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.

F1 2017 driver review: Romain Grosjean

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Romain Grosjean

Team: Haas
Car No.: 8
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Austria)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 28
Championship Position: 13th

After leading Haas’ charge through its debut Formula 1 season in 2016, Romain Grosjean once again stepped up as team leader for the American team through its sophomore campaign despite scoring one point fewer.

Haas did not expect any major step in performance heading into 2017, having dealt with building all-new cars for two different sets of regulations, but the team was able to match its season one points total by the halfway mark this time around.

The big boost was the addition of a second points scoring driver – Kevin Magnussen – to partner Grosjean. Grosjean looked increasingly comfortable at Haas even if the car often presented problems, particularly under braking.

Radio rants were frequent, with Grosjean unable to drive around the issues as Magnussen did. But he was nevertheless able to finish the year as Haas’ top scorer, with his highlight moment being a perfect run to sixth in Austria.

Greater consistency was evident from both Grosjean and Haas through 2017, yet there were still swings in form that need to be ironed out in the future. The team was unable to capitalize on Renault and Toro Rosso’s late season difficulties that could have seen it jump to sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Grosjean once again proved himself to be a very competent and talented racer through 2017, but needs a little more panache – perhaps down to the car more than anything – if he is to put himself in the frame for a top-line drive in the future.

Haas continues to offer a good platform, though, and its third season should be its best yet thanks to the stability in the regulations. It will be a real chance for Grosjean to show what he can do.

Season High: A perfect run to sixth in Austria, leading the midfield cars.

Season Low: Crashing early with Ocon in Brazil, hurting Haas’ constructors’ hopes.