Exclusive: Three Indy Lights Stars Destined For IndyCar On Their Title Hopes

Twelve races are in the books, eight are yet to come: on August 20–21, Indy Lights kicks off the second half of its 2021 season with a doubleheader at the Gateway oval in Illinois. To discuss the season so far and the road ahead, F1 Feeder Series sat down for a series of exclusive interviews with the three leading title contenders: Kyle Kirkwood of Andretti Autosport, David Malukas of HMD Motorsports and Linus Lundqvist of Global Racing Group.

By Jeroen Demmendaal

One has been spending his days mountain-biking in Illinois and playing the new F1 game on his sim rig. Another has been hanging out with friends in New York and enjoying the Florida sunshine. The third took some time to reconnect with the motherland back in Sweden. Yet all of the leading title contenders in the 2021 Indy Lights season agree, speaking exclusively with F1 Feeder Series: a summer break of one-and-a-half month is way too much of a good thing.

“It’s kinda nice to have this break but man, six weeks is really long,” says David Malukas, the HMD Motorsports driver currently second in the standings. “I’m really ready to go back racing,” adds Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, the championship leader. “Six weeks is a bit too long for me.” And while third-in-line Linus Lundqvist enjoyed his time in Sweden with friends and family, he is adamant that “the thing I love most is racing”.

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It’s no wonder the three amigos atop the Indy Lights standings are raring to get back into the saddle, because this year’s title battle is one of the most exciting in modern Lights history. Whereas recent years treated fans to a two-horse battle (O’Ward vs Herta in 2018, Askew vs VeeKay in 2019), the 2021 championship run has developed into an exciting fight between three youngsters at the top of their game.

Lundqvist, the 22-year-old Global Racing Group driver from Tyresö in the greater Stockholm area, kicked off the season just like he ended the previous one. Following a win and a second place at the season opener at Barber Motorsport Park, many wondered whether he would continue the momentum from his 2020 Formula Regional Americas title run in which he won an astonishing 15 out of 17 races.

But as the season went on, first Malukas and then Kirkwood also found their bearings and started winning races. Meanwhile, Lundqvist tailed off somewhat after a strong start and has not finished on the podium since Detroit. With eight races to go and a double header at the Gateway oval up next, Kirkwood leads the way with 290 points, while Malukas is only 11 points adrift and Lundqvist has to make up another 14.

Differing expectations

When discussing the season with all three, it becomes obvious that Malukas is the most cheery about his performances so far. That might also be due to the expectations each driver faced before the season. After all, both Kirkwood and Lundqvist joined Lights with a scholarship in their back pocket, courtesy of dominant championship wins in preceding years, and were therefore on many pre-season shortlists.

David Malukas | Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

19-year old Malukas, however, finished a distant second in FR Americas behind Lundqvist in 2020, while his first Lights season in 2019 ended in a decent but fairly unspectacular sixth overall. So his sight was set on getting a first win — which he got immediately at Barber. To his own surprise, he’s found himself running with the top runners from the get-go. Then again, the HMD organisation is a very different animal from the team formerly known as BN Racing where he made his 2019 debut.

“It’s definitely going a lot better than I expected,” he explains. “I wasn’t expecting to lead the championship, or fight for it at least. I was expecting that maybe we’d have a few races where we would be up there. So I’m really happy, and I need to give full credit to the team. In my first Lights season we had a lots of up and downs, and that was mainly just down to team issues. So since then we worked a lot with that. I think it’s almost been a 100 per cent turnaround: new team name, new people, new everything. And now it’s beautiful, everything runs like clockwork.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been disappointments. Detroit is an obvious candidate — Malukas hit the wall in practice and as a result “the whole weekend was a slow catch-up, with the car not at peak performance”, he says. Then there was the coming together with Kirkwood in Race 1 at Barber, as well as a misjudgment in qualifying at Mid-Ohio that scuppered further improvement.

That first-race, first-lap shunt at Barber is also the first thing mentioned by Kirkwood. “Ah Barber, I don’t know what that was,” he says. “We threw a lot of things at the car trying to get it right and we made some mistakes by doing that. We probably should have played it a bit more conservative. Then I collided with David, so that was not an ideal way to start the season.” Overall though, Kirkwood is happy with his and the team’s performances, especially the winning streak that started in Detroit and was only interrupted by a mechanical failure at Road America.

Kyle Kirkwood | Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

Moreover, he’s been able to benefit from working with teammates during the season, a novelty for the Florida native. “I never really had teammates in the past to be honest,” he explains. “It’s really just been me, looking at my own data or at Oliver (Askew, JD)’s data. So it’s nice to have people around me that are quick and that I can bounce things off. No matter what, even if there’s like a half second between myself and another driver, there’s always going to be some corner where the other driver is faster again and some other techniques you can try and exploit.”

Still in the fight

As for Lundqvist, he may have lost some of his shine following a very strong start but he isn’t particularly worried. “I mean, two fourth places at the last weekend in Mid-Ohio wasn’t what we wanted, but it’s still not a disaster and we’re still in the fight for a championship,” the Swede notes, adding that there are still plenty of points to be gained. “I think we’ve seen during the season as well that one race lost can cost you very much. We just need to have a high lowest level, and then obviously also the pace to win races.”

Linus Lundqvist | Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

Lundqvist is also quick to point out that others may still throw their hat into the title race. “Obviously Kyle is leading the championship, but if you look at his team mates, Danial Frost has had numerous poles and Devlin DeFrancesco has been out there on the podium as well.” Plus, he adds, the two oval races at Gateway pay out 150 per cent of the regular points tally, with 45 markers rather than 30 for a win. “So I don’t think you can really count anyone out. I think you have us three in the top, but a couple of bad races from our part and they can all be up in the mix again.”

“I think a lot of drivers such as Toby Sowery have really sped up now that they have gotten some track time,” adds Malukas, as he considers the field beyond the three leading title contenders. “Toby used to be my team mate and I know he’s a very good driver. Alex Peroni as well, he’s done some really good races. Frost, he’s been having good momentum recently and I think his confidence is going pretty high up. But I’m really happy, the more competition the better!”

With four rounds and eight races left to go before the curtain draws on the season, all three are bullish about their chances in the weeks ahead. “Portland is gonna be a track where we’ll be strong,” Kirkwood offers. “Andretti have been strong there in the past. And we’ve done some testing at Laguna Seca and we feel we got the car in a really good place there.”

Malukas also highlights the Californian track as a place where he expects to do business. “Laguna will definitely be a strong point for us, I think we’ll have a jump there,” says the Chicagoan. “My engineer used to work with Rinus VeeKay at Juncos, and they took off at Laguna in 2019 and swept the whole field. Plus we did a lot of testing there. The rest of the tracks will be even-steven, I think, and will come down to the drivers and how well we can put a lap together.”

Podium consisting of Lundqvist, Kirkwood and Malukas | Credit: Gavin Baker/Road To Indy PR

As for Lundqvist, he’s mostly looking forward to Gateway, as it will be his first ever oval races. “I think that one and the street races are the tracks that I’ve been looking forward to the most,” the Swede explains. “I’ve never raced an oval before, and it’s been a long time since I had that challenge. So it’s gonna be interesting to see how I react to it and come up to speed. And from what I heard, driving around it is one thing, but it’s a completely different thing racing at an oval!”

Looking ahead

So what does the future hold? IndyCar is the obvious next station on the journey for each of the young guns, but especially Kirkwood and Lundqvist remain fairly tight-lipped about their chances. The American has been mentioned as a candidate at several teams for 2022, but says any contract talks “have not really been a topic as of right now”. Lundqvist will confirm that he’s talking to teams and gets some guidance from his fellow Swede (and former Indy 500 winner) Kenny Bräck, but is otherwise short on details.

Malukas, in somewhat more of a sharing mood, says he’s talking to several teams about a full-time ride. Asked for a percentage, he reckons there’s “about a 65–70 per cent” chance that he’ll be in IndyCar next year. F1 Feeder Series has since been able to confirm that Malukas is a serious candidate for a seat at Ed Carpenter Racing in 2022. Regardless of how things play out, however, it seems a fair bet that all three title contenders have a bright future. If anything, that once again underlines the crucial role Indy Lights plays in nurturing the next generation of talent.

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