Young Brazilian Matheus Leist comes to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires fresh off a hard-fought BRDC British Formula 3 Championship last season – a fight which saw him earn the title over Carlin’s Ricky Collard in the final race. Leist had already come to the notice of the European open-wheel powerhouse the season prior, following battles with the team’s British Formula 4 (formerly MSA Formula) champ Lando Norris and former Carlin driver Colton Herta.
Leist came up through the Brazilian karting ranks alongside his brother, Arthur, who won a SKUSA SuperNats title last year. He graduated to race cars at the age of 15, and one year later traveled to England to drive for Double R Racing, a team originally formed by Formula One star Kimi Räikkönen and his race manager, 1994 Indy Lights champ Steve Robertson.
Here, the 18-year-old describes his introduction to racing, his move to former rival Carlin and the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – and the one skill every young driver who moves away from home should learn.
What are your memories about growing up in Brazil?
I began karting when I was quite young. I also swam and played tennis and soccer. I’m not a calm guy, so I like to be doing something. I don’t play video games; I like to play sports, which is why I’m racing.
What first got you interested in racing?
A friend of mine started karting at a track near my hometown and he invited me to go with him when I was about 8 years old. My father bought me a go kart and I stopped playing tennis – but I did keep playing soccer. I decided to make it more serious so I tested for about a year. There aren’t any races in the south of Brazil where I live, so I flew to Sao Paulo to go racing. My brother also raced karts so we could fly together, which was nice. When I started traveling for races, I stopped playing soccer and focused on racing. I think I’m a better driver than soccer player anyway.
Take us through your racing career to date.
In 2010 I started doing some kart races in Europe and that’s when it became more professional. I was 100 percent focused. Then in 2014 I moved to Formula 3 in Brazil, which is quite a big step. I raced in F3 Light, which is a car from 2001. It had low downforce, so it was a good place to learn. I finished second in the championship the first year, so I moved to Formula 4 in England with Double R Racing when I was 15 years old. I wasn’t living there; I went back and forth. I was still in school in Brazil – the only condition my parents had for me to race was that I stayed in school in Brazil.
The next year, I moved to British Formula 3 with the same team. Last year, after I finished school, I lived in Milton Keynes, England, full time. I thought it would be more difficult than it was, but I shared a place with my teammate who was also from Brazil. The championship was very good; I had a lot of podiums and a few wins and won the title. There were some good weekends: like Silverstone, where I was a bit faster than everyone else, and the final round at Donington. I went into that last weekend 15 points behind the leader and won the championship in the final race.
I met Colton Herta when we did Formula 4 together, and he did a couple rounds of Formula 3 last year. He’s a great driver so it will be fun to race against him again.
What got you interested in the Mazda Road to Indy and the Indy Lights series?
The Mazda Road to Indy program gives a driver more opportunities to become a professional race car driver, so that’s why I chose to come to the U.S.A. And of course, Carlin is one of the biggest teams in the world and they do a great job. They won the championship here last year which gives me even more confidence.
What are your expectations for 2017?
I have a great team and the possibility to do well. Everything will be different for me, so I need to learn the car and learn to drive on ovals. I’m really looking forward to working with the team and hope to become the champion at the end of the year.
What is your favorite racetrack?
Probably Brands Hatch because it’s quite fast and has a lot of elevation changes. I’m looking forward to racing at Road America here in the U.S.
What kind of activities do you do away from the race car?
I go to the gym five days a week, sometimes twice a day because I am trying to be as physically fit as I can. I work on the simulator as well – we have two, so I can race against my brother when I’m at home. I’m also doing some real preparation with the team.
If I wasn’t driving a race car, I'd be ___________________________.
Probably playing tennis! I love sports so I would be doing some other kind of sport.
Do you have a “hidden” talent?
I like to cook. When I was living alone last year I had to learn to cook. I like to make chicken with cheese and pasta with homemade Pomodoro.
What do you do to relax and get away from racing?
I like going to the beach with my friends to relax. The beach in Brazil is so nice! But it’s impossible to get away from racing because my friends love cars as well, so most of the time we are talking about cars.