Mazda Road to Indy 2013 Season Review

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We’ve done some fairly extensive reviews on the three major series, NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar, we cover here on MotorSportsTalk. Over the next couple weeks we’ll hit the rest in brief fashion to put a period on 2013 and look ahead to 2014.

Here’s a brief recap of the three Mazda Road to Indy series, which make up the ladder system leading into the IndyCar Series:

FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS

An 18-year-old rookie, Sage Karam, extended Sam Schmidt’s streak of consecutive championships to four in a row after turning a last-minute signing into a title-winning season. Presumptive preseason title favorite and series sophomore Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport) won two of the first three races to open the campaign, before he and Karam both got beat at the series’ marquee event in Indianapolis. There, Peter Dempsey passed those two and Gabby Chaves in a four-wide finish that was arguably the best finish of the year in the racing world in 2013 to capture the Firestone Freedom 100.

Karam meanwhile, grabbed his first two series wins on the ovals in Milwaukee and Iowa, before Munoz returned to the top spot at Pocono. When the series returned to road and street courses, Jack Hawksworth re-asserted his authority with wins in Toronto and Baltimore, sandwiching Chaves’ first and only win at Mid-Ohio. Karam took a decisive win on an odd weekend in Houston and coupled with Munoz and Hawksworth losing points, Karam fought Chaves for the title in Fontana. Although Munoz edged Chaves there in the season finale, Karam’s tenacious start to climb from ninth to fourth in the opening laps was enough to secure the crown.

At the moment, the high school student is working to compile the budget needed to advance into IndyCar in 2014. Munoz already has a confirmed IndyCar seat with Andretti, while Hawksworth has tested twice (RLL, Coyne). Off track, the series was purchased from IndyCar by Dan Andersen of Andersen Promotions, and the organization has already announced a new chassis for 2015 and gained Cooper Tire as both a new tire partner and presenting sponsor. Despite a rough car count in 2013, things are actually looking up for Lights heading into the future.

PRO MAZDA

There were basically two classes in the Pro Mazda Championship in 2013: Matthew “Matty” Brabham, and everyone else. The 2012 USF2000 champion advanced a step on the ladder and put in an authoritative, dominant season in winning a record 13 of 16 races for Andretti Autosport – easily enough to win the title. Brabham will move up to Indy Lights in 2014 with Andretti and already has tested twice.

Series sophomore Diego Ferreira and fellow USF2000 grads Shelby Blackstock and Spencer Pigot, both rookies, grabbed the three other race wins and were more or less fighting for second on a regular basis. Few others stood out.

The Andersen group had taken over operations of Pro Mazda, renamed from Star Mazda, late in the winter with Cooper Tire replacing Goodyear as tire partner and presenting sponsor. Car counts ranged from 10-16 and rose toward the higher end of that number at year’s end, with an eye to going north of 20 in 2014.

USF2000

For another season, the USF2000 National Championship boiled down to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammates. Brabham and Pigot had engaged in a fight for the 2012 crown and series sophomores Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico were the 2013 protagonists. Hargrove prevailed despite a 6-4 win deficit to Alberico; the Canadian’s luck was simply better as Alberico had several races where he didn’t survive past the first lap or two. Still, both have already been confirmed to jump to Pro Mazda in 2014 with the same team.

Danilo Estrela and Garett Grist added a win apiece, while French F4 star Alexandre Baron turned up seemingly out of nowhere the last two race weekends and winning two of the four races contested in Monterey and Houston. More than a dozen drivers scored podium finishes in the field that often topped 30 cars. Car counts should remain strong in 2014 for yet another Andersen-run series.

Aston Martin Racing confirms Stanaway, Serra in WEC seats

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Aston Martin Racing has confirmed that Richie Stanaway and Daniel Serra will join its GTE Pro line-up for the opening three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

AMR had already confirmed that defending champions Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen would be returning to pilot the No. 95 ‘Dane Train’ V8 Vantage GTE in 2017, with Stanaway now joining the pair.

Stanaway has links with Aston Martin dating back to 2013, and raced in six WEC rounds last year, claiming class victory in Mexico alongside Darren Turner.

“It’s great to be back at WEC this weekend and to be back with the team for this season,” Stanaway said.

“Obviously it’s going to be a little different driving with the Danes this year, but having worked with these guys over the past few years, we already understand each other really well.

“Both Marco and Nicki are ultra-quick and I’m hoping we can be challenging for victories straight away at Silverstone, Spa and then for the big one at Le Mans.”

Serra is a new face at AMR, having previously plied his trade in Brazilian stock-car racing and in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the Ferrari-backed Scuderia Corsa.

Serra will race alongside Turner and Jonny Adam in the No. 97 entry this year, making his WEC debut at Silverstone next month.

“What an amazing opportunity it is to be joining Aston Martin Racing in 2017. Having worked with the team last year in testing, it’s great to now step up and have the chance to help fight for strong results, in what is going to be a really competitive field in this year’s WEC,” Serra said.

“I’d like to thank the team for this opportunity and I cannot wait to start working with Darren and Jonny. Both are real professionals on and off the track and I hope we can bring the fight to our rivals this season.”

Stanaway and Serra will feature in the opening three rounds of the 2017 WEC campaign, with two six-hour events at Silverstone and Spa preparing them for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Carpenter set to focus only on two cars for 2017 Indy 500

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Unless a late deal comes together, expect Ed Carpenter Racing to only run two cars in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Chevrolet is in a position where it’s expected to make up the numbers to fill the 33-car field to get to at least 15, or possibly 16 cars for the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But whereas an extra car was added each of the last three years for JR Hildebrand, team owner/driver Ed Carpenter said Thursday while he’d love to have Spencer Pigot in a third car this year the same way, the clock has nearly struck midnight for it to make business sense for the team.

Additionally, with Carpenter having missed out on the available KV Racing tub from the Key Auctioneers auction held earlier this week – A.J. Foyt Enterprises is believed to have acquired that chassis – there’s also the question of having enough proper tubs available to make a third car viable for ECR this year.

“We’ve done it in the past and it made sense to do, with a good program to do it well,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “Right now, we don’t have it where makes sense for our business, and makes us more competitive. We’re not planning on doing it.

“It’s not that we don’t want to, but if the right combination isn’t there to have it happen, it won’t happen.”

Carpenter’s team finished third and sixth in last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Josef Newgarden and Hildebrand, while Carpenter himself retired with early race electrical issues and ended 31st.

While Pigot is emerging on the road and street courses this season, he was never confirmed in a third car for the Indianapolis 500 upon his confirmation for the 11 road and street races, although it made sense on paper.

Although he’s starred at a lot of tracks on his way to IndyCar in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Pigot had a rough rookie month of May last year for the ‘500 as the first driver to hit the wall during practice and then qualifying 29th and finishing 25th in his last of three planned starts for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He also struggled the previous year in his lone Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires start at IMS.

The Rising Star Racing-backed driver shifted to Ed Carpenter Racing starting with the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader the following week, where he’s been since.

“One of our main goals is to win the Indianapolis 500,” Carpenter explained. “I’m concerned about car count and getting to 33 cars… but I can’t put that at a higher priority than our own goals of winning the race. If it doesn’t make us stronger, like JR has, I’m not gonna the feel pressure to do it.”

Carpenter said he would not want to hold Pigot back from seeking another opportunity at the Indianapolis 500 if a late deal can’t be struck to stay with ECR for this race. And anyway, as last year, he’d be back in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet in Detroit to commemorate one year since his team debut.

“I’d love to see Spencer in the race,” Carpenter said. “Obviously I would have liked to have found enough to have him in one of our cars, but I can’t do it without the right funding to not make it the right thing for the team’s sake, and his sake. I’m not gonna hold him back from any opportunity.”

Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka (Carpenter) and Preferred Freezer Services (Hildebrand) will be on the team’s cars for the Indianapolis 500, PFS having been confirmed back with ECR for a fourth consecutive year earlier this week. Last year, PFS sponsored both Hildebrand and Newgarden in the Indianapolis 500.

Carpenter will be back in the car for his second test of 2017 on Saturday as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coupled with that test, the Texas Motor Speedway open test shortly after Long Beach and the Phoenix race end of April, Carpenter will have his busiest stretch of driving himself thus far in 2017 coming up within the next month.

“It’s a busy time for the team. I’m personally excited to be back in the car,” he said.

“I think (we) will be closer (to our teammates) this year. It was just one of those things last May, where we didn’t have the speed. I can’t say we totally had the answer as to why.

“But the team’s got a lot of work getting ready for the season. It’ll be fun to be on track Saturday. It’ll give us a sneak peek of where we are, and we’ll have a short window to make adjustments.”

Jean Todt: Playing field in F1 should be ‘much closer’

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FIA president Jean Todt has called for a more level playing field between teams in Formula 1, saying that the gaps between the biggest spenders and the smaller operations are too big.

2017 has marked the start of a new technical era for F1, with the design of the new-style cars being a focus for many teams over the past two years.

The opening round of the year in Australia saw Ferrari and Mercedes battle for victory, with Red Bull running a comfortable third-fastest, with the rest of the pack struggling to catch up. Race winner Sebastian Vettel lapped all but five cars.

Speaking to reporters in Australia, Todt expressed his concerns over the gap between F1’s ‘big three’ and the rest of the field, putting it down to the vastly different budgets.

“Ferrari did a good step forward with new regulations, it’s quite impressive. Mercedes is still very strong, there was a lot of speculation about the second driver, but for me there has never been a doubt that he [Bottas] would be very competitive,” Todt said, as quoted by crash.net.

“Red Bull seem to be a bit behind, and honestly I’m a bit concerned that between first and seventh or eighth, it is about two seconds. Still the gap is too big.

“We will really dream of having the 10 first cars within seven or eight tenths, and at the moment it is not yet happening.

“You have a lot of reasons for that, but clearly it is too big a discrepancy between the small budgets and bigger budgets, and the playing field should be much closer.”

F1 drivers relishing Silverstone, Suzuka races in new-style cars

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Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are all relishing the challenge of high-speed tracks such as Silverstone and Suzuka after enjoying their first races in the new-style 2017 cars last weekend.

This season has seen the introduction of revised cars under the new technical regulations that are capable of lapping multiple seconds per lap faster than their predecessors, aided by greater downforce and wider tires.

The new cars raced together for the first time last Sunday in Australia, with the pace difference around the tight confines of the Albert Park street course still notable.

All of the drivers have been impressed by what the new cars are capable of, finding them more fun and rewarding to drive, but it is when F1 hits the classic, high-speed tracks on the calendar that they will really come into their own.

When asked what track they were most looking forward to racing on this year, the top three finishers in Australia gave similar answers.

“Probably Silverstone. I think with that amount of grip and downforce,” Vettel said.

“Probably Suzuka as well later on in the year. Also I guess the cars will be even faster from what they are now.

“So, yeah, I think that would be quite nice. I’m looking forward to that.”

Hamilton added: “Yes, Silverstone, I agree” before Mercedes teammate Bottas echoed his peers’ thoughts.

“I think all the quick ones: Spa; Suzuka; Silverstone will be nice,” Bottas said.

“But I think even street circuits will be a bit more challenging I think – not that it wasn’t challenging before, but with these cars it will be nice.”

One of the biggest changes for 2017 has been the extra physicality of the cars, but Hamilton said he felt no major issues following the race in Australia.

“It was more physical but it was no problem for me and doesn’t look like it was for these guys either,” he said.

Vettel added: “It’s not the most physical circuit in the year. I think later on it will be very interesting. Here is very technical. So, first couple of laps, at least for me, were very intense.

“Obviously it’s easy to have an error, get something wrong under braking, go a bit wide etc. Later on I had a bit of a gap and I could control it, and therefore it was a bit easier.”