Matheus Leist will graduate to IndyCar next season, partnering Tony Kanaan in an all-Brazilian lineup at AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet.
Leist, who scored three wins and two poles on his way to fourth in this year’s Indy Lights championship, will drive the #4 ABC Supply entry, operated from Foyt’s main base in Waller, TX, while Kanaan’s #14 (also ABC Supply-backed) will be run by the Indianapolis-based arm of the team.
The 2016 British Formula 3 champion’s race engineer will be Mike Colliver, who ran the #4 car for Conor Daly last season.
AJ Foyt said: “I wanted a fresh start for 2018. I think the combination of an experienced driver like Tony and a hungry young driver like Matt will work. I watched him in Indy Lights this year and he won [the Freedom 100] at Indy. I know he’s got a lot to learn but I think he’s going to learn very quick and I think he’ll be very good in the Indy cars.”
Team president Larry Foyt told Motorsport.com said he had been tracking Leist’s progress for two years and that the 19-year-old Brazilian became the obvious choice after he and AJ decided to replace both Daly and Carlos Munoz for 2018.
“A friend of mine had told me to watch Matheus in British F3 with Double R Racing, and so I had and then he came to America with Carlin and did well in Indy Lights,” he said. “He had a really good stretch this summer, winning at Indy, Road America and Iowa.
“But it wasn’t until late in the season that we decided we’d be changing both drivers for 2018. So I ended up meeting Matheus and it grew from there. It was tough because Carlos [Munoz] and Conor are good guys and good drivers, but something wasn’t jelling with our program and what we were trying to do.
“So with Tony coming on board, this was a good chance to give an opportunity to a young guy who can learn from him – someone who is quick and who I hope will be part of our future for a while.”
Despite letting go of Daly and Munoz just a year after that pair replaced Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth, Foyt said he had no major misgivings over the lack of continuity in the driver lineup.
“With the new aerokit for next year, I felt like this was the ideal opportunity for a rookie,” he said. “It should drive a little bit closer to the Indy Lights car – lighter on downforce, easier to spin up the rear tires. And with Eric Cowdin [new race engineer on #14 car] coming with Tony – a combination that’s been together for a lot of their IndyCar careers – I’m sure Matheus will learn a lot from watching them operate.
“He has a great attitude, eyes and mind wide open, wanting to absorb everything he can, and mature way beyond his 19 years.”
Leist himself declared: “This is a special moment in my career and I’m so grateful for the things that are happening. Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that I’ll be driving for the legend A.J. Foyt.
“Having Tony Kanaan as my teammate is incredible because he’s been an idol for me since I was a child. Tony and I are from different generations but I can’t wait to be with him at the track and learn as much as I can from him. It will be a pleasure.”
“Every day I keep telling myself that I couldn’t have made a better decision than to come to the USA at the end of 2016. America is where things happen and where the good drivers have a proper place. The IndyCar Series is one of the best categories in the world and has the most important race in the world. I’ve dreamed about racing in this series and I can’t wait for this dream to come true.”
Kanaan will drive in the team’s first test with the 2018 aerokit-equipped car at Sebring next month, with Leist scheduled to test there in early January. The pair will test together at the same venue toward the end of January.