MRTI: Title battles to reach crescendo after intriguing Friday at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – Friday marked a critical day for all three Mazda Road to Indy divisions at Sonoma Raceway. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires qualified while both the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had their second-to-last races of the season, each with way more drama than could have been forecast.

PRO MAZDA (Race 1, Updated Points)

Spencer Pigot entered Friday’s race one with a 19-point lead over Scott Hargrove, but the young American lost it all in one fell swoop, and in one lead battle with his title nemesis.

Polesitter Hargrove led Pigot, but Pigot was close and nearly able to catch and pass him through Turns 1 and 2. The two collided while battling over the lead, and both came out the other side of Turn 2 actually still running, but with Pigot’s left side pod and radiator damaged. He spun out of the race from there at Turns 3 and 3A, relegated to a 21st and last-place finish.

In the incident, respective teammates Kyle Kaiser (Pigot’s, Juncos Racing) and Neil Alberico (Hargrove’s, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) made it through the fracas to get ahead of Hargrove, who continued with only minor issues – he’d flat spotted his tires earlier and had braking problems.

Kaiser was left to take his first career victory at his home race, and with third, Hargrove moved into the points lead. Hargrove’s lead is two points, 294-292, over Pigot. Hargrove will have the pole for Saturday’s race two, by virtue of his qualifying time set Friday.

While Pigot and Hargrove’s battle has been clean and respectful most of the season, understandably, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye over what happened Friday.

“I got a great start but then I started struggling with the brakes, especially going into the last two corners,” Hargrove explained. “Spencer got a good run on me. I was a little ahead by middle of Turn 1, he tried to push me down, but neither of us was going to lift. Leading the chamoionship, I don’t think that was the smartest for him. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again for him.

“My only option (going in) is to win to claw back the points, if he finished the races. He didn’t have to win today to win the championship,” Hargrove added.

Pigot tweeted his thoughts Friday evening: “I was hit and taken out of the lead today. Now trailing in points but we’ll be fighting hard tomorrow. Not over yet! We have a good car, set fastest lap today by half a second and only completed a few laps. guys putting the car back together.”

Kaiser, whose first win was overshadowed, still was able to enjoy the spoils.

“Absolutely fantastic, I do feel amazing,” he said. “On the opening laps, usually we struggle, and struggled with the push. Then the car came to me with clean air.”

USF2000 (Race 1, Updated Points)

All Florian Latorre needed to do was finish ahead of RC Enerson and Jake Eidson in Friday’s race one of the Sonoma weekend. But a worst-case scenario happened for the 17-year-old Frenchman.

While going for the lead in Turn 2, Enerson, to Latorre’s inside, contacted the polesitter and sent him into the wall. Enerson gained the lead and the contact was reviewed with no further action taken. But Latorre was out on the spot, and the contact meant both Enerson and Eidson had a chance to gain huge amounts of points.

Enerson was able to control the 15-lap race from there after a restart, while a dynamic start from Aaron Telitz got the ArmsUp Motorsports driver into second. Telitz then held off Eidson and the second ArmsUp driver, Peter Portante, the remainder of the race. Portante was consistently seven to eight tenths per lap quicker than the three drivers in front of him, but unable to make a move stick due to the “aero push” that affects these cars.

“Yeah we were both going for it. It’s really difficult to pass here,” Enerson said. “So whoever took the lead on the start would run away with it. Like Jake said, we both fought for the same real estate. That’s not the outcome I was looking for. I wanted a good clean battle and clean race. That changed it.”

Latorre is still ahead of Enerson, and Eidson is within 10 points (279-275-269). Realistically both Latorre and Enerson would need to have problems for Eidson to snatch the championship. Latorre and Enerson start 1-2 on Saturday.

INDY LIGHTS (Qualifying Results)

This took a backseat to the Pro Mazda and USF2000 proceedings as it turned out, but Indy Lights may have a points shakeup of its own set for Saturday if qualifying results are any indication.

Jack Harvey, who seeks to overcome a 23-point gap to Gabby Chaves, bagged the pole for Saturday’s first race. Chaves is second while Zach Veach, who’s within seven points of Chaves, struggled to seventh on the grid.

Harvey swept the Mid-Ohio doubleheader and the young Englishman seeks to extend the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports championship streak to five in a row. Chaves and Veach also seek their first titles; Chaves would be the first for Belardi Auto Racing while Veach looks to deliver Michael Andretti his first title since 2009.

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

Photo: IndyCar
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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”