Ed Jones showcased his fighting spirit in the 2018 IndyCar Series curtain-raiser around the Streets of St. Petersburg in Florida, battling back from a difficult qualifying session to score a top-eight finish on his Chip Ganassi Racing debut.
The talented Dubai, UAE-born ace – last season’s ‘Rookie of the Year’ – has switched camps to powerhouse Ganassi for his sophomore campaign at the pinnacle of US open-wheel competition.
With limited testing opportunities for the 24 high-calibre contenders to get to grips with this year’s new-look car – incorporating a universal aero kit that generates significantly less downforce than its predecessor and consequently reduced cornering stability – the first of 17 races on the calendar represented something of a leap into the unknown. His strong finish – just two places behind four-time champion team-mate Scott Dixon – at the weekend was earned from a distant 17th on the grid.
“We got off to a tough start in practice, but it was the same for everyone with the 2018-spec car,” Jones reflected. “I think we all probably had less grip than we’d anticipated.
“That’s a new challenge, but one I’m certainly up for.
“After struggling a bit on Saturday morning, we reverted to what we had run on Friday and I felt more comfortable in qualifying, but we just missed out on advancing to the next phase by a fraction of a second after a car came out of the pits in front of us and deterred our progress.
“That was obviously frustrating, but we had a great first lap on Sunday and made up a lot of early ground. As a team, I think we were smart all day and drove a very solid race.
“You always go back and look at some things you may have been able to do better, but all aspects considered, I think my first race with Ganassi went well.
“It’s been an exciting start to the season, and now I can’t wait for Phoenix.”
17th to 8th today, thanks @CGRTeams for all the hard work this weekend. Solid first race of the season in the @NTTDATAServices car, looking forward to Phoenix next 🌵 #NTTDATARacing #indycar pic.twitter.com/EkpOwcvcmK— Ed Jones (@Edjonesracing) March 12, 2018
Undaunted, the 2016 Indy Lights champion went immediately on the attack when the green flag flew, gaining seven positions over the course of a superb opening lap.
Along the way, Jones indulged in wheel-to-wheel scraps with the likes of reigning champion Josef Newgarden.
Carefully managing his fading tyres and the gap to his chasing Team Penske rival, Jones was maintaining a consistently strong pace and had the situation firmly under control until a brace of late safety car interventions narrowed his advantage to next-to-nothing.
But he survived the drama to finish eighth. Round two at the Phoenix Grand Prix comes under the floodlights at Arizona’s ISM Raceway on April 7.
Life comes at you fast in IndyCar.
Rewind back to this stage of 2017 and Dubai’s Ed Jones was looking to parlay championship victory in the junior Indy Lights series into a solid opening campaign from North America’s premier level of open wheel racing.
Achievements beyond even his wildest dreams followed.
The now 23-year-old placed an outstanding third in the iconic Indianapolis 500 and was named Rookie of the Year after earning 14th spot in the fiercely competitive IndyCar rankings.
These exploits granted him the opportunity of a lifetime for this season, swapping the breeding grounds of Dale Coyne Racing for the elite Chip Ganassi Racing.
Under this banner, competitors such as Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and his new team-mate Scott Dixon have all gained legendary status. In total since 1996, it has achieved 11 championship titles.
Jones came into 2017 with little expectation. Ahead of this year’s opening race on Sunday at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he’s now expected to contest for glory – and even a debut race win.
Quite the ascent for the former Dubai English Speaking College and Dubai College pupil, who first got behind the wheel of a kart aged five in Jebel Ali.
Speaking to Sport360° before the green light in Florida, Jones reflects on a remarkable journey – one which no other budding racer from the Middle East has ever come close to achieving.
He says: “It is crazy, really. It was 2010 that I finished my racing in go karts at Dubai Autodrome, so it’s only eight years ago.
“It is not that long. I’ve just turned 23 in February. I cannot believe that I’m already here. I’m very fortunate with the way things have gone.
“I have been lucky with the right timing. Of course, I’ve done well and produced great results.
“A lot of things have gone my way and I’ve just got to make sure I make the most of it.
“I am really excited to see what I can do now in the coming years.
“I served a lot of time with the smallest teams, I did it all with my dad and had a guy from England who was a mechanic for me.
“It was always just learning about the driving. We never just went with the biggest or best team.
“You want to win races in go karts, but no one really cares about how you did there when you step in the cars. It’s just about learning your craft and being as fast as possible.
“That was the thing. Staying humble and trying to learn everything I could.”
.@Edjonesracing will make his first official debut in the @NTTDATAServices No. 10 this weekend @GPSTPETE! Be sure to give him & @CGRindycar a follow for all the 411. 😉#INDYCAR | #NTTDATARacing | #FirestoneGP pic.twitter.com/PIiDkB1b0g— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) March 7, 2018
Upon leaving the UAE, Jones won the 2013 European F3 Open Championship and competed alongside Red Bull’s Formula One daredevil Max Verstappen in the FIA European Formula Three Championship.
He has not looked back since making the permanent switch to Miami three years ago.
Rather than Dubai Autodrome, he can now be seen tackling tight street circuits such as the historic Long Beach or reaching speeds of 230mph/370kph in the Indianapolis 500.
A burgeoning reputation is now his. When Chip Ganassi decided to halve his team from four to two cars, it wasn’t just success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which swayed him towards Jones.
There’s more to him than that. The Englishman’s four top-10 finishes were gained courtesy of a high racing IQ, ability to avoid costly mistakes and a burning determination to reach the top.
Yet these achievements didn’t make the process of becoming a Chip Ganassi racer any less harrowing. Jones describes it as “the worst 24 hours of my life” after contact was initially made last October about a multi-year deal.
He says: “The process was within 24 hours of him calling me. It was probably the worst 24 hours for me and my parents.
“You just check your e-mail every five minutes for the return contract to come back.
“It felt like it took way too long. We were in Dubai, so with the time difference there was a lot of waiting.
“It was great to be with my parents at the time. They gave up a lot for me and made many sacrifices to help me achieve my dreams.
“It was my dad’s passion. He wishes he could have done it when he was younger.
“I am very grateful and I want to prove to him it was the right thing to do, by winning some races and championships.”
After a short period over the winter building fitness levels in Dubai, pre-season testing has gone well in the new 720-horsepower Dallara-Honda car. At a major test in Phoenix last month, from a total of 283 laps his 12th-fastest average speed of 187.696 mph was less than one-tenth of a second behind lauded four-time IndyCar champ and CGR team-mate Dixon.
What are the expectations for his first race of 2018?
“You never know until you get to that first qualifying session in St. Petersburg,” Jones says.
“I’ve just got to get the maximum out of everything there with the car I have. If I can do that, then I’m sure the results will come.
“We’ve got to get a solid base at the first race an work from there. Obviously, I want to be at the front.
“But, we’ve got to see how things play out. more than that.”
With the rapid speed at which he’s progressed thus far, it cannot be too long before the chequered flag falls for Jones.
Abu Dhabi Racing and Peugeot Middle East official driver Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal Al Qassimi, behind the wheel of a 3008 DKR Maxi, with co-driver Xavier Panseri, moved up to seventh overall after finishing fourth on stage 10, the Salta-Belén section in Argentina, which comprised of a total distance of 797km, with 373km of special section.
Stage nine had to be cancelled for safety reasons as organisers did not want to take any risks because of persistent thunderstorms and flooding due to rising river waters.
Al Qassimi, was inside the top five throughout the stage and did a brilliant job for an excellent result at the end of the day to stay inside the top 10 contenders overall.
The challenge for the Abu Dhabi Racing driver was negotiating the narrow tracks in the canyons, but Sheikh Khalid eventually tackled the section to come up with an excellent result at close of business.
He said: “We started the day with two sections to tackle. At about 70km we caught the car ahead of us and when we came to the rios it was quite narrow, so navigation was difficult.
“We found a track which was part of the road-book and we drove about 9km and realised we had missed the track far away from the waypoint. We had to go back so we lost what we gained.
“Then I pushed hard in the second section where I finished 4th overall. It was a good feel for me today although it was rough and difficult.
“Tomorrow (stage 11) will be a very difficult day. It will feature lots of dunes but also vegetation. Smart crews will get the navigation points right, but again as I said it will be a difficult day.”
Stage 11: Belén – Chilecito (747 km)
If the weather is particularly hot, reducing the firmness of the sand, this will be one of the toughest spots in Argentina… and potentially the place where a racer in good shape will be able to shine. As in 2016, the previous day’s special stage times will define the starting order, with a mix of bikes, cars and trucks for the 25 fastest finishers.