MazdaRoadToIndy

Mazda Road to Indy: Ten to watch in 2014

1 Comment

The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – now all run and operated by Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions – also kick off in earnest alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg this weekend.

Much of the action will be chronicled via the new Road to Indy TV outlet; additionally, NBCSN will have extensive coverage of all three of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda.

Indy Lights opens with a single race while both Pro Mazda and USF2000 will have double-header races.

Here are 10 drivers to watch of note between the three championships this year, following the conclusion of Cooper Tires Winterfest and our projections on some likely championship contenders.

INDY LIGHTS (Full Entry List)

Matthew Brabham, No. 83 Andretti Autosport

Perhaps the highest-touted prospect on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, “Matty Brabs” has the opportunity to capture his third championship in as many series in as many years (Pro Mazda 2013, USF2000 2012). Mature beyond his 20 years, but still with a laid-back demeanor outside of the cockpit, Brabham’s an absolute speed demon once he gets behind the wheel of his car. Andretti Autosport has been close-but-no-cigar to the Lights title the last four years, and Brabham is the guy most likely to break that streak.

Zach Veach, No. 26 Andretti Autosport

Veach is only 19, yet enters his fifth full year on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder in 2014. He’s always excelled at the branding and marketing side of the game; he’s still yet to make that last jump in consistency and performance on-track. After spending two years in USF2000 and a single year in Pro Mazda, Veach’s first year in Indy Lights had sporadic highlights but was otherwise spent learning the ropes. He should improve in 2014, taking his first win (a short oval his best bet), with the goal of attaining podium finishes on a more regular basis.

Jack Harvey, No. 42 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

The next young English talent who seeks to star in North America, Harvey is not Jack Hawksworth, who was the English Jack H who raced for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Harvey, 20, enters the four-time defending championship team from GP3, where he finished fifth last year. Should win multiple races, and we’ll see how he adjusts to ovals.

Luiz Razia, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

You could argue Razia, the 24-year-old Brazilian, is almost overqualified for Indy Lights since he was on the precipice of a Formula One race seat 13 months ago before funding fell through. Razia has an Esteban Guerrieri-type of feel to me at first glance; a talented and very experienced South American, coming into Schmidt’s team, who should be immediately on the pace. Although he wasn’t the out and out fastest in GP2, he should be in race-winning contention almost from the off in another Schmidt Peterson entry.

Pro Mazda (Full Entry List)

Neil Alberico, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

I’ll pinpoint Alberico more than Scott Hargrove as the guy to watch within Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda this year. That’s not a slight on Hargrove, who should be a dependable, consistent performer this year and did well in Winterfest. Alberico, 21, has the pedigree where he should have a higher ceiling, in terms of outright pace. He’s also gotten extra seat time this winter in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.  The Rising Star Racing-backed driver and former Team USA Scholarship recipient needs a bit more consistency and luck for his 2014 campaign.

Spencer Pigot, No. 7 Juncos Racing 

Pigot, like Veach in Indy Lights, is a guy who’s been around a while on the ladder, and is still only 20. But it’s fair to say he’s the early season Pro Mazda title favorite, with a year’s worth of experience, the championship-winning pedigree of the Juncos Racing team behind him and determination to avenge what was largely a difficult first season in the series. Like Alberico, has the Rising Star Racing support and dominated Winterfest. He has moved to Indianapolis to embed himself within the open-wheel hotbed city.

Shelby Blackstock, No. 28 Andretti Autosport

The son of country music legend Reba McEntire made some key leaps and strides in his jump from USF2000 to Pro Mazda last year. As he enters a second season with Andretti Autosport, he should emerge as the team’s leading driver, provided he keeps talented but young Canadian teammate Garett Grist at bay. Blackstock, 24, has done a great job of accruing seat time as he doubles his open-wheel efforts with racing a BMW M3 for Fall-Line Motorsports in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS class (he won at Daytona to open the 2014 season). He could win multiple races and challenge fellow Americans Pigot and Alberico for the title.

USF2000 (Full Entry List)

RC Enerson, No. 7 Team E Racing

The 17-year-old emerged as a surprise champion of Winterfest for his single-car, family team. The question now is whether they’ll have the consistency and performance to back it up over the course of the regular season. Enerson was a midlevel to occasional top-five driver in 2013; in a deep field, he’ll need top-five finishes with more regularity to contend for the full season crown.

Jake Eidson, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing 

Eidson, 18, follows Alberico and Pigot as the anointed Team USA Scholarship recipient in a Cape USF2000 seat, and he should be quick from the get-go. He nearly won Winterfest despite not winning a race. He made a handful of starts in USF2000 last year with a midlevel team and overachieved, but with the best equipment at his disposal in 2014, he should contend for regular wins.

Michael Epps, No. 44 Belardi Auto Racing

Epps, the 22-year-old Englishman, certainly has the years most of his USF2000 rivals don’t, and emerged as a potential star toward the end of 2013 and into the 2014 Winterfest. He won twice at Winterfest, and should lead Belardi Auto Racing’s four-car effort this season. He’ll have stiff internal competition from teammates Florian Latorre, Daniel Burkett and Nico Jamin, which should push the team forward. Belardi has been one of the few teams to take it to Cape the last two years, which bodes well for them going into 2014.

OTHERS OF NOTE

Belardi has its best set of Indy Lights drivers in Gabby Chaves and Alexandre Baron, but hasn’t quite had the equipment to match in recent years. We’ll see if that changes this year. Michael Johnson, who is paralyzed, steps up to Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports and continues to develop as a driver despite his handicap. Italian teammate Vicky Piria, who will race with JDC at least at St. Petersburg, is a promising ex-GP3 shoe. The USF2000 field is very deep, with potentially 10-15 podium-contending drivers, and that makes it hard to pick just three or four to watch. Of the others, Peter Portante and Aaron Telitz (ArmsUp), Clark Toppe (JDC), Henrik Furuseth (JAY) and Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) should provide some highlights throughout the year.

Head Games: the friendly rivalry of Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud

during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

FORT WORTH – Rivalries that have lasted for 10 years aren’t supposed to sound like this, right?

“He’s a hell of a driver, a great competitor,” Graham Rahal said of Simon Pagenaud Tuesday during a test at Texas Motor Speedway. “And a great guy. It’s not like I dislike him. I like Simon a lot.”

Pagenaud, the current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader after four races, had even more flattering words for Rahal.

“Graham is a very aggressive driver, he’s exciting to watch. Maybe a lot more exciting than me,” Pagenaud said. “He’s a very good driver. I have a lot of respect for him because he can sometimes outdrive the car, make it better than it actually is. He’s doing a great job.”

This is what it sounded like two weeks after the top drivers for rival manufacturers dueled in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, exchanging the lead four times while combining to lead all 90 of the race’s laps.

After making contact with Rahal on with nine laps left, Pagenaud went off-track, gave up the lead and only took it back three laps later after Rahal suffered wing damage from hitting the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth.

“I know after the race Simon said he thought after we touched he was going to get me back, there was not a chance he would have gotten there,” Rahal said. “I can guarantee that. Cause I was way quicker on old tires than those guys were and if I had gotten clear, I was gone. And I knew that too, which is the frustrating part.”

Pagenaud won his second race in a row. For the second straight year, Rahal placed second at Barber Motorsports Park.

With that, a quiet rivalry that started a decade ago in the Champ Car Atlantic Series was given center stage.

Rahal and Pagenaud first crossed paths in 2006.

“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is. For sure, it’s in my head, ‘I don’t lose to Simon,'” said Rahal, who earned six wins that year in the Atlantic series.

But it was Pagenaud who won the title as both transitioned into the Champ Car World Series in 2007. Rahal went to IndyCar in 2008 while Pagenaud drove in the American Le Mans Series for three years, making his debut in IndyCar in 2011.

“That’s the way it’s always been and when I see him particularly as the rabbit in front of me I’m going to get him,” said Rahal, who has yet to finish ahead of Pagenaud through four races. “It’s just my mentality. Obviously, he’s in a pretty good place right now.”

In his second year with Team Penske, Pagenaud has finished in the top two in all four races a season after not finishing better than third. Rahal is the flag bearer for Honda with two top-five finishes a season after winning two races – his first victories in seven seasons.

How does Pagenaud, the points leader, compare himself to his friendly rival?

“I’m more like a (Scott) Dixon, you never see me coming, all of a sudden I’m there and everybody’s like ‘what the hell? How the hell did he do that?'” Pagenaud said.

“Rahal is more like a Paul Tracy, which is really cool to watch. To race, it can be stressful, like it was in Barber.”

With the Month of May underway and the 100th Indianapolis 500 looming on May 29, the stress will start to mount for Rahal, who is looking to win the race 30 years after his father, Bobby Rahal, did it.

He goes into May knowing Honda will likely be at a disadvantage to Chevrolet.

“If we’re not on par, we’re not on par,” Rahal said. “Our job is to finish fifth or whatever. I hate saying that because it’s the 100th running, I want to win this race more than anything else, any race, any where, anytime. It’s 30 years after my dad Bobby won the Indy 500, so it’s a big year for me on many fronts.”

But Pagenaud?

“I’m relaxed and confident I can do things I usually wouldn’t do,” said the Frenchman.

The Penske driver heads to the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis looking to recapture the magic of his win in the inaugural running of the race in 2014. But he had few worries about that or anything else during the test day in Texas.

“Because we’ve started so strong, I don’t have to prove anything,” Pagenaud said. “I can work on what I have to work on. I think that’s what makes for a bit of an advantage in my opinion, in my head.”

Meanwhile, Rahal will hope to better his finish in the GP of Indy by one position from last year, when he was the runner-up to Will Power.

And Pagenaud, the rabbit Rahal has chased quietly for a decade, will likely be there to challenge him.

“He’s a guy I like to beat,” Rahal said. “Barber was frustrating, not because I lost to him, but because I defeated myself to lose to him.”

Now that sounds like a rivalry.

Mercedes pens open letter to fans in wake of conspiracy theories

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
Getty Images
1 Comment

I’m not sure whether Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” plays inside the halls of Brackley and Brixworth, home to Mercedes AMG Petronas, but the pop hit might be the song to best describe the team’s response to criticism over conspiracy theories that the team may be sabotaging Lewis Hamilton’s car this season.

Hamilton, usually a good team player and someone who’s been widely praised by Mercedes-Benz motorsport chief Toto Wolff for how he’s handled his early season adversity, finally had a moment of breakdown post-race in Sochi – where he’d recovered from his latest power unit issue in qualifying and started 10th to recover to second.

“My concern is not about beating Nico… I don’t have a problem with that. It’s more the guys giving me a car to be able to fight equally with him. That’s my concern,” Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the aftermath of the Russian Grand Prix.

Mercedes, meanwhile, took the unusual and bold step Wednesday of penning an open letter in the wake of the result, to address the criticisms levied at it and to explain what’s happened.

It’s a fascinating read and should be read in its entirety, linked here, but here are the highlights:

  • It’s about the livelihoods of the hundreds in the shop. Mercedes writes: “For those watching at home, a Grand Prix weekend starts on a Thursday morning and ends on Sunday night. A bad result might hurt for a few hours afterwards – but then life moves on. For more than one thousand people at Brackley and Brixworth, however, this is our life.”
  • One team. “To paraphrase Mr. Toto Wolff, we have worked our a**es off to get where we are today – and we have done so as a team. … There is no ‘A’ or ‘B’ team here.”
  • Pressing on in wake of Hamilton’s MGU-H failure, and other issues that arose. “We were baffled and gutted by the repeat MGU-H failure on Lewis’ car in qualifying. But we kept calm, gathered our thoughts and sprung into action. … (We could) make sure Lewis could start from P10 on Sunday without having broken parc ferme.” The team also addressed Rosberg’s MGU-K behavior and Hamilton’s water pressure issues in subsequent paragraphs.
  • We know we could be better. “Ultimately, none of this changes the fact that we have not met our own expectations in terms of reliability thus far this season.”
  • But haters are gonna hate, and we’re going to keep improving. “To those who stand with us, we thank you. And to the rest – the haters, the naysayers, the conspirators… if we can convince even half of you what we really stand for, we’ll consider that a battle well won.”

IndyCar drivers, SI Swimsuit Models are gonna “Play the Feud”

05-03-Celebrity-Family-Feud-Intro
Photo: IndyCar
1 Comment

There are no full-season five-car teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series although there are a handful of four-car teams, and one of those four (Andretti Autosport) expands to five cars for the Indianapolis 500.

There is, however, a five-driver IndyCar team that’s gonna play the feud later this year – Celebrity Family Feud, that is.

Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly will be IndyCar’s contingent that goes up against five Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, Nina Agdal, Samantha Hoopes, Tanya Mityushina, Robyn Lawley and Hannah Ferguson.

The season premieres on June 26 at 8 p.m. ET (ABC), with specific episode dates – including the IndyCar and swimsuit model show – to be revealed at a later time.

And yes, lest you think this is merely an excuse to show swimsuit models in a racing post, there is a charitable aspect at play here.

The IndyCar team will play for the Indy Family Foundation, a fund intended to aid those in the motorsports community (regardless of the sanctioning body) who find themselves in financial need due to hardship caused by illness, injury or death.

This is IndyCar’s second big racing-meets-entertainment venture announced in the last couple weeks. Last week, Castroneves, Kanaan and Josef Newgarden also took part in filming for an episode of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.

Domed skid debate rages on as IndyCar drivers test in Texas

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 06: Will Power of Australia, driver of the #1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
3 Comments

FORT WORTH – It’s only 7 millimeters of metal.

But as with a lot of things in the Verizon IndyCar Series, politics and opinions come attached to the metal plate called the “domed skid.”

It’s the piece that will be fixed to the underside of the series’ race cars when they visit three speedways this season – Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

The plate is the series’ solution to keep cars from going airborne, as they did three times at Indy in 2015 during preparation for the Indianapolis 500.

Honda drivers are concerned about how having 7 millimeters less space between the bottom of the car and the race surface will impact competition.

Meanwhile Chevrolet driver Ed Carpenter doesn’t “think it’s that big of a deal” and Honda drivers “really like to talk and complain about” it.

The plate was present on the 15 cars that were at TMS Tuesday for the first speedway test during the month of May, ahead of three weeks of action at IMS.

Indianapolis 500 practice begins on May 16, following the next round of the season, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, on Saturday, May 14.

Carpenter, Josef Newgarden and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves were the three drivers who had the airborne incidents last year.

Castroneves proceeded to make his stance on the 7 millimeter plate and its purpose clear.

“I’m not going to go into a Honda-Chevy dispute, but my thing is (that) I was the one that was upside down last year and no question adding the dome skid, for sure, for safety, that’s what we’re looking for,” Castroneves said during a break in testing.

“It doesn’t matter what car it is … when the car is sideways, (the domed skid) adds at least 500 to 1,000 pounds more downforce when you are sideways – which means you’re going to keep the car on the ground.”

Castroneves and teammate Will Power also don’t believe it’s too late to be bringing the plate into the mix, citing the nearly yearly change in aero packages and the Texas test being the second after one at Indy last month.

“The hype about this dome skid was brought about by Honda,” Power said. “They’re the only ones because it would benefit them massively to have strength in the dome skid because they have a lower downforce package, they have what we run in qualifying, so of course they’re going to politic very hard to say that’s it’s bad and this and that.”

After two hours of morning testing, Castroneves said “it’s too early to say” how the domed skid will impact the racing at Texas, a 1.5-mile track with 24-degree corner banking.

Graham Rahal, the only Honda driver who spoke in the media availability Tuesday, said the addition of the domed skid “definitely hurts us” as the car must be raised 10 millimeters to install the plate, adding to the car’s ride-height.

“The guys that tell you it doesn’t make a difference are lying, to be honest,” Rahal said. “There’s obviously some politics going on, I think the Chevy guys don’t want the side walls to help make up for that, but we need it for sure.”

Rahal has been the top finishing Honda driver in two of the first four races. Heading toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Rahal is sixth in points and frustrated that talk of the 7 millimeter plate could be a distraction from the event.

“That’s what I told IndyCar, I don’t even know why we’re doing this because we didn’t need to turn attention to something like this,” Rahal said.

“We should be talking about how great the Indy 500 is. Instead we’re talking about domed skids, which no one even knows what the heck that is other than us. But it does affect the car and we’re going to have work hard to make up for it.”

Juan Pablo Montoya also tested at Indianapolis and said he didn’t have any problems. But the 2015 Indy 500 champion later said driving in qualifying trim added a wrinkle to his test.

“Then it gets interesting really fast,” Montoya said. “It’s either really good or really interesting. In traffic, it’s a different world. It’s tough because the track’s really green so you don’t know how clean is that second groove. You’re not going to win anything by being really good today.”

They will have to be good when it counts, in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 and the Firestone 600 at Texas on June 11.