Who might emerge in MRTI this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: 17 drivers to watch in 2017

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If you’re deep into scouting or just enjoy the additional racing that makes up most Verizon IndyCar Series weekends, look no further than the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the next potential series of stars.

Of the 21 drivers on the grid at St. Petersburg, more than half came through the Mazda Road to Indy to get there, several winning championships along the way.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

santiheadSantiago Urrutia, No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing

The Uruguayan returns for his sophomore season in the Mazda Road to Indy with very much a title-or-bust mindset, since he came staggeringly close to it last year. Although his team of Belardi is new, he’s come over with engineer Tim Neff, who’d put Urrutia in title-contending position last year at SPM. If Urrutia is to win this year’s title, he must improve on ovals, but fortunately that’s an area where Belardi excels.

aaronheadAaron Telitz, No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing

Although his arrival to Indy Lights was confirmed when he won the Pro Mazda title, it took until March for the i’s to be dotted and t’s crossed for the Wisconsinite as the Soul Red Mazda scholarship driver at Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz had a busy offseason of testing and will face the usual challenge of adapting to the heavier, more powerful and different Cooper Tires – tasks he’s already mastered once before in moving up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda.

kyleheadKyle Kaiser, No. 18 Juncos Racing

The third year driver out of California enters as a potential championship pick in the preseason and, for the second straight year, the unquestioned team leader at Juncos Racing. Kaiser’s evolved into a more well-rounded driver and just needs a street course win to match his triumphs on an oval (Phoenix) and road course (Monterey) of last year. If he can up his win total to perhaps four and maintain his consistency he showed most of last year, he could deliver enough for a title.

matheusheadMatheus Leist, No. 26 Carlin

The Brazilian rookie has the chance to be this year’s “Who’s that unheard of star at Carlin?” the same as Ed Jones was his first three races in 2015. Compared to teammates Neil Alberico, Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards, Leist has a strong background from his racing in Britain and a determination to impress. He should win races and the question mark for him is how he’ll take to ovals.

nicoheadNico Jamin, No. 27 Andretti Autosport

The Frenchman’s had an interesting Mazda Road to Indy career thus far. He made a quantum leap from year one to year two in USF2000, winning that title in 2015, and was respectable with car not on par with the Pelfrey team in Pro Mazda last year. He’s right on the border of being a title contender with Andretti Autosport but so much will depend on the team’s setup. Look for him to win at least once.

coltonheadColton Herta, No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing

The most fascinating blend of people comes with this entry. The 16-year-old Colton Herta is the son of Bryan Herta, who just plays dad on the car co-owned by Michael Andretti and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, themselves both sons or grandsons of legends. The younger Herta impressed in his European racing career and has come home for the first time since 2014. Nico Jamin may deliver more performance-wise for the team but you’d expect it with three years on the Mazda Road to Indy; if Herta can match and perhaps exceed the Frenchman regularly, he’ll have done quite well.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

anthonyheadAnthony Martin, No. 8 Cape Motorsports

The Australian will move up to Pro Mazda after winning the USF2000 championship and the Soul Red Mazda scholarship that comes with it. He’ll have to impress with limited testing, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the driver who balances aggression and speed well at the right times.

carlosheadCarlos Cunha, No. 81 Team Pelfrey

The 17-year-old Brazilian could be this year’s “Pelfrey discovery de jour,” much as Urrutia was when he arrived two years ago. While both Fischer and Nikita Lastochkin know the tracks and Fischer knows the Pro Mazda chassis, Cunha knows neither of them, but if his pace holds as he learns than he could emerge in front.

tjheadTJ Fischer, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

Fischer’s in a good position of timing given this is the last year of Pro Mazda as is, before the new car arrives in 2018. Team Pelfrey has won the last two titles and having had half a year to learn last year, Fischer should be a podium regular this season.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

oliverheadOliver Askew, No. 3 Cape Motorsports

The Floridian teenager embarked on a whirlwind end of 2016 that saw him win the Team USA Scholarship, star at the Formula Ford Festival in the UK and win the USF2000 Scholarship Shootout all in a two-plus month period. He should adapt quickly and is brimming with star potential, because he’s just one of those drivers you look at and feel there’s an intangible “it factor” that exists.

rinusheadRinus Van Kalmthout, No. 21 Pabst Racing

Here’s an interesting one. The Dutchman’s full name is Rinus Van Kalmthout, he’s gone in promotional purposes with the shorter, sleeker Americanized version of Rinus VeeKay – which sounds a bit like a club producer or DJ. The teenaged karting star has already dropped some surprise beats this offseason, having initially been set for Benik, tested for Newman Wachs and now joining as third driver for Pabst alongside Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl.

dakotaheadDakota Dickerson, No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing

The San Diego native has a two-year contract with which to build upon at Newman Wachs Racing, a team as renowned for its preparation as its history in junior open-wheel racing. Dickerson figures to move up to Pro Mazda in 2018 regardless but if he can score his first podium and win, that will help him rise in the standings this season.

andrecheadAndre Castro, No. 37 Newman Wachs Racing

The Brazilian driver impressed on his debut at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test in Indianapolis in October. As one of three drivers at Newman Wachs, he’ll look to match and occasionally beat series sophomore Dakota Dickerson, while trying to be top rookie compared to Dutchman Van Kalmthout.

robmheadRobert Megennis, No. 80 Team Pelfrey

The teenager from New York was the revelation of last year’s USF2000 season and will enter year two with increased expectations in an even deeper field. He should be able to break through for his first win and depending on when that would come, that would determine how high he can climb in the title after ending sixth last year.

aylaheadshotAyla Agren, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

The talented Norwegian driver, Agren is a past F1600 champion who’s thus far been unable to match that talent up with results in two moderately difficult USF2000 seasons. Her, Megennis and rookie Kaylen Frederick have the ability to gel well though and push the Pelfrey team forward; Agren is due her first win, and a top-five points finish would be good.

parkertheadParker Thompson, No. 90 Exclusive Autosport

The Red Deer, Alberta native was unlucky to come out on the losing end of the title bout with Cape teammate Anthony Martin last year and will be hard-pressed to accept anything other than a title this year to make up for it. He switches to Exclusive Autosport for a Canadian connection. The team has a bit of open-wheel experience and he should once again be in title contention.

lukeheadLuke Gabin, No. 91 Exclusive Autosport

Like teammate Thompson, Gabin’s in a make it-or-break it type of year with another new team, again his third in three years. A year ago, Gabin was hamstrung in part by a seriously tight budget, which made his aggressive race craft all the more impressive. He’s due his first win and could well surprise to follow his countryman, Anthony Martin, as an Australian USF2000 champion.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.