Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Road America weekend digest

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It was a packed weekend at Road America for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece through the weekend. It marks the third time this year that all three series competed at the same facility on the same weekend, the other two being the streets of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. And the tightly-packed weekend saw no shortage of dramatics, ranging from first-time winners to drastic championship swings.

Carlin’s Rise

Prior to the month of May, Carlin was enduring somewhat of a disappointing run this season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A perennial front-runner the last two years and a championship winner in 2016 with driver Ed Jones, the British-based outfit had gone winless through the opening six races of the 2017 season.

However, that all changed when 19-year-old rookie Matheus Leist scored his first career Indy Lights victory at the Freedom 100, and the momentum appears to be permeating through the entire team.

Leist was strong again at Road America, winning Race 1 and finishing fourth in Race 2, while Zachary Claman De Melo took his maiden Indy Lights win in Race 2. Third Carlin driver Neil Alberico finished a somewhat disappointing seventh and eighth in the two races, but with two finishes of third and three finishes of fourth already to his name in 2017, the Californian is also building momentum of his own.

Race 2 winner Claman De Melo, who was all but speechless afterward, highlighted the overall strength of the team, specifically referencing his own engineer, who he described as a big influence on his development. “It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was (in Race 2),” said the 19-year-old.

Zachary Claman De Melo scored his first career Indy Lights victory at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Leist, too, mentioned chemistry within the team as being crucial to their success, and is elated that race wins are starting to come their way. “It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” he said following his Race 1 triumph. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”

A championship run may be beckoning as Indy Lights begins its summer stretch. Currently, Leist ranks second in the overall standings, best of the Carlin group, while Alberico sits tied for fifth with Aaron Telitz. Claman De Melo sits seventh.


Consistent Kaiser Rolls on With Indy Lights Championship Lead

Kyle Kaiser might not have been the immediate title favorite at the beginning of the season. But, on the strength of one win (Race 2, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course) and five podiums, including finishes of third and second at Road America, Kaiser has asserted himself as the man to beat in the 2017 championship.

Further, the 21-year-old’s consistency is juxtaposed with inconsistency from some of his title rivals.

Aaron Telitz won Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the season, finished second at the Freedom 100, and has four additional finishes of sixth or better. But, he has also endured three finishes of 11th or worse.

Colton Herta, winner of a pair of races (Race 2 outings at both the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park), has had a “feast or famine” season, featuring the aforementioned wins along with two additional podiums, but also with five finishes of tenth or worse to counter.

The aforementioned Leist, admittedly on a hot streak, started the year slowly with finishes of 15th and 11th at St. Petersburg. And Nico Jamin, with a pair of 14th-place finishes his worst placings this year, has also encountered some struggles of his own.

Kaiser, however, has finished sixth or better in eight of nine races so far, with his worst finish being ninth at the Freedom 100. Still, one cannot assume that Kaiser is choosing to play prevent while those around him sputter. As he explained after Race 1, in which he finished third, he is still on the charge and looking to get the best finishes he can.

“I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful. When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year,” Kaiser asserted.

As a result of his consistency, Kaiser holds a 28-point lead over Leist. But, with only 50 points separating the top six, the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.


Marvelous Martin Withstands Furious Franzoni Charge

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Perhaps the best battle across all three Mazda Road to Indy series came in Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and involved title combatants Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, the Race 1 winner over Martin, was forced to start 15th, last on the grid, when a red flag prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, but he very quickly rocketed his way through the field, climbing up to third four laps in. He then took advantage of a restart to get around then second-place runner TJ Fischer before setting his sights on Martin for the lead.

Martin, however, was firm but clean in his defense and withstood every challenge from Franzoni to score his third win of the season.

“I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” Martin quipped afterward. “It’s hard, because you have that car in your mirrors but you can’t let it affect you. That worked out a lot better (in Race 2 than in Race 1). We will go back and work on a few things to find some speed and be ready for Mid-Ohio.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, tried to balance the disappointment of not winning against his impressive charge to second. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second,” he explained. “I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash. I had to pick my spaces, especially with guys who were battling with each other. It was fun.”

As a result of their battle, Franzoni leaves Road America with a slim seven-point lead over Martin.


Veekay Sweeps, Askew Hits Trouble in USF2000

Of the three Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seemed to have the most straight-forward title picture. The dominant Oliver Askew, winner of five races in a row and with a worst 2017 finish of second (Race 1, St. Petersburg) looked all but unbeatable heading into the weekend, and there was no reason to believe his run would slow down.

And then the races happened. Camber shims on the left-front wheel became loose in the middle of Race 1, forcing an emergency pit stop for repairs, which dropped him to 17th in the finishing order.

Askew rebounded to finish third in Race 2, but Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) swept the weekend with two race wins, the first of his USF2000 career.

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An elated Veekay was beside himself over the success, which occurred at the home track for his team, Pabst Racing. “We’re so happy – it’s great to do this here, the home track for the team. I was screaming on the radio again! I’m so happy that we have the speed and we can really show what we can do.”

Veekay’s triumphs combined with Askew’s troubles to slice the championship deficit to 24 points between the two. With 30 points available for race wins and seven races remaining, the USF2000 championship has suddenly been blown open.

Indy Lights and USF2000 resume action at Iowa Speedway on July 9, while Pro Mazda returns at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a triple-header on July 28-30.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.


F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.