Firestone Indy Lights Series sophomore Esteban Guerrieri needs a bit of help to overtake his Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate Tristan Vautier for this year's championship. But having been through a title battle a year ago, he knows what to expect.
He has three wins this year – marquee races at Long Beach and Indianapolis along with Iowa – but fell from leading by seven points to down by 11 after a third-place finish in Baltimore, where Vautier won. From either position, Guerrieri was ready to pounce.
“There was not much difference in seven points,” he says. “It was good to be leading but my points lead was small. I'd rather be in that position at the very end of the championship.”
Guerrieri, who won three races and six poles in Schmidt's iconic No. 7 Lucas Oil car a year ago, has grown and matured as he admitted he made too many mistakes. Three accidents plus an engine failure and a 14th (Edmonton 2) dropped him behind eventual champion and an IndyCar rookie this year, Josef Newgarden.
“This year, I still have to learn from the mistakes I made last year,” he admits. “From the perspective I finished the season, I had to ask why I couldn't get to the last race without fighting for the championship? I went through race by race and I didn't finish every race, many because I didn't get done. Some I got hit, some I risked too much. You ask, ‘When it's time to risk, and when it's not, you know?'
“I started the championship this year, knowing there's a time to race for a win, and the most important thing is not play catch-up. Increasing the chance of risking can go the wrong way. You want to be on top of it. That's the change for this year. So far working good. Maybe Long Beach, I knew the start was important so I went in braking late for the first corner. I've tried to be strong at the end of the races.”
Strong he has been – and although Vautier's a rookie in Lights, he's still been a more than capable foe, and also a veteran of title pressure having won the Star Mazda title a year ago.
“It doesn't matter if you're a rookie or not – Josef and me were last year, and we were still going for the championship,” he says. “When you're a good driver and you have a good team behind you, there's so much information the team gives you. They give you everything you can. You absorb so much value in learning tracks, and the setup is always good. I think a rookie can do the job.”
An earlier test this year provided Guerrieri a chance to learn the track, but he admits the grip level will be different for race weekend.
“We thought then as a team, it would be nonsense to run too much, and then see the track is different when we get there for grip,” he says. “I'm glad I got used to the track. It's not so easy flat. It's bumpy in some places. The race will be tight, not as tight as Vegas last year. I don't really know what to expect, but it's not going to be an easy race.”
Regardless of the outcome, Guerrieri is targeting a move into IndyCar for next year. There hasn't been an Argentine driver in American open-wheel racing since Gaston Mazzacane raced in Champ Car for Dale Coyne in 2004; prior to that, heralded prodigy and ex-Sauber Formula 1 driver Norberto Fontana raced for John Della Penna in 2000. Guerrieri had a seat fitting for KV Racing Technology in the offseason before a return to Lights this year.
“Yep – it's a goal for me to move up,” he admits. “I knew there was a gap for improvement for me this year, and I had to smooth out the things I didn't do last year. But hopefully this can convince team owners there is potential for IndyCar in the future. Hopefully the end of the championship goes well.”