," he said. "The level of teamwork in this project has been exceptional and I have to congratulate Tony and all of our partners including Cooper Tires for a job well done. To see a brand-new car perform so well right out of the box bodes extremely well for the final product our teams will receive."