Matheus Leist in St. Pete pit lane
Matheus Leist was the fastest driver in his first official practice session in IndyCar. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

At (less than) half of Tony Kanaan’s age, Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Matheus Leist forms the other half of the now all-Brazilian AJ Foyt Racing, and he’s not waiting to make himself heard in the big show.

After winning three races and finishing fourth in last year’s Indy Lights championship, the 19-year-old has begun his transition into North America’s premier open-wheel championship as a figure in the unique group of rookies for 2018.

In race-weekend terms, that transition began with Practice 1 on Friday in St. Petersburg, which saw Leist set the fastest lap.

Matheus Leist St. Petersburg pit lane
Pit stops will be new for former Indy Lights competitor Matheus Leist. | Photo: Aaron Durant / The Apex

Leist’s performance in the first official practice session of the year came as a surprise and was the first indication that rookies like himself plus Jordan King and eventual pole winner Robert Wickens were a new force to be reckoned with.

“I might’ve had something between, like, P15 to P8,” Leist told The Apex of where he would’ve guessed he’d end Practice 1.

“And, now I think, looking at the results of (Friday), all the work and everything, I think probably a P10 is going to be good for us and it can happen.”

While his 43-year-old teammate Kanaan is enjoying the back-to-the-future characteristics of the universal aero kit which is debuting in St. Petersburg, Leist is benefitting from previous experience of his own in driving the new Indy car.

“Coming from Indy Lights, it’s not that big (of a) gap but I think the car is much more fun to drive now,” Leist said.

“And it’s a very nice car. The power is amazing. The corner speed … it’s fast. The brakes are amazing. So, these are like the main differences from the Indy Lights car, and I did only like a half a day in the old cars so I don’t have much references. But this car is just amazing. It’s like a proper racing car and it feels good to be driving it.”

Leist Proud of Foyt Resurgence

As part of the second consecutive complete refresh of AJ Foyt Racing entering a new year, Leist is glad to see early signs of significant improvement from the team.

“I am very happy,” he stated. “I think the team still — we are getting better and we’re going to get up there. Top five, I’m sure.

“We’ve been working very hard lately and Tony has been helping a lot (with) the team. He’s a very special guy. He knows how to go fast so I’m sure we are in a very good combination right now. And, you know, everyone has given everything they have and I’m just looking forward to the season.”

Tony Kanaan with Matheus Leist in St. Pete pits
Newcomer Kanaan has been paramount in bringing AJ Foyt Racing back into contention. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

Leist sees no holes in the refreshed A.J. Foyt-led team, which struggled greatly all last year.

“I think we’ve managed to put everything together. If we manage to concentrate, focus on our thing, we can win races. That’s why I’m here. I’m very proud and really happy to work with A.J. as well. Heʼs a — you know, no words for him. So, to be with him supporting me, Tony as well and all the mechanics, engineering, the whole team is a pretty nice group of people so really looking forward to it.”

Though the recent open test at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and a handful of sessions on the streets of St. Petersburg create an admittedly minimal data pool from which to draw conclusions, the Foyt team has offered a preview of a potentially consistent year for their two cars.

“I think we are in great position and consistency is what makes points, you know,” Leist told The Apex. “I won the championship in 2016, the Formula 3 championship. I just won the championship because I had a lot of podiums. I didn’t win that much races but I had, like, 12 out of 22 races, I went to the podium. So it means the consistency of the championship so this is my main focus here in IndyCar as well.

“I think if we manage to finish all the races, all that we can, it’s going to be a big thing for the championship, for the points.”

As for what can be expected from the Kanaan-Leist duo this year, the younger of the two was clear with his goals.

“I think it’s a bit too early yet to say about it but probably for this weekend, top 10 is going to be our main goal and then after — probably Indy GP — we’re going to aim for some top fives and some wins later.”

Leist will take the green flag to begin the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, his very first IndyCar race, from the inside of the second row.

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