From a young age, the Monaco Grand Prix – the most prestigious event held on the Formula 1 calendar since 1950 – was the most significant race for Stefano Coletti.
The Monegasque – now 26 years old and just completing his rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series – started watching racing in the twisty corners of the street circuit. The experiences at Monaco fueled his passion for racing cars in Europe.
“We were born into it,” Coletti said of the Monaco race. “You watch it when you’re a little kid. It was always a dream to race in Monaco and then in the end I actually won there in GP2.”
Indeed, Coletti grabbed a GP2 sprint race victory at Monaco in 2013 becoming the first native of Monaco to win on the streets since Louis Chiron in 1931.
“It was a big thing for us, for my family, for everyone around.” Coletti said. “Being Monegasque and winning in Monaco is something very special and something you cant really describe cause it’s unique. It was a big thing.”
The rising driver watched and learned from wheelmen like Juan Pablo Montoya – who Coletti called his favorite driver growing up.
“Montoya was one of my favorites when he was in F1,” Coletti said who now competes with his former idol each week on the IndyCar circuit. “The first time I decided to race against Montoya I was like, ‘Whoa, I overtook Montoya!’”
“The more I drive, the more I’m enjoying it.” – Stefano Coletti
Coletti went from witnessing success to creating his own with a career in GP2 that involved seven race victories and 15 podium finishes. However, it was not all success for Coletti in his run in the feeder F1 platform.
Not once, but twice did Coletti leave the monstrous Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium with injuries after severe accidents.
In 2009, he suffered compressed vertebrae and small bruising in what was just his third GP2 start. Two years later, he suffered a similar injury when Mikhail Aleshin had an issue in front of him and Coletti couldn’t avoid.
“We know it’s dangerous,” Coletti said who suffered two vertebral compression fractures in that crash. “You go at, like, 240, 230 mph at a track, you know that if you hit a wall, it’s going to hurt. Those things happen.
“My two crashes in Spa were both from a lot of bad luck. The first one, the steering column broke in the worst place that it could break in the track and I hit the wall pretty hard. And the second one, a guy had an engine problem in front of me and didn’t pull out of the way.”
Coletti calls danger just a part of racing.
“It’s tough. It hurts,” he said. “We don’t think about it because if you start thinking about it, I think you better change sports. It’s part of it.”
With years of both triumph and hard lessons in Europe, Coletti wrote off his attempt at a Formula 1 seat and came to IndyCar in 2015 – racing alongside Sebastien Bourdais at KV Racing Technology.
Step No. 1: Adapting to the U.S.
“I moved from Europe, all the way here,” he said. “It’s a complete different culture, a complete different country. I got fat (laughs). I’ve been trying to keep my weight down but with the food over here, it’s not easy.
“I like it here in the States. Like I said before, I like the people, the mentality, everyone’s much nicer than back in Europe. It’s been all good.
Step No. 2: Oval racing.
“To start, I wasn’t really happy about [ovals],” he said. “I mean, Indy was OK but when I got to Texas, it was really hard.”
The 2015 IndyCar season had six oval races: Indianapolis, Texas, Fontana, Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono.
Without coincidence, Coletti’s least favorite track in his rookie season was in fact at the high banks of Texas – the track he started last and finished 19th.
“There’s one track I have to say I really didn’t like and that was Texas (laughs),” he said. “That was a tough one. I think you need a lot of driving on there because we missed first practice, we had a mechanical issue on the car. It was pretty difficult to get into it, missing an hour of practice.”
With any new-comer in a series as competitive as IndyCar, a proper mentor is crucial in learning what to do on and off the race track; or, more importantly, what not to do.
“It was really important,” Coletti said of his driver coaching. “I sat down with [Arie Luyendyk] before first practice and he started explaining to me what to do, what not to do, especially. More than what to do, it was more trying to explain to me what I shouldn’t do. Things I wouldn’t think about and things that don’t come naturally.
“It was good to have it in there. I could have done some of those mistakes if I didn’t have anyone telling me not to do them.”
A proper mentor in Luyendyk – the two-time champion of the Indy 500 – was just what Coletti needed in preparation for his first Indy 500 in May.
“It was my first ever time on an oval and it was the quickest oval of the year,” Coletti said of the 99th running of the 500. “I had a great coach, Arie Luyendyk who was coaching me – and Jimmy Vasser. I had two great guys next to me explaining what to do. I was just taking it step by step.”
Despite high hopes, Coletti would get swallowed up by a hard Turn 4 crash in the later stages, coming home 25th – two weeks after his first top-10 finish at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
“We had back luck with that crash – two guys crash in front of me and I couldn’t avoid it,” he said. “We were pretty quick and I’m pretty sure we could’ve ended up in the top 10 if we would’ve finished it.”
Coletti also takes notes from former F1 competitor, IndyCar race winner and teammate, Sebastien Bourdais.
“It’s been helping a lot setup-wise and also on the ovals,” he said of Bourdais. “All his experience, track walks, explaining me stuff about tracks. It’s always better to have such an experienced teammate than having another rookie next to you because it helps you grow a lot. It was nice having him as a teammate.”
With now six oval races under his belt, Coletti’s final feeling toward the “bull-ring style” of racing is positive.
“The more I drive, the more I’m enjoying it,” he concluded. “It’s high-speed, lots of overtaking, a lot of things can happen. You can be a lap down, two laps down and still recover and still win a race. It’s thrilling and it’s a lot of fun. I’m actually happy that I feel more comfortable now in it.
“I hope I’ll be back next year.”