Neil Alberico claimed his first podium in the Indy Lights Series presented by Cooper Tires this weekend, after a strong drive to third place in St Petersburg, Florida. The Californian made up several places from his seventh place starting position after a tense battle with Colton Herta. Zach Claman De Mello claimed eighth at the chequered flag, while Garth Rickards came home 13th in his first Indy Lights race. Matheus Leist meanwhile endured the worst luck after suffering a mechanical issue while running second.
As the first race of the season got underway on Saturday, Leist was the top Carlin starter on the grid, lining up fourth on his debut with Alberico seventh, Claman De Melo P10 and Rickards P14. As the customary rolling start got underway, the pack bunched up and several drivers lost out at the infamous first corner. Leist made the most of his first ever rolling start and clawed his way into second place behind pole man Aaron Telitz with a fast starting Alberico close behind him in third. Claman De Melo was p11 and Rickards makes a clean start to his first Indy Lights race in p13.
As the race got into a steady rhythm, Leist was running a close second with Alberico right behind him in the final podium position. The Carlin duo looked strong until Leist suffered a mechanical problem and lost power, dropping him down the field. Alberico was first to take advantage with a clean move to take p2 on lap five.
Leist dropped down the order further and was finally forced to pit, putting him at the back of the field. Alberico meanwhile was holding his own in second place, while Claman De Melo and Rickards were also making good progress in p9 and p12 respectively.
At the front Alberico remained a strong second behind Telitz, but had a fast closing Colton Herta behind him. As the gap closed up, Alberico continued to defend well, keeping the former Carlin man behind him. Contact between the battling pair at the end of the straight fortunately left positions the same, and allowed both to continue, but a few laps later Herta managed to make the move stick by braking late up the inside of Alberico. The Rising Star Racing man put up a fight but had to be happy with third as the race entered the final stages.
In the final laps, Claman De Melo was well in the fight for sixth, running in seven place but putting O’Ward under pressure for sixth. Some close fighting and a yellow flag resulted in Claman De Melo crossing the line eighth, with Rickards 11th.
Speaking about his podium, Alberico said “We were in a very fortunate position this year where I was able to prepare and test all through the off-season thanks to the work of Rising Star Racing. I feel like we’re very well prepared and the guys have done a lot of work with me during the winter. A big thank you goes to Rising Star Racing who believed in me for another season.
“I made a good start I think, I’m not sure what happened to Colton [Herta], I saw Kyle [Kaiser] went off, I was able to move up into third place behind Matheus. I knew Matheus had a problem and passed him straight away. After that I had a good run, it’s a bit frustrating that Colton was able to pass us, but a podium is a great way to start the season. The aim is for the same or better on Sunday.”