After taking his career-best NTT IndyCar Series race finish in last Saturday’s 2019 Grand Prix of Indianapolis, A.J. Foyt Enterprises‘ Matheus Leist has stated that he and the team were “where we belong” and “where we want to be.” The Brazilian driver, competing in his second full-time season in IndyCar, benefitted from the rain and a great strategy call to be up at the sharp end of the field in the closing stages of the race.
It would be fair to say that Matheus Leist’s IndyCar Series career has not gotten off to the best of starts, largely due to the struggles being faced by the A.J. Foyt Enterprises team. The Brazilian failed to break into the top ten at any point during his rookie season last year, taking a best finish of eleventh place at Pocono Raceway.
Heading into the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last weekend, things were not looking much better for Leist’s 2019 campaign. In the previous four races prior to Indianapolis, both Leist and his veteran team-mate Tony Kanaan looked to be far off the pace of their usual rivals, with Leist finishing no higher than fifteenth and Kanaan no higher than twelfth in the first races of the year.
After practice and qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway‘s road course, things looked to be going the same direction as the first four races. Leist would at least take comfort in being able to out-qualify his veteran team-mate Kanaan, but the pair would start way down the order in twenty-first and twenty-fourth places respectively after being eliminated in the first round of qualifying once again.
Leist would not have much to say after his disappointing qualifying effort on Friday, simply stating: “A tough day today. We are struggling for grip everywhere. There’s not much else to say right now.”
For much of the opening stages of Saturday’s eighty-five lap race, Leist remained toward the back of the field. After the first pit-stops of the race, Leist’s pit-crew opted to put the Brazilian on an alternate fuel strategy, which ultimately paid off when a well-timed caution came out with just over twenty laps to go after Helio Castroneves spun.
With rain having well and truly arrived at the circuit, there was a difficult dilemma for the teams and drivers during the caution regarding tyre choice. Many felt as though the circuit was still too dry to put wet tyres on, but a small handful of crews gambled and put on the wet tyres. Leist was one of the drivers who took the gamble, which ultimately proved to be a fantastic call.
A few laps later, still running under caution, the rain worsened further, meaning that those who had just stopped for dry tyres would have to pit again for wets; thus putting Leist and the other wet-tyre runners up at the front of the grid for the ensuing race restart.
Leist would restart the race right up in fourth place, with only Scott Dixon, Jack Harvey and Ed Jones ahead of him. Shortly after going back to green flag running, Leist would make his way by Jones to move up into third place. Matheus did not quite have the pace to take the fight to those ahead of him, with Leist ultimately losing a position to the hard-charging Simon Pagenaud inside the final ten laps of the race.
Pagenaud would go on to pass Harvey and then Dixon to take the win at the end of lap eighty-five, with Dixon and Harvey completing the podium. A few moments later, Leist would cross the line to take the chequered flag in a superb fourth place; by far his best finish in the NTT IndyCar Series to date. The result eclipsed his prior-best result of eleventh place and was also his first time finishing in the top ten as well as the top five.
Post-race, Leist would talk about how delighted he was with his fourth-place finish, reminiscing on how the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit had been kind to him back in Indy Lights.
“It’s an awesome place to have my best finish and if you go back to 2017, here is where I had my first best finish in Indy Lights too, so I think this place likes me at the same time that I like it, so let’s try to keep the momentum going now for the Indianapolis 500,” Leist said on Saturday.
“It was just another tough one,” Matheus continued, “We started from 21st and it had been a pretty tough weekend here until the race. But the good thing about this team is that we never gave up and we always kept going, we always kept working hard and trying to improve as much as we could.
“Today before the race I was like ‘Man, today I want the rain to come so we might have a shot here.’ I was probably the only one on the team who wanted it to rain, and when it started raining and I was restarting the race in P4 I knew we had a shot. I knew we could stay there and finish up there and that’s exactly what happened.
“Just so glad for the team, for all the ABC Supply No. 4 Chevrolet crew – they did an amazing job in the pits and they all deserve it, and also for A.J. We’ve been together a year and a half now pretty much and I am always looking forward to these kinds of results. That’s where we belong and where we want to be. So let’s try to keep the momentum going and have a good one in the 500 too.”
Echoing Leist’s satisfaction after taking fourth-place was George Klotz, A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ team director. He claimed after the race that the result was a great shot in the arm for the whole team and that fourth place was down to a “collective team effort.”
“The strategy is such that sometimes you can look like a hero and sometimes you can look like a fool,” Klotz said, “Things went our way today.
“It helps a lot when you have a decent car, and you’re getting good fuel information and the guys are doing a good job in the pits. It was a good collective team effort today. I couldn’t be happier for A.J. and Matheus both–and the team. The team needed this so badly. It’s a good way to start the month.”
Both Leist and the team will be hoping to carry the momentum of their fourth-place finish on the road course into the biggest race of the season later this month. Practice for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 will begin tomorrow, Tuesday, May 14. The two days of qualifying will be run this weekend from Saturday, May 18 to Sunday, May 19. The race itself, the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, will take place on Sunday, May 26.