The Indy Lights series has been on the ropes in a serious way the past few seasons. Before the race at the Kansas Speedway in 2009, grid sizes were easily in the high teens and sometimes in the low twenties. That’s a very respectable grid for a feeder series near the top of the progression ladder. Since then, participation has been waning. Last season there were eight drivers that contested the entire season. Just this past week, there were that many at the series first open test of the year at Palm Beach International Raceway and several more are poised to jump in during the Mazda Road to Indy Winterfest testing coming up early next month thanks in large part to the new IL-15 chassis and turbo-charged I4 Mazda-badged engine. The new chassis and engine represent a much needed equipment update for the series, and while initial response from existing teams, who saw their stock of parts and rolling chassis just become obsolete, was overwhelmingly negative, shuddering at the new equipment investment costs, many other teams outside the series saw the new equipment package as an opportunity.
One of the biggest names to join the Indy Lights paddock is Carlin, famous for being a strong team in various European junior formula series having won championships in British Formula Three, Formula Renault 3.5, GP3, and GP2. Many of the top names in Formula 1 have driven and won titles for Carlin including Takuma Sato, Jean-Éric Vergne, Mikhail Aleshin, and Daniel “Guy Smiley” Ricciardo. Back in November, Carlin announced that it would be entering the 2015 Indy Lights Series presented by Cooper Tires with Ed Jones, who drove FIA European Formula Three for the team last season, and one other driver yet to be determined.
Today, the team announced that former Marussia F1 pilot Max Chilton would be joining the program to help them develop the new IL-15 Indy Lights season which will see its first racing action on the Streets of St. Petersburg at the end of March. While working with the team on the Indy Lights program, Chilton will also be helping the team explore the option of joining the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016.
“I’m very excited to be assisting Carlin in the USA. While I’m still considering my options for 2015, the IndyCar package presents an interesting challenge and by assisting with the development of the Indy Lights team I’m keeping my options open for an IndyCar programme in 2016 based on a strong foundation of knowledge and experience. Hopefully I can also help the guys at Carlin get as much as possible out of their first season in the USA.” — Max Chilton
The Indy Lights Series already has eleven teams ready to go and nine signed and confirmed drivers. By the season opener at St. Pete, we could see as many as 18-20 cars take the green flag! This is a huge turn-around for the series and an enormous boost for the Mazda Road to Indy program. Carlin may only be the first of a few European teams to take a chance on open-wheel racing in the US.