Previews: Pro Mazda and USF2000 Series

Leave a comment

Each of the other two rungs on IndyCar’s Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Pro Mazda Championship and USF2000 National Championship, have higher car counts and other prodigious talent worthy of watching starting at St. Petersburg.

Pro Mazda kicked off its 2013 season at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas earlier in the month, where sophomore Diego Ferreira and rookie Matty Brabham secured victories in the doubleheader weekend. Brabham, grandson of Formula 1 World Championship Sir Jack Brabham and son of sports car champion Geoff, is a highly touted prospect racing for Andretti Autosport after winning the 2012 USF2000 champion.

Brabham’s adversary from the USF2000 season a year ago, Spencer Pigot, has also graduated from the junior championship and races with Team Pelfrey. Pigot and Petri Suvanto, a talented Finn who’s had more than his share of bad luck in a year and one weekend with Pelfrey, are two drivers who should win their first races this season.

Andretti’s second car is driven by Shelby Blackstock, son of country music star Reba McEntire. Ferreira’s teammate at Juncos is Scott Anderson, another USF2000 graduate. JDC Motorsports also boasts a four-car lineup while M1 Racing and World Speed Motorsports also have cars entered.

USF2000 raced a doubleheader at Sebring last week, and series sophomores Neil Alberico and Scott Hargrove split the two race victories. They both drive for the two-time defending champion Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team.

A 31-car field, biggest in any of the four open-wheel series racing in St. Petersburg this weekend, takes to the concrete confines of the 1.8-mile street circuit. Some of the other drivers worth watching include Danilo Estrela (Belardi), Garett Grist (Andretti), Stefan Rzadzinski (JDC, whose car is above, right), Jesse Lazare (Pabst), Jeroen Slaghekke (Cape), Austin Cindric (Andretti, son of Team Penske president Tim), and Andrew Hobbs (ArmsUp, son of NBC Sports Network F1 analyst David) among others.

With so many young drivers in such tight confines, the hope is that caution flags do not pepper the races. These championships present a great opportunity for fans to start paying attention to drivers who could be in IndyCar within two to three years.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.