In the third installation of our rookie previews, we profile A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist. Leist, a native of Novo Hamburgo, Brazil, started his racing career in karting at the age of 11, following the path of his childhood hero and teammate Tony Kanaan.
After four years in karting Leist started his single-seater career and joined the 2014 Formula 3 Series with Hitech Racing. Leist’s two wins and nine podiums propelled him to a runner-up finish in the series.
The following year, Leist made the transition to the MSA Formula Championship, again netting two victories and concluding the year with a fifth place finish in points. Leist also made three starts in European Formula 3. The 2016 would see the Brazilian move to British Formula 3 and reunite with Double R Racing, netting four victories and two poles.
The record would be enough to net Leist the championship and some postseason tests in GP3. Leist would ultimately make the decision to move to America and sign with Carlin Racing for the Indy Lights season.
After a slow start to the season at St. Petersburg, he ripped off eight straight top ten finishes, including his first career podium at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Two weeks later, Leist earned pole position for the Freedom 100 on the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first oval start of his career. Leading wire-to-wire, he would take his maiden victory in the event.
A win at the first of two events at Road America and again two weeks later at Iowa would put him in a strong position for the title, but Leist would not finish better than fourth (Watkins Glen) and would end the season fourth in points.
In October of 2017, Leist was signed by the Foyt team to drive the 4 car alongside Tony Kanaan, replacing Conor Daly.
“I wanted a fresh start for 2018,” Foyt said in a press release announcing Leist’s hiring, I think the combination of an experienced driver like Tony and a hungry young driver like Matt [Foyt’s nickname for Leist] will work.”
“I watched him in the Indy Lights this year and he won at Indy [the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race]. I know he’s got a lot to learn but I think he’s going to learn very quick and I think he’ll be very good in the Indy cars.”
Team President Larry Foyt echoed his father’s sentiments about a fresh 2018 start and optimism about Leist’s future.
“We had to make some tough decisions but we made them with a focus on strengthening the overall program,” Foyt noted.
“We are positioning ourselves to be contenders next season. The added testing and development we are undergoing, combined with the new aero kit for all of the competition should help our overall competitiveness and consistency. We think Matheus is going to be a really good fit with Tony Kanaan because Matheus has a lot of talent and he is going to learn a lot from Tony.”
Kanaan also expressed excitement about his new teammate and his hopes for their team moving forward.
“I’m happy to welcome Matheus as a teammate to Foyt and the ABC Racing family,” Kanaan said. “Matheus is an extremely talented driver with a bright future ahead of him. I’m looking forward to working together and help get AJ Foyt Racing to the next level.”
The chance to race for one of the sport’s biggest names and alongside a childhood idol has not been something lost on Leist.
“Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that I’ll be driving for the legend A.J. Foyt. Having Tony Kanaan as my teammate is incredible because he’s been an idol for me since I was a child. Tony and I are from different generations but I can’t wait to be with him at the track and learn as much as I can from him. It will be a pleasure,” the driver added.
During rookie orientation at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, Leist impressed early on, posting a top seed of 184.236 MPH during the first session. Leist would continue to show the speed from his first session, as he was the fastest rookie in the first three full-field practice session.
The fourth session of the weekend would not be so kind, as Leist made contact with the wall three separate times during the evening session on February 10. With just the February 27-28 test for the Foyt team at Sebring left, Leist will be looking for one last tune-up before his IndyCar debut.
Although he enters his first season in the Verizon IndyCar Series with a team that has undergone major offseason changes, Matheus Leist has proven his skill across some very diverse platforms and will look to continue his success.
Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.