MRTI: Juncos Pro Mazda signings highlight recent news

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There’s not a ton to report on the Mazda Road to Indy front, the three ladder divisions run by Andersen Promotions on the run up to IndyCar.

But one team has made all of its announcements this week, former Pro Mazda title-winning team Juncos Racing. The squad announced four full-season entries for the championship, with a pair of Americans likely to lead the charge.

Spencer Pigot, who’s shown promise for years in USF2000 and Pro Mazda, shifts over from Team Pelfrey where he won once in 2013. The young American, 20, is keen to deliver this season. He’s a former Team USA Scholarship recipient and is one of two drivers backed by the new Rising Star Racing initiative this year.

Kyle Kaiser is the second American, who moves over to Juncos after a year with World Speed Motorsports. He scored a handful of top-five finishes in 2013 and will have teammates for the first time.

Julia Ballario, an Argentine, and Mexican Jose Gutierrez round out the lineup. The pair made a handful of starts for Juncos in 2013 and seek to gain further experience and track time later this year.

Some of the others already committed to this year’s championship are a pair from Andretti Autosport, Team Pelfrey, Cape Motorsports and at least one car from JDC Motorsports. More information should come out ahead of the Cooper Tires Winterfest, which begins next week, Feb. 21-22, at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.