The transition from Indy Lights to the Verizon IndyCar Series can often be a difficult one, even for the most accomplished drivers in the series. Indy Lights champions like JR Hildebrand and Sage Karam have seen rocky transitions to IndyCar.
One of three drivers to run Indy Lights last year and move up to IndyCar this year, Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo has shown signs of progress throughout the season – though he has also gone through his share of struggles.
In February, the young Canadian was tabbed to drive 10 races in the No. 19 entry. Fellow rookie Pietro Fittipaldi would be announced as the driver for the remaining seven.
After making his series debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the 2017 finale at Sonoma, Claman De Melo would start off his 2018 campaign at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Montreal native started and finished 17th, a lap behind race-winning teammate Sebastien Bourdais.
Fittipaldi would take the reins at ISM Raceway in April. Claman De Melo came back for the following two races at Long Beach and Barber.
Contact with the Turn 10 wall on Lap 60 ended his day early in Long Beach, finishing a disappointing 23rd.
The following week’s race at Barber Motorsports Park would yield a 19th-place finish for the rookie.
Despite finishing two laps down, he was able to turn in the fastest lap of the race.
Following Barber, he was not scheduled to compete until the Detroit Grand Prix in June.
After Fittipaldi’s accident at a sports car event in Belgium left him with two broken legs, that would change.
A week after his teammate’s misfortunes, Claman De Melo was pressed into action for the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He started 19th, but worked his way through the field.
Claman De Melo brought his Dallara-Honda home with a 12th-place finish, the best of his career.
“We’re really happy with how the race went, our pace was strong aboard the Paysafe car and it was great to be out there,” he exclaimed after the race.
“Overall, I’m happy with the result, it’s good for me, I learned a lot and I’m happy for the team.”
Three days after the Grand Prix, he would receive another opportunity to prove himself. Claman De Melo was tabbed to drive the car again at the 102nd Indianapolis 500 and make his first IndyCar start on an oval.
After setting the 26th-fastest time on Bump Day, he stepped things up for Pole Day.
Claman De Melo’s four-lap average of 226.999 MPH would slot him in 13th. Claman De Melo and the team would continue to step up to the challenge on Race Day.
Race engineer Michael Cannon would put the rookie on an alternative fuel strategy. The gamble for track position appeared to have paid off.
The first-year driver inherited the lead on Lap 51. He did so during the first caution of the day for a crash involving James Davison and Takuma Sato.
Claman De Melo was passed by Ed Carpenter for the lead two laps after the Lap 56 restart, but would find his way to the front later on.
During another sequence of pit stops on Lap 106, he would add two more laps to his total. He was forced to pit road for fuel with three laps to go while running 10th and finished 19th, one lap down.
Despite a disappointing result, the young racer was very satisfied with the performance.
“It was a cool experience getting to race the #19 Paysafe car at the Indy 500. I really enjoyed my time. As much as I wanted to do better results wise, we went for it, we gambled, and it didn’t work but I’m happy we went for it.”
The addition of the two Indianapolis races and Texas to Claman De Melo’s schedule led to American rookie Santino Ferrucci running the No. 19 in the doubleheader at Belle Isle.
A week later, Claman De Melo returned for his second oval race, this time at Texas Motor Speedway.
After qualifying 21st, he had his work cut out for him. He responded to the challenge, clawing his way up to eighth before a collision with Will Power on Lap 205 ended his day.
Following the race, Claman De Melo expressed his frustration at another frustrating ending, but remained positive.
“It’s a bad day but I think I showed my potential. It was a great run up until that point. To do what I did today, from second to last to get up to where we were, it was looking like a possible top-5 finish, top 3 even,” he noted.
“I can’t thank the whole team enough, Paysafe and everyone. The car the Dale Coyne Racing team gave me was amazing. After a disappointing weekend like this, I can’t wait to get back into the car again.”
After a week off, Claman De Melo will get another opportunity in the car at a track where he earned his best Indy Lights results.
In four starts at Road America, he has three top-fives, including a win in the first race of the 2017 doubleheader.
The rookie heads to the 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course on the heels of some strong runs over the past few months.
That should give Zachary Claman De Melo even more confidence for this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix.
Header image by James Black/INDYCAR Media.