There will be a strong British presence when the Firestone Indy Lights championship launches on the streets of St Petersburg this weekend, with no fewer than six drivers – including former champion Jay Howard – competing in the feeder series of the Indy Racing League.
Joining Howard for the double-header are Panther Racing pair Pippa Mann and Martin Plowman, Northern Ireland’s Ali Jackson, former Tottenham Hotspur Superleague Formula driver Duncan Tappy, and BRDC award-winner Stefan Wilson.
All bar Howard will be making their series dÃ©buts as rookies – but Mann has already built herself a reputation as a talent to watch, running fastest on both days of the February tests at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
At the time, she said: “I’m really, really pleased – it’s been a huge learning experience and I got better running in traffic. I can’t not be happy with how we ran. I hope when we get to the race weekend, we have a similar performance.”
Plowman and Jackson also posted impressive speeds at the rookie test, but they will face stiff competition from the likes of Americans J.R. Hildebrand, Jonathan Summerton and Charlie Kimball, Canadian James Hinchcliffe, and Brazil’s Ana Beatriz.
Tappy, whose drive was announced too late for him to take part in the rookie tests, said: “This is an amazing opportunity and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. It’s going to be a steep learning curve getting to grips with the new car too but I’ll do my absolute best.”
Last year’s champion, Raphael Matos, will make his debut in the senior series at the same circuit this weekend – where he will race against Stefan Wilson’s older brother Justin – but the path from Indy Lights to a full-time IRL drive is far from certain.
Howard cashed in his 2006 title for a frustrating year being under-employed by Marty Roth’s vanity team – on the odd occasions he made it onto the racetrack he generally out-performed his boss, but when the team contracted to a single car it was always going to be Howard who was relegated to the sidelines.
The 2007 champion, fellow Brit Alex Lloyd, remains a development driver with top team Ganassi but is no closer to a full-time race seat. For the second year in a row he has been entered for the Indianapolis 500 – but no more.