Hunter McElrea says he sees no reason why he cannot win this year’s Indy Pro 2000 championship after a successful return to testing last weekend.
The Kiwi IndyCar hopeful scored his maiden series victory in the 2020 season finale and was retained by Pabst Racing for a second year.
After a welcome trip back to his de facto home in Australia during the off-season, McElrea kicked his pre-season training into full swing last month.
“I spent two months in Australia with family and friends I hadn’t seen in ages,” McElrea told Velocity News. “Though it was a shame there was no bubble at the time, which meant I couldn’t get back to New Zealand.
“But as soon as I got back to the States, we hit testing pretty hard.
“We had two days at Sebring to get the rust off. But, surprisingly, I felt a lot less rusty than I thought I was. After about three laps, I was back on the pace, and that test went really smooth.
“Then we headed to the two-day Spring Test at Barber [Motorsport Park].”
The Barber Spring Test is the first opportunity McElrea has to compare himself to the rest of the grid.
He finished the two-day affair with the fourth quickest lap time and finished inside the top-five in every session.
He described the test as ‘smooth’ and even believed there was a bit more left in the tank.
“Barber went super smooth,” he said. “I was kind of surprised to be up near the front.
“Everyone sets their best times in the morning session. We call it ‘happy hour’, and it is the best opportunity to see where everyone is compared to each other. Before that, you really don’t know what weight people are running and the life of the tyres they are using.
“But I had my best lap screwed by a red flag. I had got my tyres up to temperature and was about to start my lap before I had to come back to the pitlane.
“So, I set my best time on tyres that had already had a heat cycle through them. So, yeah, I was surprised to be up near the front.
“But that just shows how much hard work me and the team have put in between seasons. To be near the top in a test that wasn’t perfect makes me very happy.”
This year has seen some minor changes to the Indy Pro 2000 cars, namely with the engine.
Concerns over reliability have prompted series organisers to alter the power output of the engine. But McElrea says he quickly adapted to the changes, allowing him to focus on maximising each test day.
“They have lowered the revs of the engines a little bit because there were some problems with reliability last year.
“It has kind of slowed the cars down in a straight line, and you can feel a bit of a difference with the gears. Whereas before, you might have been fifth gear this year, I might be holding fourth.
“But I got on top of the changes quickly. It wasn’t too much of a hassle.
“Handling wise, the car is pretty much the same as before.”
Reflecting on his pace during the test and looking at the season ahead, McElrea says he has every reason to expect himself to be a title contender once the green flag drops.
“Judging by testing, I feel like this year will be a strong one for me,” he said.
“I could have been P1 in testing if not for a few things, and the car is going really good.
“I see no reason why we can’t fight for wins straight away. I have the car, the package and the self-belief to do so.
“But at the end of the day, the championship is the ultimate goal for me. That is what I am focusing on.”