PRUETT: A good weekend for American open-wheel

PRUETT: A good weekend for American open-wheel

The finer aspects of American open-wheel racing were on display last weekend in Texas and thousands of miles away in the U.K.

The biggest highlight was delivered by 2021 NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou, who showcased all the skills he’s developed in recent years to produce a stunning performance in FP1 of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas (pictured above).

Assigned a single set of Pirelli’s medium compound tires for the 60-minute outing, the Spaniard posted a fastest lap that was within 0.3s of McLaren Racing Lando Norris while the Briton was on the same compound. Norris would be given a set of the faster soft compound to close FP1 and widened the gap by a considerable margin, but it was Palou’s output on the same rubber that made a statement.

Of IndyCar’s next-generation drivers, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward are hailed first as the fastest in the series, with Palou often regarded as just a tick behind them on raw pace. If FP1 told us anything, it’s how Palou belongs in the same place of reverie as the other top young IndyCar drivers.

The final numbers from the session didn’t tell the full story of Palou’s showing in the McLaren at COTA. Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Palou’s story has been one of surprises and overachievement since landing with the Chip Ganassi Racing team where he captured an IndyCar title on debut with the storied program. His speed and composure last Friday in COTA were just the latest eye-opening chapter in the 25-year-old’s career and he hopes what was shown in FP1 shines a positive light on the current state of IndyCar talent.

“We were three-tenths off Lando on the same compound, which was great, and I felt that was the most I could do with what we had,” Palou said. “The team was happy. We did the long run afterwards, which was great as well. We went fast. It’s not only important for myself, which was great, but I think as a series, it’s like, ‘Hey, man, there’s a lot of talent here.’

“It’s not like I destroyed everybody in every single race in IndyCar. Nobody does. So that means that a lot of drivers could do the job I have done in Austin. Hopefully that opens more doors in the future for IndyCar drivers. That will be amazing.”

Logan Sargeant was out to make a statement at the USGP. Photo courtesy of Williams Racing

Palou was joined in FP1 by Florida’s Logan Sargeant, who was nominated for a race seat with Williams in 2023 under the assumption he’ll earn enough points to be granted a Super License. Where Palou left Europe and quickly found success in America, Sargeant’s gone in the opposite direction, leaving the U.S. karting scene to follow the European open-wheel ladder system in a bid to reach F1.

Sargeant’s change in his station in life since last December is truly remarkable. At the time, he was deep into talks with the A.J. Foyt Racing team over a race seat, and from the outside, it had the markings of a relationship of convenience. An unrewarding season of FIA Formula 3 left Sargeant lacking the momentum he desired; in 2020, he’d placed third in F3, but it was followed by a run to seventh with a lesser team, and by chance, the Foyt team was seeking a driver who could bring steady income and some semblance of competitiveness.

There were serious reservations about taking a driver from F3 straight to IndyCar for the same reasons we don’t see drivers on the American open-wheel training system bypass Indy Lights and move from USF Pro 2000 to IndyCar. Thankfully, with Williams extending an offer for Sargeant to act as its test and reserve driver and Carlin Racing presenting a quality Formula 2 seat, his 2022 season went in an entirely different direction.

As great as it is to know we have our first driver headed to F1 in many years, it’s also worth tempering any expectations for Sargeant to topple the establishment while waving the American flag. His two F2 wins speak to the 21-year-old’s capabilities, but we’re still talking about graduating to F1 with the last-place team where dynamic race results have been infrequent, at best.

In a perfect world, Sargeant would spend another year in F2 and arrive in F1 with more top-tier mileage and experience to draw from, but that doesn’t appear to be his trajectory so let’s celebrate the opportunity and hope his fortunes with a tail-end F1 team are different from his American predecessors.

The last bit of news from last weekend that hopefully brought smiles to many faces came with Max Esterson’s dominance at the 51st BRSCC Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. The last time we had a young American feature like Esterson, it was 2008 and Team USA Scholarship winner Josef Newgarden.

Esterson carried the Stars and Stripes proudly at the FF Festival. Gary Hawkins Photography

Representing Team USA last year, the New Yorker claimed second at the 50th running, and with his return to the festival, Esterson led every session, earned pole position, and was leading and awarded the victory when the skies opened and forced an early end to the event. Given time and the same kind of financial horsepower at Sargeant’s disposal, Esterson’s another name worth tracking as the 20-year-old searches for the funding to continue his European climb.

Factor in some other domestic names like new USF2000 champion Michael d’Orlando from New York, USF2000 runner-up Myles Rowe from Georgia, plus a litany of promising U.S. drivers like Reece Gold, Braden Eves, Josh Green, Jack William Miller, Nolan Siegel, Yuven Sundaramoorthy, and more who are rising up the USF Championships presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights, and it’s easy to imagine we have one or more new Hertas or Newgardens in the making.

Whether it’s kids coming to America to achieve their open-wheel dreams or Americans abroad chasing their grand prix ambitions, we can be proud of what’s taking place on the home front.