Are Veach’s Minimal Wins in Indy Lights a Cause for Concern?

Zach Veach sets up for Turn 12 during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Zach Veach will race in his first full season this year at Andretti Autosport after competing in just two races last season. His first IndyCar experience was the GP of Alabama where he was a replacement driver on short notice after Hildebrand got injured before the race. Veach also had a chance to run at the Indianapolis 500 for Andretti where he finished 26th after retiring because of a mechanical failure. Although his first two outings in the series weren’t what he would have hoped for, Veach showed promise in Alabama and it resulted in a full time ride for Andretti in 2018.

At the GP of Alabama, Veach finished where he started in 19th place. While this isn’t a good result, he did show those watching a few important things that might have helped him land this year’s ride. First, with no race experience before Alabama, he managed to stay on the lead lap which is an impressive feat on its own. The second and more important thing is that he showed he can learn the car and how to find speed quickly. His teammate Spencer Pigot was 1.5 seconds faster than him in the first practice of the weekend. By the time qualifying came around, Veach had gotten the gap to his teammate down to just 0.54 seconds. This is still a fairly large gap, yes, but compared to where he started it is a vast improvement.

This is just a one-off example of his ability to learn quickly, but it might have stuck out to some people at Andretti as a positive sign when evaluating Veach for a seat. Veach’s experience in Indy Lights is encouraging too, although it isn’t spectacular by any means.

In three seasons of Lights racing he had six wins and 18 podiums in 44 races (14% win percentage). His podium performances are impressive, but it is the lack of race wins that makes me concerned about his performance at the next level. Compared to some of the current IndyCar drivers who raced in the Lights series, Veach is lacking in race wins. Carlos Munoz won six of his 24 Lights races (25%), Josef Newgarden won five of his 14 (36%), and Spencer Pigot won six of his 16 (38%). Veach hasn’t been able to win many races throughout his three seasons — or do particularly well in the championship for that matter. His finishes of 7th, 3rd, and 4th are not indicative of someone who will be a top-tier IndyCar driver, especially since the drivers he came behind in the points — Karam, Chaves, Munoz — all have been mid to low-tier IndyCar drivers.

Indy Lights History

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  Season     Races     Wins     Podiums     Poles     Pts Pos     Avg St     Avg Fn  
2013
12
0
1
1
7
4.7
6.2
2014
14
3
9
4
3
3.6
3.6
2016
18
3
8
1
4
5.8
5.6

Veach isn’t a bad pick for Andretti as I think he’ll be a top-15 average finisher and maybe even come away with a result or two in the top-10. I see him as a temporary replacement for Sato unless he starts developing quickly in the IndyCar series. He’s shown he can learn quickly, but to stay on a team like Andretti he will need to be a driver that can consistently challenge for a top-15 spot at least. His three year contract could give him just the time he needs to develop, but time will tell.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

by Drew

Transitioning From Indy Lights to IndyCar

About half of the field in last year’s IndyCar season competed in the Indy Lights series at some point. Many of them got their racing start in Lights and then moved to CART or the IndyCar series depending on when they came through the system. Recently I looked at how drivers perform once they are in the series through the use of aging curves. This helped me answer the question of how drivers age and how they perform year to year on average. Aging curves are useful for predicting performance once drivers are in the IndyCar series, but what about the rookies? Is there a way we can predict how a driver is likely to perform in their first year in IndyCar?

To answer this question, I decided to look at drivers who had competed in the Lights series full time (competed in at least half of the races) and then transitioned to a full time IndyCar ride in the first or second year after their last season in Lights. Originally I was just going to include drivers who had transitioned straight from Lights one year to IndyCar the next, but decided to expand it to a two year buffer to include drivers who raced in a couple IndyCar races one season and then became full time drivers the next. For these cases, I compared their last season in Lights to their first full season in IndyCar, not their partial season.

Using these criteria, I came up with 23 drivers to include in my data set. For each driver, I compared their last season in Indy Lights with their first season in IndyCar in terms of championship position, average finishing position, and average starting position. Here is what I found:

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  Champ Pos Change     Avg St Change     Avg Fn Change  
-12.04
-9.69
-9.00

Drivers lose about 12 places in the championship on average when coming to the IndyCar series. So if a driver comes to IndyCar after winning the Lights championship the year before, we’d predict them to finishing around 13th in the IndyCar championship. Their average finishing and average starting position both also decrease by about nine places. The typical Indy Lights driver finishes their first IndyCar season with a championship position of around 15th, and an average start and average finish of 14. 
These numbers are useful because they can help us predict how a driver is likely to do in their rookie season in the series. Aging curves help us predict how drivers do once they are in the series, but don’t tell us anything about expected rookie performance. Closer to the season’s start I will be posting my projections for the 2018 season using this information for rookies and the aging curves for the rest of the field. 
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Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC
by Drew