Ten years ago, the path to Formula 1 for young drivers was crowded and confused. The FIA International Formula 3000 championship was supposed to be the final rung on the ladder, but with an ageing car that sat way off the pace of the F1 cars of the time, lacked the technology of the main championship and had lost its lustre and marketability, the time had come for a change.
In the January of 2004, the death of F3000 was heralded by the announcement of the formation of the GP2 Series. By July of that year, the technical details of the first GP2 car had been made public, and series boss Bruno Michel outlined his hopes for the new championship.
“Our ambition is to create a compelling single-seater series that is the final stepping stone to Formula 1. We want on-track action, talented drivers and close competition. In order to achieve this, we launched an ambitious technical programme that has produced an extremely fast car. Our initial simulations indicate that a GP2 series car should be capable of running roughly six seconds slower than a mid-grid 2003 Formula 1 car.
“The investment required for a start-up season is not insignificant, but we have made a three-year commitment and will guarantee minimal operating costs. Close attention will be paid to costs and the quantities of spare parts ordered by the participating teams.”
Looking back, ten years on, the GP2 Series can rightly consider itself a success. Its first two champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton sit first and second in the 2014 Formula 1 World Championship. It has launched the Formula 1 careers of numerous talented, Grand Prix winning and podium finishing drivers, and today GP2 stands on its own feet as one of the most exciting single make championships in the world.
Over the pond, GP2’s American cousin Indy Lights today finds itself in a similar spot to the F3000 of old. The current Indy Lights car is in its 12th season of service. Grids are not what they once were, the level of competition has slipped and the championship’s relevance and ability to promote talent to the main Indycar Series lies in serious doubt.
Just as the route to Formula 1 was given a major, meaningful and lasting shakeup a decade ago, so the Road to Indy now faces a revolution at year’s end. Indy Lights will premiere a brand new car, the IL-15, and its introduction to the championship next season is set to breathe new life not only into Indy Lights, but to Indycar itself.
The Dallara IL-15 will feature a carbon composite chassis, constructed to the latest FIA and IndyCar safety standards and will be powered by a 2.0 litre turbocharged AER engine producing 450 HP. Additional features include a six-speed, paddle-shift transmission, a 50 HP push-to-pass feature, drive-by-wire throttle and advanced engine management electronics. Initial targets were to be able to hit speeds of 200 mph. And, bravely, the car’s development is being conducted in full public view.
Conor Daly is an Indy Lights race winner. He’s a Star Mazda champion. Last season he drove almost every single seater you could imagine. He won races in GP3 and scored points on his GP2 debut. He raced the Indy 500. He tested a Formula 1 car. It should come as little surprise, then, that Indy Lights have put their faith in him, alongside 2012 Lights champion Tristan Vautier, to conduct the initial testing of IL-15 before handing it over to Indycar stars James Hinchcliffe and reigning champion Scott Dixon.
“It’s definitely powerful and its got a good technology package with Cosworth and the guys from AER,” Daly told me in Spa.
“I think they’ve done a really good job to prepare the engine. We did a lot of miles and considering it was the first time the car had run, it was impressive how much we were able to run. I did the first day at Putnam Park but that was mostly just trouble shooting, so the first real day I did was on the oval. It was pretty sketchy at first with not a lot of rear grip, but the front was very positive. We took the full day to sort that out, which we did. And that in itself was also very positive. Every change we made was good. We went in the right direction and by the end of the day we ran our fastest lap on the last run so that showed good progress. It was quicker than the pole speed from this year and there is still so much time to be found in gear ratios, trimming the car out… a lot of stuff. I saw 199mph legitimately on the wheel entering Turn 1, and that’s without trimming it out or using sixth gear so I think it has the potential to be really fast.
“That was the oval… but it was a really different story on the road course. We spent a whole day unable to get much grip into it. That was a bit of a struggle. But we did a lot of miles and so we got a lot of data on what worked and what didn’t. Testing is carrying on as we speak and they’re finding more and more grip. And you know, even though I say we had trouble finding grip, we were still faster than the pole this year so that’s really positive.”
So where would Daly say it sits in the pantheon of the cars he’s driven in the last 12 months?
“I think it will slot right in between GP3 and GP2. It doesn’t have enough power to compete with GP2 but it definitely has more power than GP3. And it’s got the fancy bits and bobs that produce downforce! The brakes are nice too. Performance friction has done a really nice job of putting a package together specifically for that car. They’re not carbon brakes but they are really good and that’s cool to see how much work they have put in just for that car.
“As for the engine, GP3’s single turbo was terrible. But this? People LOVE the sound of this thing. It is loud, it screams, it’s got turbo whizzes and all sorts and it really pulls. I think it should provide great racing. I think there is a very high probability of that. When the boost comes on there’s a kick, but AER has done a really good job to mask it. I ran an anti-lag system on the road course and it was really interesting. It’s something that we had to fine tune. Also there’s push to pass which will be awesome. Overall, everything is good.”
The IL-15 is the car Indy Lights desperately needs. But more than that, it could yet be that IL-15 proves itself to be the car that global motorsport needs.
Ten years on from GP2’s launch, promotion to the top tier as a result of success in F1’s feeder category is no longer a certainty. Talent alone is not enough. Budget in the tens of millions of dollars is an increasing requirement to oil the cogs for even the most talented GP2 driver to gain his place at the top table. The promotion of Max Verstappen from Formula 3 to Formula 1 is the exception, not the rule, but even so the promotion of Bottas and Kvyat from GP3 and the likes of Vergne and Bianchi from WSR show that GP2 no longer holds the position of absolute arbiter of F1 merit that it once did.
Regardless of GP2’s position, it is clear that chances in the F1 paddock are few and far between. More and more of Europe’s most talented young drivers are thus shifting their attention away from Formula 1 and towards alternate championships. Formula E is flooded with talent, many of whom never got that F1 shot. Endurance racing is benefitting from the roster of talent left on the sidelines. But it is Stateside and towards Indycar that the focus of many young racers is now switching.
Talented GP3 racer Jack Harvey realised the futility of following the ladder to F1 and switched to Indy Lights this season, as did long time GP2 racer Luiz Razia. They have blazed a trail which others look set to follow. And IL-15 could be the deal-breaker.
With few routes out of GP3, WSR and GP2 into F1, Indycar is becoming a focus, not a fallback. This weekend, many of GP2 and GP3’s star drivers have been locked in discussions over the best route to fly to Fontana in the week between Spa and Monza. They want to visit the Indycar paddock at its championship finale, show their faces, talk to the influential and make their intentions known. Just as the launch of GP2 in 2005 gave the path to F1 a much needed revamp, so the birth of IL-15 could mark Indy Lights out as a genuine feeder category of choice for aspiring racers the world over.
“The launch of IL-15 is important because the series is struggling right now and what it needs is something new,” Daly confirms. “There’s only really three teams that you can run with in Lights at the moment and have a chance of winning. That limits you immediately. I think now if you get an even playing field with a new car, then you’ll have more interest from teams and drivers because it opens things up again. Everyone will have a chance. That’s why you go to GP3 and GP2, because theoretically you have the same chance as everyone else. That’s what Indy Lights needs.”
In order to do that, however, Indy Lights needs the one thing that GP2 lacks. And that is a guaranteed route via established top tier teams. Yes, the Indy Lights champion will be guaranteed three races including the Indy 500 as a prize for taking the crown, but what the series desperately requires is existing Indycar teams to become involved, be it via an official association with a Lights team or by running their own squad.
Andretti has already shown the benefit of such a system, when it took a gamble on young Carlos Munoz and ran their Indy Lights star at last season’s Indy500. Few rookies have made such a sensational debut at the Brickyard, with Munoz’s style, speed and bravery calling to mind another young Colombian on his IMS debut, Juan Pablo Montoya. It came as little surprise that Munoz was plucked from the Lights team and moved up to Indycar by Andretti for 2014. But Munoz is the exception.
Of course, IL-15 as a new car will not be cheap. But with seasonal budgets expected to top out at between $900,000 and $1.1m the required finances for a prospective 2015 Indy Lights driver are not so different to current levels and are still highly favourable when compared to the money required to run in GP3, WSR or GP2.
Series boss Dan Andersen has said he already has nine teams committed for 2015. “They’ve signed on and paid their registration fees. And we have more that I expect to sign up in coming days, including two of the top current Indy Lights teams. Plus, we have IndyCar teams, such as Rahal and Foyt who are seriously considering it, along with some former Atlantic teams that are pretty far down the road in making a decision. A lot of credit goes to Dallara and AER for producing something here that everyone wants to play with.”
For Daly, the inclusion in the championship of existing Indycar teams is vital.
“I think in America, if an Indycar team really embraces the junior team and sees a driver that has done well and hasn’t just brought money, then there’s more of a chance that they will take a chance on youth. Certainly more than in F1. I’ve seen so many young drivers in the F1 world not get that chance, but I think that in the Indycar world, embracing Indy Lights and the new IL-15 should allow talented racers more of a chance.”
As young drivers across the world allow their frustrations to fester and begin to question how realistic their F1 dream truly is as the European feeder championships bottleneck at the F1 gates, IL-15 could be the spark for Indy Lights which the launch of GP2 gave F1 hopefuls a decade ago. Time will tell, but Andersen and Indy Lights may be embarking upon a path that leads not only to the rejuvenation of their own championship but which may also, by attracting the greatest young talent from around the world to a more open and accessible ladder to the top table, form the basis of a new golden era for Indycar itself.