Mar 13, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
Although Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin is new to IndyCar, the 26-year-old Russian is not new to racing.
From go-karts, to small formula, to his 2010 World Series by Renault title, Aleshin has been one of only a few drivers from Russia who’s been able to really establish a career, as it’s a country where racing is only beginning to gain a worldwide foothold.
The last three years has seen him in a variety of machinery, from GP2 cars back to Formula 3, and also GT cars in the Blancpain Endurance Series.
As an SMP Racing-supported driver, Aleshin had an intriguing choice to consider in the middle of 2013 when he wondered his next career move.
“Basically in the middle of last year, the middle of the World Series season, we were speaking about my future, what are the solutions,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “That’s how we came to the same idea basically that we need to try to do IndyCar.
“I’ve been racing more or less every open-wheel in Europe. But I think IndyCar is definitely a very important part of the open-wheel racing in the world. I’m really big fan of open-wheel racing, so that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”
Aleshin will be the first Russian to fly the flag in IndyCar; countryman Vitaly Petrov had that honor in Formula One.
“The other thing is it’s a big challenge for me to be here because I’m the first Russian driver to compete in IndyCar,” he said. “For sure, yeah, it’s a big challenge. Obviously most of the drivers, they came out from Indy Lights, Mazda, any American category. Most of them know most of the tracks, so there will be some difficulties for me because I don’t know any.
“Every time I going to come to the track, every time I going to learn just in the practice and go straight to qualifying. Sounds like fun!”
Indeed Aleshin will be unlike the previous rookie in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ second car, Tristan Vautier, in that he’ll be thrown in the deep end at each circuit. Vautier had past experience at most circuits from either Indy Lights or Pro Mazda.
Also unlike Vautier, Aleshin has deeper experience in formula cars with similar horsepower and downforce levels, and that should help him.
The rookie is probably most excited about running on ovals; he got his oval baptism at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this winter.
“The most probably interesting part for me will be races on ovals because that’s what I haven’t done at all in my life,” he said. “I just did one test day in Homestead for my rookie test. It’s hard to expect something from something what you have never done, but actually it was much better than any of my expectations in the end, the feeling of racing on ovals.”
Aleshin expanded on the SMP Racing program, which supports more than 30 drivers worldwide throughout various GT and open-wheel championships.
It could be confusing – perhaps tongue-tying in fact – to remember Aleshin will drive the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda for SPM.
But while he’s largely unknown to the American audience, he could surprise. It depends on how well he gels with engineer Allen McDonald, who has been retained as engineer of the second car, and with teammate Simon Pagenaud, a renowned development ace who could well contend for this year’s IndyCar title.
Aleshin already feels comfortable with both, and that’s a good sign.
“Allen McDonald, my engineer, he’s a really experienced man,” he said. “He spent many years in Formula One, many years in IndyCar, last like maybe 15 years. I’m really happy to work with him. I think we found, yeah, basically one language I would say.
“Yes, Simon, I need to admit that he actually help me a lot with getting into the stuff fast, especially when I had my test at Homestead on the oval. He just helped me to develop the car and to understand what I need to feel on the track, because obviously oval racing is completely opposite than what I used to do and I don’t know how the car need to behave.
“Normally I like aggressive car. On ovals, this is not best way. This is just one of the simple things I have learned there.”
Aleshin also has past experience at Sonoma; like Rubens Barrichello a couple years ago, that could be the place to pinpoint where he could deliver a “big” result.
Expectations are modest, and that could perhaps work to Aleshin’s favor. He’ll be up against two younger rookies in Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, who both have an edge on U.S. track experience.
But Aleshin could be a surprise driver this season. Realistically, this entry could achieve a top-15 finish in points with one or two top-fives, and maybe a podium. Anything more would be a bonus.