Kaiser with Rob Howden, ace MRTI announcer. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: IMS Road Course weekend digest

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – This one is admittedly a bit late after the weekend’s three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires races took place Friday and Saturday, but it was an interesting weekend for the three series at the Mazda Road to Indy Grand Prix Presented by Royal Purple Supporting the Lupus Foundation of America weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Notes and reflections from the weekend are below (Kyle Lavigne’s weekend notebooks linked here: Friday, Saturday).

Assertive weekends from Kaiser, Franzoni for Juncos

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Both Kyle Kaiser and Victor Franzoni are longtime drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, having been here for at least four seasons (and in Kaiser’s case, five), and are two of the most talented drivers who have not yet won a championship.

However, both positioned themselves well after assertive drives in the pair of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races, and have now moved into the points lead in each series – and they both drive for the same team, Juncos Racing.

Kaiser, now 21, had a controlled drive to third in Friday’s first race despite losing second to the aggressive Zachary Claman De Melo. But on Saturday, despite temporarily losing the lead to Santiago Urrutia in Turn 1, Kaiser fought back, repassed him and moved away from the rest of the field.

If the Friday drive continued Kaiser’s smart start to the year where he was consistent if not dominant – he’d now finished second through sixth in each of the first five races – then Saturday was the race where he put an authoritative stamp on his Indy Lights title pursuit this year. Kaiser won in Phoenix and Monterey last year, but this could be considered his best drive yet in the series.

“I thought this was one of the hardest fought victories I’ve had,” Kaiser told NBC Sports. “Especially the early laps. I temporarily lost the lead for one corner, but after I got it back, I was capable of defending and holding the lead which was nice.”

Victor Franzoni leads the Pro Mazda field to the green flag. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni, meanwhile, dominated both Pro Mazda races for his first two wins in that series. After falling to fourth early in race one, Franzoni recovered to catch, then pass longtime sparring partner Anthony Martin for the lead after a side-by-side scrap. Saturday’s race never looked in doubt with Franzoni winning by more than 13 seconds.

“It’s really good. We did a really good job here,” he told NBC Sports. “We tested, which was super important. We don’t have anymore tests planned. So it’ll be difficult here to the end of season. This was my second race with Juncos Racing. We need this for the championship. Now it’ll be easier for them to understand what you need. I hope I can have more like this!

“Yeah this start was much better. Yesterday was terrible! At least now I’m learning, and everything worked really good in this race. Didn’t have so much emotion.”

Kaiser, who’s driven for Juncos for four straight years – in Pro Mazda in 2014 and then in Indy Lights from 2015 to now – and Franzoni, who’s new to Juncos this year, hailed the camaraderie and effort Ricardo Juncos puts into his program.

“I’ve always had huge confidence in the team. I have a ton of faith in their ability,” Kaiser said. “We’re never satisfied. The first two years, we struggled a lot here. We said we’d figure it out. This year, we were pretty quick the whole weekend. I love their drive and passion to get better, wherever we are. This will be a huge month for the team.”

Franzoni added, “It shows I made a good decision, putting it with Juncos Racing. Also, because they’ll race the 500, it’s great to have victory two weeks before! I’m so happy for the team, so I hope they are happy with me!”

Kaiser has the Freedom 100 to prepare for, and not an additional debut with Juncos in the Indianapolis 500. Kaiser told NBC Sports he planned and was working towards the drive, but a sponsor fell through, and it also helped refocus him on his primary goal of winning this year’s Indy Lights title – which guarantees the ‘500 among three races for the following year.

“You gather it up and remember the objective – it’s to win the Indy Lights championship. I wanted to, but it didn’t all line up, so it’s not the right time,” Kaiser explained. “But I’m so happy to get a close look, shadowing them this year. Spencer (Pigot) is one of my best friends. Get a good luck at running the race. If we do it next year, I hope we do, I’ll be ready.”

Kaiser now leads Nico Jamin by 13 points (139-126) and Colton Herta by 18 (121) with the Freedom 100 later this month. Meanwhile while a month break until Road America, Franzoni now leads Martin by six (116-110) in Pro Mazda.

Askew’s authority rolls through IMS

Askew and a broom, again, at Indy. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Two races, two wins for Mazda scholarship driver Oliver Askew in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. It’s been written before, and it will likely be written again.

In this occasion, Askew’s victories came after a one-lap shootout (Saturday) and a more conventional win (Friday). In both races, Askew’s restart prowess in his Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-17 Mazda was fun to watch.

“I’ve been taught well, and am trying to prepare for these situations,” Askew told NBC Sports. “I definitely didn’t want full course cautions. I saw a car parked Turn 7 (for Saturday’s race). So I wasn’t sure and then the caution came out. I tried to, on that warmup lap, think of a plan and execute the plan, and work to break the draft. If you do that, I thought, ‘there’s no way they can catch me,’ because the pace was so good.”

Askew entered the weekend with a 34-point lead and leaves it with a 60-point lead, after a disqualification in Friday’s race knocked second place points away from his closest competitor, Team Pelfrey’s Kaylen Frederick.

It’s only May, but Askew’s got slightly more than a loose grip on the USF2000 title.

Sneakily good Fischer banks two more podiums

Pro Mazda Race 2 podium. Victor Franzoni (middle), TJ Fischer (left), and Carlos Cunha (right). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The maturation of Californian TJ Fischer into Team Pelfrey’s Pro Mazda team leader has been one of the welcome surprises of 2017. With four podiums in four races at tracks new to him in a Pro Mazda chassis, Fischer’s picked up the positions where Franzoni and Martin haven’t.

Fischer came into the weekend off a big climb for Project O2’s #Race2TheRescue in Los Angeles, and then delivered his second double podium weekend.

“Man you’ve gotta like train for 63 flights of stairs. I came out for it trying to run, and that’s the worst mistake,” Fischer laughed. “They have the floors delineated … when you make it to the top you’re like, woah!”

This race last year was where Fischer’s USF2000 season came to a premature end before his Pro Mazda debut.

“We had a terrible weekend here last year. I blew the checkered flag and started dead last in both races, and nothing good came of it,” reflected Fischer, who also hosts the I Hate Racing Radio podcast.

“But it evolved that way. It was good to get solid footing, working with Tom Knapp, Tom Dyer, and to learn from Aaron (Telitz) and Pato (O’Ward) – to see what they were doing. Pato was the championship leader but might finish fourth. And Aaron didn’t win every race.

“So the mental side, in seeing how they responded from how they didn’t win, I have to keep that in mind because that will help me for next year,” he said.

Other weekend notes

  • Colton Herta’s boom-or-bust season rolls on. After two wins and a second in the first four races to lead the points, the Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing driver had a miserable weekend where a slow puncture (Friday) and electrical issue (Saturday) resigned him to 12th and 10th place finishes. He’s lost the points lead but the question is how he recovers mentally from here; the 17-year-old is mature beyond his years, but this weekend may have quieted the hype train a bit.
  • Nico Jamin may have moved ahead in the Andretti quartet. While Herta’s start has generated deserved praise and headlines, the more experienced Jamin is starting to show his hand. First and fourth were two more good results. Rob Edwards, Andretti chief operating officer, explained how the Andretti Lights program has improved since last year: “It was a definite focus to have the right elements this year. We were able to get Doug Zister back on board (for Herta). It’s not the engineers last year were missing anything, but this was more a reassurance of someone who’d been there and had success to see we were doing. Candidly, Doug looked at some things to help us, and that made us stronger. Colton and Nico are both fast and pushing each other, Dalton (Kellett) and Ryan (Norman) are improving, and that moves the whole program and makes it stronger.”
  • Belardi endures rare tough weekend. Santiago Urrutia’s podium in race two not withstanding, it was a nightmare weekend for the Uruguayan and teammates Aaron Telitz and Shelby Blackstock, none even threatening the top-five and with potential car issues. Said Urrutia of the team’s inconsistent form: “We have been struggling a lot as a team. We were good at the beginning, but got hit St. Pete race one. We’re so far away in the championship. As a team we have to figure out where the pace is. I was fourth (on the grid) but they were ninth and 13th. Yeah it was good points, but we have a long way to go.”
  • Carlin sees two new podium finishers, and Alberico’s consistency. While Zachary Claman De Melo and Matheus Leist nabbed their first podiums in Indy Lights, Neil Alberico kept up his run of consistent results with fourth and sixth places. We’ll have more on Alberico in a separate piece to come this month.
  • Martin loses a step in Pro Mazda. Anthony Martin’s second and fourth places for Cape seemed to speak to the team not having the best setup here compared to St. Pete, although it’s been a place the team has traditionally struggled in the past.
  • Cunha’s enthusiasm through the roof. It seemed hard to wipe the smile off Carlos Cunha’s face after the Brazilian teenager scored his first podium finish in Pro Mazda for Team Pelfrey.
  • Solid weekends for DE Force, Donison. Two entries that impressed this weekend were DE Force Racing and Ricky Donison of Cape Motorsports. Kory Enders secured DE Force’s first top five and Donison had his first podium, although only via the disqualification to the Pelfrey drivers.
  • Exclusive Autosport seemed to struggle this weekend. A perplexed quartet of drivers emerged from the Michael Duncalfe-led Canadian team; Parker Thompson and Luke Gabin couldn’t quite put their finger on the pulse of the struggles here.

The Freedom 100 is next up for Indy Lights while the Pro Mazda and USF2000 series resume at Road America.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.