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.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.