Motor Racing: Robertson determined to graduate: The Indy Lights series may prove a fast track to the elite for a British Rookie of the Year

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WHILE Nigel Mansell's IndyCar days may be numbered, another Briton is poised to follow in his footsteps. Steve Robertson, from Chigwell in Essex, is leading the PPG Firestone Indy Lights series, the official development competition through which the likes of the Penske driver Paul Tracy have graduated to IndyCars.

Last year, Robertson's fortunes paralleled those of Mansell as he won a Rookie of the Year award, in the Indy Lights series. This year, the 29-year-old holds a commanding lead in the Indy Lights championship, having won four of the first seven events. He is following in the footsteps of his former Tasman Motorsports team-mate, Bryan Herta, who dominated last year.

The Indy Lights run as support races at all but three of the IndyCar World Series events. With a chassis and engine similar to the Formula 3000 cars in Europe, they y do not race on the superspeedways at Indianapolis and Michigan.

Five of the six Indy Lights alumni currently competing full- time in IndyCars have earned points, as have another three who compete only part-time.

As the IndyCars gain recognition as a world-class racing series, more young overseas drivers are looking toward the Indy Lights as a stepping stone. While the majority of Indy Lights drivers come from the United States, four of the current top five are from England, Brazil, Portugal and Canada.

Even though Robertson's family has money, he still had to find sponsorship to secure his berth with a leading Indy Lights team. Robertson's goal is to graduate to IndyCars next year. He may be helped by a recent rule change which offers an incentive to IndyCar teams to employ drivers who can bring talent rather than money.

How did a boy from Chigwell end up a near certainty to take a US championship? It started 10 years ago when Robertson's father, who supports a number of charities, bought some tickets to the Lord's Taverners at Brands Hatch and took his son along for the day. Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss and John Watson were giving rides around the circuit, and Robertson got a ride with Stewart, 'And that's all it took. I've always been sporty, so I decided to give racing a go.'

Robertson's dedication and determination were tested during his first season, when he drove in the junior Formula Ford series. 'I was running for the lead of the race and just ran wide in a corner, hit the outside barrier and flipped very high in the air. It took half the car off. Because I was at the front of the race they couldn't get to me to get me out, and I was trapped in the car with boiling radiator water squirting down on me.'

Skin grafts to third-degree burns kept Robertson out of action for three months. 'I had my arm propped in the air with skin grafts healing. I had to sleep like that. It wasn't a nice time for me.'

When he was ready to drive again, Robertson returned to the scene of his accident and with the help of his good friend, Mark Blundell, he put the fear behind him. 'I just went around behind him. Basically, the first thing I did was go back there for a couple of days of testing to get over it psychologically.' The next race meeting was at the same circuit. Robertson was on pole and won the race.

When it was time to move up, Robertson decided to try racing in the United States. 'Formula 3000 is not really well-supported, in terms of media coverage and people turning out to watch the race. Over here Indy Lights is always so well-supported. We always race with the IndyCar people and so the TV over here is very, very good. It's better for the sponsors.'

Robertson's car sports the No 1 earned by Herta last year and it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will be this year's champion. But he is having to work a lot harder than his team-mate did. Last year, a new Lola chassis, very similar to a Formula 3000 chassis, was introduced, and though everyone had the same equipment, Tasman had a bigger budget for extensive pre-season testing.

Herta and Robertson ran away with every race in performances so superior that other disgruntled teams began complaining that Tasman must be cheating. Rumours circulated that they had fabricated their own suspension pieces, although subsequent events proved that their advantage was purely down to hard work and testing.

Now, with a year of experience with the new chassis, the other teams have caught up enough to prove that last year the Tasmans were just better prepared. 'We still run at the front but there is a lot more competition this year,' Robertson said.

Stiffer competition makes the victories sweeter for Robertson: 'There's no doubt that having five or six guys who are capable of winning makes it personally more satisfying to come out on top.'

(Photograph omitted)