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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.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.