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Indy Lights’ 2017 field is shaping up strongly heading into holidays

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With the Verizon IndyCar Series’ field for 2017 largely settled, attention now shifts to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires in terms of other seats to fill out.

Of the three series, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires has the most driver/team announcements fully finalized while Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda should have more announced come the new year. The drivers who are set in those last two series have a leg up and peace of mind heading into the holidays.

In looking at Indy Lights, seven driver/team combinations are already public, with several others due to be formally announced in the new year.

Andretti Autosport leads the way with all four of its drivers confirmed, only one of which is a returning driver from 2016. In Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett, there’s a respectable outlook ahead as the team makes its first foray at a four-car lineup in the series.

Figure Jamin to be the early pacesetter among the four of them, because of his track experience and his natural ability he’s shown in Pro Mazda and USF2000. It might take Herta a race or two to acclimate but he shouldn’t be far behind in the Steinbrenner Racing entry of the Andretti stable. At 16, the younger version of “Hertamania” is well beyond his years from a maturity standpoint. Both of these two should win races this year if the setup is right.

Kellett and Norman don’t figure to be the out-and-out pacesetters but may have their day on occasion. Kellett has a year’s worth of experience under his belt in Indy Lights and should only improve, while the Atlantic cars Norman raced this year are close enough in performance to where he should be able to adapt. Podiums are outside possible but likely the more realistic targets for these two are consistent top-five finishes.

Juncos Racing has two drivers set, with Kyle Kaiser now ready for a third season and Nico Dapero making the step up from Pro Mazda. Kaiser made a quantum leap in performance from year one to year two and thoroughly deserved his wins this year at Phoenix and Mazda Raceway. He’s a title contender without question. Dapero’s growth and maturation was evident over the course of the Pro Mazda season, and he’s tested well so far. He figures to be fast, and his adaptation to the Indy Lights-spec Cooper Tires and endurance over longer races will determine how high he can climb. He should get an early podium or two and start transitioning into race-winning contention by year’s end.

Belardi Auto Racing has only confirmed one driver officially in Shelby Blackstock, who shifts from Andretti next year. A capable veteran, Blackstock is a solid midfield driver who has rarely shown much in the way of polesitting and race-winning pace, but hasn’t made many missteps either.

The rest of the field beyond those seven figures to include an interesting mix of talent.

The last two Pro Mazda champions and Mazda scholarship drivers, Santiago Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, may both be in the field next season. Urrutia’s program in Indy Lights looked to have come to an end after Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ended its run, but the Uruguayan may have been afforded a lifeline following a test with Belardi last week. If he lands there, expect the same combination of fireworks and pace we saw this year.

If Telitz joins Belardi, which seems a good guess following several successful tests, it would be a match made in cheesehead heaven. Telitz shadowed the team at Watkins Glen this year and would be a fellow Wisconsinite operating within the confines of the Brian Belardi-owned, John Brunner-run team. Telitz tends to adapt quickly to new machinery and should be on pace from the off.

The question mark here also comes if Zach Veach returns to Indy Lights for another year. Veach has sought a step up to IndyCar and following a successful test with Ed Carpenter Racing, entered the frame there. But with that door likely closing, Veach could well return to Indy Lights once more, for what would be a fourth season. He ended 2016 as the hottest driver in the championship.

Andre Negrao is another potential race winner-in-waiting if he returns for a sophomore season. The Brazilian, like Urrutia, faces an uncertain future after the SPM shutdown. He had a good test with Juncos and would add a good personality and title potential if he can gather the budget for another campaign.

Carlin is yet to reveal the scale of its program for 2017. The Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-led team is expanding its arsenal next year via a confirmed USF2000 program, the Carlin Benik operation, while rumors continue to percolate that they’d be exploring an IndyCar effort with what is currently the KVSH team. As such, it’s left the Lights program as the topic of least discussion to this point.

Ed Jones moves up to IndyCar while Felix Serralles has tested an IndyCar, FIA WEC LMP2 car, and GP3 car this winter. That leaves Neil Alberico of the three of Carlin’s 2016 drivers to sort out his status and the likeliest to return for a second year, again budget pending. Alberico endured a nightmarish 2016 season, largely out of his own doing, and the Rising Star Racing-supported driver would figure to be better in a second year.

Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards tested for Carlin at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test in October. “ZCD” may head to Europe, while Rickards figures to move on from USF2000, the question being whether to Pro Mazda or Indy Lights.

Team Pelfrey, which now has its Pro Mazda and USF2000 programs operating in Indianapolis, is the fifth and final full-time team expected. The Gary Neal-led team runs a tight, sharp operation and should have two cars. Juan Piedrahita tested for them at the Griffis test. He’s another of the capable midfielders who wouldn’t light the world on fire in a return, but would ensure another quality car on the grid. Garett Grist, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance in his second half of the year with Pelfrey last season. He’s an intriguing prospect who could score podiums in the right situation.

The only other driver who tested at the Griffis test not named here is Slovakian driver Richard Gonda, who tested with Andretti. With those four seats filled, he’d need to look elsewhere.

Of others who raced in 2016, it’d be good to see Scott Hargrove back in a full-season opportunity after two partial campaigns, Sean Rayhall as well for the same reason, and Davey Hamilton Jr., who made a positive impression in his debut at Mazda Raceway. Dean Stoneman would be a title contender if he came back, but that appears unlikely.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.

Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

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Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”