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

Leave a comment

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.

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.