After The Race spoke to team owner and IndyCar legend Bobby Rahal and reigning Formula E champion Antonio Felix da Costa last month, the marriage of the pair looked set for 2022, with an engagement party – in this metaphor, an IndyCar test only – due for the 2020 off-season.
Last Monday, da Costa got that test with Rahal Letterman Lanigan at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and impressed the team with his pace, enough for 12th-fastest and 0.7606s behind the best lap of the day.
After the test it’s clear that a full-time IndyCar switch is as far away as it was before, littered with “obstacles”. Mainly da Costa’s DS manufacturer deal in Formula E and a title defence to think about in arguably motorsport’s most future-proof series…
“I’m really committed to Formula E, not only as a championship, but also the message that it sends and what it stands for, so I’m very committed to that and I’m very happy with where I am with my current team,” da Costa told The Race.
But his post-test comments did offer a back-door entrance to an IndyCar return which could expedite the process. Even if it’s not the full-scale IndyCar tilt fans would love to see.
He adds: “IndyCar has always been something that I was eager to come and try and even more now after this test. I’d love to get a chance for a proper race and properly race these guys.
“There’s a lot of drivers here that I’ve raced [against] before that I really respect, and it will be awesome to come out here and do it for real on a race day. Hopefully, I was able to leave a good impression and let’s see where it leads us.
“But for sure, I didn’t just come here for fun. There was a purpose.
“They [Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing] run two cars and occasionally run a third car a few times per season. And if that opportunity presents itself, I’ll be very keen to take it.”
— Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (@RLLracing) November 2, 2020
Without knowing the fuel and the run plans of da Costa’s car and those of his opposition, it’s difficult to sum up just how well he performed at the Barber test. But given it was his first time at the track and he was the top IndyCar rookie not to have arrived at Barber fresh from the season finale at St Petersburg, it was a brilliant performance.
Looking one car back, beating Josef Newgarden in IndyCar is a rare thing for anybody and, alright, it’s only a test, but being in that company is not to be scoffed at.
Gavin Ward thought so. A sort of ‘Swiss Army knife’ in his Red Bull Formula 1 days, where he was race engineer to the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber as well as dabbling in aerodynamics and electronics, he joined Penske with Newgarden in 2018.
“Pretty cool seeing Antonio Felix da Costa get to grips with an IndyCar so quickly,” tweeted Ward, who knows da Costa from his stint as a long-term Red Bull junior. “Huge talent – would be great to see him come race with us over here.”
— Gavin “Ole Dirty Hands” Ward 🇨🇦 (@GDubRacer) November 3, 2020
Just how likely would a 2021 one-off be then? We have the provisional Formula E calendar and it makes for grim reading for ‘da Costa to IndyCar’ hopes. There’s either a clash or two races very close together throughout the Formula E season.
That includes Rahal’s favourite race at spiritual home track Mid-Ohio, where a da Costa outing would be ideal for the team.
However, Formula E finishes in July, leaving four subsequent road courses a possibility for da Costa.
Rahal has said in the past that a car alongside Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal would need to be sponsor-funded and that’s never easy, especially with the difficulty in attracting sponsorship amid COVID.
However, RLL has the capability. It ran a third car for sub-team Citrone Buhl Autosports this year for Spencer Pigot, including at Indianapolis, which in 2021 has a road course race after the Formula E season has finished. The chassis is there, it’s about funding the race outing.
The thing is, the test may have complicated things further for RLL.
As Ward’s tweet shows, people in the IndyCar paddock noticed da Costa’s pace and performance. While his fellow rookies, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and three-time Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, were further off the pace, da Costa used his single-seater background to adapt quickly.
“I was able to get to like 90% quickly but that last 10% takes a little bit of time, and there was a lot of factors that came into play, like the track is very specific,” explains da Costa. “And there’s a lot of small tricks and track knowledge that can help you get those last couple of tenths.
“I didn’t put a foot wrong, we never went off the track, and a lot of experienced guys were going off. I saw Will Power in the gravel, Newgarden in the gravel, so there were a few experienced guys being caught out.
“It was the first time with the team and I wanted them to get a good impression. I’d rather go a little bit slower and make sure I didn’t do any mistakes and by the end of the day we were pretty comfortable with the car. The tyres were really taking a long time to come in, so like new-tyre runs it was about lap seven to lap nine was when the tyre could really extract the laptime.
“After seven laps in a run, I was almost out of breath, especially after 100 laps at the end of the day. So there were small things that prevented me to really go after those last couple of tenths, but I’m not too worried because I know where the laptime was and having a night to sleep on it I can already see a lot of areas that I could easily improve on.
“Being half a second off these guys, especially when they’re hot from a season, having raced last week, I think it’s pretty positive.”
— Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (@RLLracing) November 2, 2020
Before the test, the impression was that da Costa had to prove himself to the team just as much as the team had to prove its credentials to da Costa.
The pendulum has very much swung in his favour now, and giving da Costa a one-off or small schedule towards the end of 2021 might be the deciding factor in who nabs him off the market afterwards, and whether it’ll be Rahal Letterman Lanigan or someone else.
Still, you get the feeling da Costa has a soft spot for the team giving him his test debut, and that it stands as an option for a future deal.
“It was really interesting as we got a lot of work done with the team going through some set-ups and test items that they wanted answers on, and I think it was really productive both for me and them,” da Costa continued.
“Honestly, I felt like a young kid again. It’s been a while since I was completely out of my comfort zone this much and it was really nice to feel that and come through it all positively.”
With the Formula E championship being relatively new, Felix Rosenqvist is the only driver who has made the full-time switch from the all-electric series to IndyCar.
Da Costa is a real racer cut from the same ilk – with a brilliant junior record from a career once supported by Red Bull and a glittering record in sportscars to add to his already sky-high reputation, having established a home as one of Formula E’s elite.
Still, the low power, low downforce and treaded road car tyres in Formula E are way off an IndyCar, which da Costa described as “brutal”.
But it wasn’t just his first experience of the car, it was his first of the IndyCar paddock and it sounds like the Portuguese driver is hooked, even more so than before.
“I think both in and out of the car for these guys, it’s all about racing. It’s all about maximising the show, it’s maximising the show for the fans, which we already do a lot Formula E if I’m honest,” he says.
“But what I mean is that there’s no fancy hospitality out there, no trillions of dollars being spent in unnecessary areas.
“They put all the money in the car, the cars are very brutal, they are very, very pure, you know, there’s no electronics on the brakes or on the traction control side, there’s no power steering.
“So you have to drive it with your body and with your muscles and that’s something I haven’t had in quite a long time – to really have to grab it with my teeth and really extract a laptime out of the car.”
It’s that challenge that grabbed Rosenqvist a few years ago, and could well do the same for da Costa. And the prospect of watching da Costa sink his teeth into a challenge like IndyCar should be enough to get any racing fan excited.
The questions remain: can an IndyCar deal be done for 2021, and will RLL be able to snap him up before someone else does?
Johnson’s IndyCar switch was the “new kid on the block” story of 2020. Perhaps da Costa will follow a similar narrative.