Telitz tests No. 9 car. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Telitz, O’Ward both formally confirmed for Indy Lights step-up

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The two protagonists for the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championship, Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward, settled who’d win the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship in September at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Telitz took the crown, and would be confirmed for his graduation into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in a Soul Red-liveried car.

While the graduation was known in September, it’s taken until today before all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed on the formal confirmation of Telitz’s seat in the No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, thus ending months of informal chatter about the seat and even a quick inside joke that Telitz’s team was “Real Big Secret,” a joke that spread to social media.

In another humorous twist, O’Ward, who battled Telitz all season with Team Pelfrey a year ago, has been confirmed for his own step up to Indy Lights in the No. 3 Pelfrey entry on exactly the same day. The 17-year-old Mexican will join Pelfrey’s Indy Lights program for this week’s Spring Training test at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course and the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Clearly, the two drivers still can’t get away from each other after pushing each other all last year in Pro Mazda.

The long and short of that background is that these two will round out the expected field of 15 cars for the season-opening weekend, which is only one car lower than 2016 despite the withdrawal of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and its four cars. Belardi (has grown from two to three cars), Carlin (three to four) and Andretti Autosport (three to four) have all added an extra car to pick up three of the four-ex-Schmidt Peterson cars.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Telitz, the 25-year-old from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, was invited by Brian Belardi’s team to Watkins Glen last fall for the introduction, and completed a comprehensive testing program over the winter – primarily in Florida and also at Gateway Motorsports Park – in preparation for his step up.

“John Brunner, the team’s general manager, and [team owner] Brian Belardi invited me to the IndyCar/Indy Lights race at Watkins Glen last fall before the Pro Mazda season ended,” Telitz said. “I had a head-start in knowing the guys and seeing how the team works and knowing their cars are fast. They won that weekend and then again at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I just really enjoyed how the Belardi guys worked. They were really professional and Brian is from Wisconsin. It’s great to have that home-state connection, as most of my personal supporters are from Wisconsin.”

“All of us at Mazda are thrilled to have Aaron carrying Mazda’s Soul Red color in 2017 with Belardi Auto Racing,” said John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports. “To see a talent like Aaron achieve success in the Mazda Road to Indy is ultimately what the program is all about. When he pulled into victory lane after winning the Pro Mazda Championship last fall, I told Aaron that he needed to savor the moment and remember all of the challenges he faced getting there. We cannot play favorites in the Mazda Road to Indy, but we wish Aaron the very best as he opens this new chapter in his racing career and is one step closer to the Verizon IndyCar series.”

Telitz completes the team’s three-car lineup alongside Santiago Urrutia and Shelby Blackstock, series veterans who shift to Belardi from Schmidt Peterson and Andretti, respectively. Telitz’s additional supporters include Rice Lake Weighing Systems, Rising Star Racing, Morrie’s Chippewa Valley Mazda, Styled Aesthetic, Fred Thomas Resort, Team USA Scholarship, among others.

Photo: Team Pelfrey
Photo: Team Pelfrey

For O’Ward, the Indy Lights drive is a slight surprise as he’s also committed to a full season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship PC class with Performance Tech Motorsports, confirmed after he was part of the Brent O’Neill-led team’s victory at the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

O’Ward is the third consecutive driver confirmed to a St. Petersburg-only weekend with Team Pelfrey. Scott Hargrove was confirmed for the same role last year with Pelfrey and in 2015 with the team’s former incarnation as 8Star Motorsports. Hargrove continued through the month of May with Pelfrey last year but only raced at St. Petersburg in 2015.

With O’Ward’s eight-race IMSA schedule, there’s only one conflict weekend between PC races and Indy Lights, the weekend of July 8-9. PC races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Indy Lights at Iowa Speedway both on July 9.

Interestingly, O’Ward parlayed a first two weekends-only announced deal into an eventual full-time role with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda last year, so he’s got experience in succeeding despite no guarantee of further races. As last year, he carries support from Gap Guard and Topo Chico.

“I am back with Team Pelfrey in Indy Lights for the first official Series test and for the first race of the season in St. Petersburg,” said O’Ward, whose teammate is the very experienced Juan Piedrahita. “A big thank you goes to the creator of Gap Guard, better known as Dale Pelfrey, once again for the opportunity and the whole Team Pelfrey crew as well for the continuous support they have given me the last few years.”

“We are very excited to confirm Pato on the Indy Lights front,” added Team Pelfrey IL team manager, Gary Neal. “Not only does this mean we have an exceptionally talented driver, but it’s also great to see the Team Pelfrey ladder system in full swing. We are looking forward to a strong outing at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.”

Three other Mazda Road to Indy signings have come in in the last few days, as well:

  • Team Pelfrey rounds out its three-car Pro Mazda lineup with Russian driver Nikita Lastochkin and Brazilian driver Carlos Cunha joining the previously announced TJ Fischer, the young Californian. Cunha has Formula 3 Brazil experience while Lastochkin steps up after two years in USF2000.
  • Exclusive Autosport rounds out its three-car USF2000 lineup with karting veteran Dev Gore joining a pair of third-year drivers in Parker Thompson and Luke Gabin.

Testing continues today and tomorrow at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.