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.

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.