It’s the big one, folks; the race that we have all been waiting for is finally upon us. Formula One returns to the United States this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, and it follows a bizarre week in the sport. There have been five driver announcements, two sackings and a great amount of rumors regarding next year’s grid. We have a 21-year-old Dane joining the proceedings next year, a 23-year-old Mexican who is now looking to revive his career and a Finn replacing another Finn as Heikki Kovalainen is drafted in for Kimi Raikkonen.
At the front though, will it be business as usual? Can Sebastian Vettel win an unprecedented eighth straight race? Our experts give their judgements in the penultimate set of predictions of the season.
Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. All I’ll say is that I’ve learned my lesson after Abu Dhabi. A win Stateside would give Vettel eight in a row and set him up to match Alberto Ascari’s record of nine consecutive wins in the season finale at Interlagos.
Surprising finish: Esteban Gutierrez. After taking six points in Japan, Sauber’s rookie has gone scoreless in his last two events. But I expect he’ll be more than a little motivated to perform well in front of what should be a sizable contingent of Mexican fans in Austin.
Most to prove: Sergio Perez. With Perez on his way out at McLaren after just one season, Perez needs good results in these final two races to help him secure a 2014 seat. Additionally, he too will have lots of support from his fellow Mexicans in Austin, so there’s another layer of pressure to deal with.
Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. I tried kidding myself that Seb would retire in Abu Dhabi, yet by the end of the first lap he already had the race won. So why fight it? He’ll complete his figure eight here in the US, and then gun for nine at the final race of the year. A remarkable run of form.
Surprising finish: Sergio Perez. Checo is now fighting for his future in the sport, but the McLaren appeared to be working better in Abu Dhabi. Let’s see if he can use the support from the Mexican fans to produce a fine display in Austin.
Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. After being jilted by Williams and then bad-mouthing the team, Pastor has to prove that his hostility is worth dealing with by performing. He’s shot himself in the foot too many times in F1.
Race winner: Sebastian Vettel, for a record-breaking eighth race in a row. Reliability aside, there are no weaknesses in the Vettel-Red Bull package at the moment.
Surprising finish:Felipe Massa. He had good form at this track last year before Ferrari decided to handicap him at the start. With no need for any such dubious tactics this year, and a freshly minted Williams contract in his pocket, I can see him going well this weekend.
Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. His ties with Williams have been severed but he needs to find a place on the grid next year. His wedge of PDVSA cash will do some of the talking for him but he could really do with capitalising on the improving pace of the Williams to take another points finish.
INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.
Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.