Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Post-Iowa, crucial Toronto double set for Indy Lights, USF2000

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The stage is set for an important weekend of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires racing at Exhibition Place and the streets of Toronto.

With four races on tap between the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, there’s a chance for the championship leads to swell to near unassailable amounts heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at the end of the month, or get reduced even tighter.

And as the first street course races since the season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg in March, it’ll be interesting to see who’s improved since that point.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Although American rookies Aaron Telitz and Colton Herta split the St. Petersburg races back in March, these two would be considered spoilers this weekend given where they’re at in the championship, as the course of the championship has changed.

Telitz, Herta and Neil Alberico (race one) and Herta, Santiago Urrutia and Pato O’Ward (race two) took the podium spots.

None enters the weekend higher than third in points, with Herta (third, 35 points back), Urrutia (fifth, 51), Telitz (sixth, 55) and Alberico (eighth, 57) all needing a huge weekend if they are to keep their championship hopes alive with six races remaining.

Instead the balance of power has shifted to Carlin, which surprisingly hasn’t won at Toronto in two years but enters this weekend on a four-race winning streak overall.

Matheus Leist has been the lead charger in that regard. The teenaged Brazilian has won three of those four, split between a big oval (Indianapolis), a permanent road course (Road America) and a short oval (Iowa) to move to within 13 points of championship leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing. A win this weekend would give Leist a quartet of victories on all disciplines of circuit, which is highly impressive in his first year in North America.

Leist’s summer boom has caught up the gap to Kaiser, whose consistency has been his strong suit, but where wins are needed if he is to hold off the Carlin surge. Luckily for Kaiser, he’s with a team that swept the Toronto weekend two years ago in the hands of Spencer Pigot.

The spoiler in all this is one of two Canadians in the field, Leist’s teammate Zachary Claman De Melo, who is seventh in points (56 back) but has been on a roll since the Indianapolis road course. The teenager out of Montreal broke through at Road America for his first win and seems poised to interrupt the title battle at the top. Pace has never been an issue for Claman De Melo, but consistency has.

Belardi swept the weekend last year with Felix Rosenqvist, but will look to recapture the form they’ve had at St. Petersburg if they’re going to do so again this weekend. Telitz has been mired in a rut since St. Petersburg often through no fault of his own, while Urrutia’s dogged aggression has sometimes played to his benefit. A win might not save his title hopes in what’s been a perpetually frustrating sophomore season, but it would be a needed boost of confidence for the talented, yet sometimes tempestuous Uruguayan.

Beyond Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett flies the flag for Canada on home soil this weekend. The Queen’s University graduate, along with his Andretti teammates, will look to deliver this team its first Indy Lights win here since the Dallara IL-15 Mazda was introduced in 2015. Nico Jamin is due a bit of luck and Ryan Norman has improved as well in his rookie year.

Races run at 1 p.m. ET Saturday and 12:15 p.m. ET Sunday, with NBCSN coverage on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

VeeKay, Askew, Frederick likely to impress in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Oliver Askew and Cape Motorsports’ dominance on Sunday in the corn fields of Iowa Speedway temporarily staved off the charge from Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay, who made the USF2000 title a battle again after a weekend sweep in Road America.

At 32 points back, VeeKay will need another Road America-esque weekend to close that deficit to within shouting range with just five races remaining. If he can’t close the gap, it opens the possibility Askew could clinch the title at Mid-Ohio later this month. Pabst Racing’s street course setups are rather good though and beyond VeeKay, if teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl continue their recent performance uptick, it could do well to upset Askew’s apple cart.

Askew will have support back in his corner in Ricky Donison, the Indian driver returning after being one of a handful to skip Iowa and the risk of incurring high crash damage bills.

Team Pelfrey actually beat Askew to winning the season opener and the debut of the Tatuus USF-17 Mazda at St. Petersburg in the hands of Robert Megennis. The revelation of last year, Megennis has endured a tougher sophomore campaign and like teenaged teammate Kaylen Frederick is out of the title fight. But again, with nothing to lose, they could impress this weekend, and if Megennis qualifies higher up he won’t need an encore of his passing heroics this race last year.

Exclusive Autosport flies the flag for Canada as both a team and with lead driver Parker Thompson, The talented Red Deer, Alberta native has had a tough go of his third USF2000 campaign but will look to carry winning momentum from his last start in Canada, in an F1600 race weekend in Montreal, to give both team and driver its first win of the season. He won here last year in race two.

ArmsUp Motorsports also has a potential spoiler in play with Alex Baron back for a second straight weekend. The team won here last year with Victor Franzoni and Baron’s most recent Toronto appearance witnessed an Indy Lights win with Belardi in 2014. Watch for him to be at the front this weekend.

Elsewhere, BN Racing’s David Malukas returns for his street course debut, the Chicago karting star having massively impressed at Road America. Darren Keane and Newman Wachs Racing are also back after a race absence. DE Force Racing adds a third car for Jose Sierra as well. The 17-car field had the potential to come back to 20 but remains down by comparison versus earlier in the year.

These two races are at noon ET Saturday and 9:40 a.m. ET Sunday.

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”