Alberico: The rising star who relearned his craft
Carlin Racing’s Neil Alberico is heading into the second half of the Indy Lights season with confidence, having spent the first half of the year rediscovering his promising junior formula form. He spoke to David Malsher.
For a driver who had looked so promising in more junior formulas, Alberico looked embarrassingly lost in 2016, his inaugural season of Indy Lights. After finishing runner-up in USF2000, then third and second in respective years in Pro Mazda, much was expected of the Los Gatos, Calif. native when he joined Carlin Racing last year.
But in a Dallara IL15-Mazda, he rarely looked in the same league as his teammates – Ed Jones, the fast and composed eventual series champion, and the brave if mercurial Felix Serralles. For onlookers the situation was puzzling; for Alberico it was alarming. He looked like a driver who couldn’t explain why his form had dipped so severely.
This year, the 25-year-old is a different man, smiling readily and out of pleasure, not just politeness. He’s re-found his mojo, he’s back to respectability and he’s got a shot at the Indy Lights title. No, he’s not yet won a race or taken pole, but he’s leading the Carlin quartet, he’s joint fourth in the championship with five top-four finishes from the first seven races, and he’s fewer than 30 points off the lead.
Motorsport.com asked him about his transformation, ambition, and the role played by a two-time Indy Lights championship runner-up…
DM: I understand Jack Harvey has been working with you on the driving, but I’m also detecting a different mentality and attitude from you, too. You seem tougher on track.
NA: Yeah, don’t wanna give Jack all the credit, right?!
I think you hear a lot of drivers say that the offseason is where the big changes can happen. That’s when you have a lot more time to work on individual goals. It’s harder when you get to a racetrack and everyone’s goal is to set a fast laptime. But sometimes it’s nice to get the time to work on driving technique and those sorts of things in the offseason.
Well that’s a lot of what we did. The Carlin guys worked really hard with me on finding out what I need to go quick, but also the mindset stuff. And I think having a full season of Indy Lights competition behind me also made a huge difference.
So was there something specific with the car setup that you struggled with initially?
I think in the initial jump from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights, the big difference is in downforce. The horsepower wasn’t that big a deal, but the tire was very different from the first four years of my open wheel career. The Cooper on the USF2000 and Pro Mazda car was relatively easy to get up to temperature quickly, and I could leave the pits and be immediately full throttle on cold tires on my out lap to get the tires up tot temp. That suited me really well.
The Lights tire is very different; they take a long time to get up to temperature and when they do – maybe Lap 3 or 4, depending on the ambient and track temps – I found it hard to find that limit and put myself in the right frame of mind for exactly when the tire was offering you peak amount of grip. Especially if I’d already made a mistake on cold tires by pushing too hard right out of the pits.
So qualifying was my biggest challenge last year and I think we’ve gotten past that now, and we’re regularly up in the top six now.
That underperformance must have been a mental knockback for you considering how strong you’d been in USF2000 and Pro Mazda…
Oh, totally. We came in with a ton of momentum and like you say, I was used to fighting at the front in previous formulas. It was just weird to be off the podium, and especially when my teammates were doing well. You start questioning everything. What is going on? Did I forget how to drive overnight? And there was a lot of pressure, because whether you acknowledge it or not, every race could be the last one of your career. So those types of thoughts entering your mind actually make the problem worse.
Thankfully Rising Star Racing [management team that also steers Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and USF2000 hotshoe Oliver Askew] have faith in me, they know my true potential, so they put a lot of effort into me despite what was mentally the toughest year in my career. Going to St. Pete this year for the first race and scoring a podium right off the bat was a big relief for all of us, and now we’re in a really good position to make a championship run here.
Last year when you looked at the data from Ed and Felix, could you see where you were missing out and wonder how they had the confidence to do what they were doing?
Yeah, I had arguably the best data on the grid to work off because they had massively different driving styles and there was something to be learned from both of them. Ed is a very smooth driver and can find a lot of ‘quiet time’ as I call it. I’d watch an onboard video of him and think, ‘How is this fast?’ And then Felix is the opposite, just heads-down and charging and turning in about three times before the corner, but there was a lot to be said for that aggression because it got tire temps up really quick with a tire that was hard to do that to.
So I tried to take the best from each of them, and applied it to this year, and that really helped.
And do you feel a sense of responsibility as the second-year guy in the series and in this team? You’re the guy they look to for success?
Yeah I do to a certain extent. That’s the position I’ve been in typically through my career, until last year. And that’s good; I like having that kind of team leader role, and helping shorten my teammates’ learning curve. Obviously Matheus Leist [who won the Freedom 100] is a massively talented young guy and I think we get along great.
And at the end of the day, if you can be up there leading a Carlin 1-2-3-4, that’s a good feeling. It is a team effort, and there’s a team championship as well as a driver championship, and we want to win them both.
So now, do you feel you have a strong shot at the title?
Yeah, absolutely. If you’ve seen the way momentum has swung between drivers from the first race to now, you’ll have seen how crazy it is and how super-tight it is. So the way things have gone consistency is gonna be important. If your worst weekend is a sixth place, we should be heading to Watkins Glen with a shot at the title.
Picking up the bonus points for most laps led and quickest race lap is also a big deal, when you look at how tight it has been for the championship, too. So I’m gonna play the Mazda Road To Indy veteran card and be smart, know how to maximize points.
After a month off, the Indy Lights season resumes with a double-header at Road America this weekend.
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