TODD TODD TODD

Leist sets pace as rookies log valuable laps on ISM Raceway oval

Updated: 

AVONDALE, Arizona – Matheus Leist won the first oval race of his life as an Indy Lights rookie last year. The talented young Brazilian seems to have picked up an early knack for it in an Indy car as well.

Leist led the pack as five Verizon IndyCar Series rookies and a pair of drivers with limited oval experience tested today at ISM Raceway. Driving the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing, Leist’s best lap of 184.236 mph (19.9700 seconds) around the 1.022-mile oval set the pace for the day. He was the only driver to turn a lap of less than 20 seconds.

ISM RACEWAY OPEN TEST: Entry list

“It felt pretty fast, to be honest, my first on an oval in an Indy car,” said Leist, winner of the 2017 Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.

Matheus 'Matt' Leist and Tony Kanaan“I’ve done a few races in Indy Lights, which was pretty good for me, and now stepping in the big cars – new cars as well with (the new universal) aero kit. Each time I hit the track I’m feeling more comfortable in the cockpit, with the tires and everything. First impressions were pretty good. It was my first practice here also, so just having some fun and learning which is the best lines to run.”

Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, occupied the second spot on the timesheet at 183.347 mph (20.0669 seconds). The 2017 World Series Formula V8 3.5 champion logged the most laps of any driver, 121 in all after veteran teammate Sebastien Bourdais shook down the car for 18 laps.

“It was really good,” said Fittipaldi, driver of the No. 19 Paysafe Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. “It was mostly about getting up to speed and getting used to the ovals. The walls come up really fast. I enjoyed working with the team.

“We had some good pace at the end, but at the end of the day it was about finding the limit on new tires and that’s what we’re going to carry into tomorrow.”

Spencer Pigot is not a series rookie but was allowed to join the test, which came a day ahead of the two-day open test for all cars on Friday and Saturday. Pigot was third fastest in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing with a lap of 180.589 mph.

Rookie Robert Wickens posted the fourth-best speed at 180.158 mph (20.422 seconds). A shakedown by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe provided a baseline, with the “attention to detail” among the most surprising things during Wickens’ oval inauguration.

“We were looking at data to the baseline run that James did in the morning when he did his six laps,” said Wickens, driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda. “The details we’re talking about was 3 percent of throttle and I said, ‘Come on, man, I can’t feel that in my foot.’ 

“I had my first save. I got a little bit of oversteer and had my first wiggle. We just came in after that. It was good to do that. There is a very long road ahead to get on top of these things.” 

Others to run in the test session were rookies Zach Veach (Andretti Autosport) and Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing), as well as Gabby Chaves in a refresher course since he, too, has not raced at ISM Raceway.

Chaves, the 2015 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the Verizon IndyCar Series, called the universal aero kit “edgy,” but added that diagnosing the car through driver feel was enhanced.

“I think it’s easier to pick out the mechanical imbalances that you have because you don’t have 10,000 pounds of downforce masking it,” said Chaves. “Before, that’s what a Band-aid was: the car’s not handling well, just add some downforce on it. Well, you don’t have that anymore and now you’ve got to fix it for real.”

Twenty-three drivers are scheduled to take part in the open test on Friday and Saturday. Sessions run from 3-6 and 8-11 p.m. both days, and all stream live on racecontrol.indycar.com. This will be the only all-series test before the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

From the fans