Welcome Back, Mikhail Aleshin!
Earlier this week, we learned that Mikhail Aleshin will return to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and the Verizon IndyCar Series for the 2016 season. I’ll admit that when Aleshin was first announced for the 2014 season, my first thought was “who?” and my second thought was “great, another unqualified foreign driver that no one has heard of that bought his way into a ride”. I don’t think I was alone.
His first few races did nothing to change my opinion. Aside from a sixth place finish at Long Beach, his average finish through the Indianapolis 500 was twentieth. About the only two things he was known for was causing accidents and too much hair gel. His presence annoyed me, I didn’t really pay him much mind.
But a funny thing happened as the 2014 season progressed. Aleshin was quietly finishing races and was showing some astonishing speed. After a seventeenth place finish in the first of the double-headers at Detroit, the Russian driver found his footing. From the second race at Belle Isle, he strung together respective finishes of seventh, seventh, twenty-third, second and seventh. The five-race stretch was run on three street courses (Detroit and two at Houston) and two ovals (Texas and Pocono).
Producing strong finishes in consecutive races on a variety of tracks certainly got my attention. The little guy with the name most people mispronounced (it’s ah-LŌSH-en), the accent you couldn’t understand and the funny haircut was suddenly turning heads inside the paddock. Those that had complained about how reckless he was, were now commenting on how fast he had become.
After cooling off a bit in late July, Aleshin finished eighth at Milwaukee and seventh at Sonoma. Heading into the season finale at Fontana, Aleshin had momentum once more. In a Friday night practice at Fontana, Aleshin was exiting Turn Four when he went too low on the apron and lost control. His car spun, collecting Charlie Kimball in the process. The car went airborne and went into the catch-fence, when it was thrown back into the track as it spun violently throwing debris everywhere.
When it happened, social media was filled with all the dreaded comments that we all saw after the fatal incidents involving Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson. For good reason, everyone feared the worst. Fortunately, Aleshin’s story had a happier ending. He was critically injured and would takes months to recover. But he did recover.
The crash was a shame, however. Just as Aleshin was coming into his own as a driver, he suffered devastating injuries. Some wondered if Aleshin would ever race again anywhere, much less in an IndyCar. That question was answered this past summer at the season finale at Sonoma. Aleshin drove a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the last race and finished a quiet nineteenth.
But he held his own and probably answered any doubters as to whether or not he could still race.
I’ll be honest, I thought his ride at Sonoma was somewhat of a reward just for making it back from such a crash. I never really considered it to be any type of audition. That shows how much I know.
But Aleshin will return to his familiar No.7 car with SPM for all of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
I’ll admit, I was hoping to see the second seat at SPM go to Ryan Briscoe. I thought he had done a commendable job with the team as he filled in for James Hinchcliffe for most of the season. I could see Hinch and Briscoe working together. If not Briscoe, I thought maybe Conor Daly might get the nod; but he now appears headed for a full-time ride with Dale Coyne.
But I see Aleshin as a step up from the underwhelming James Jakes. I know that Jakes has his fans and that many believe that he has come into his own as well. It’s not anything I can put my finger on, but James Jakes has always sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I would much prefer to see Aleshin in the car, instead of James Jakes.
Mikhail Aleshin will never be confused for James Hinchcliffe, his now-teammate at SPM. Nor will anyone mistake him for Josef Newgarden or Graham Rahal – who are both considered to be the fresh new faces of IndyCar. Even if his English has vastly improved, he will never have the outgoing personality to be a true face of the series.
But Aleshin is very fast and appears to have become a competent driver since he first joined the series in the spring of 2014. That’s why drivers are really hired – not for their engaging personality (unless mandated by a sponsor), but for their ability to go fast and not tear up equipment. Aleshin tore up his share in the first part of 2014, but the repair bills dwindled quite a bit after that.
Aleshin’s presence won’t bring in many new fans, but for the hard-core fans of the series – I think this will be a welcomed move, except by those who detest any foreign drivers or ride-buyers. If you fall into that category, then you probably hate most of the series at this point.
So, I welcome this move. With Hinchcliffe and Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will have two hot shoes in their stable. One will have a lot more personality than the other; but on the race track – the difference will be harder to notice. The talent-level on the grid just rose a bit for 2016. Welcome back, Mikhail Aleshin!