Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Toronto weekend digest

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In every season, there are a handful of weekends that make you look back and think “Yeah, that’s where things turned.” This past weekend at Toronto may very well be one of these weekends for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

With a pair of weekend sweeps and several incidents that collected heavy hitters in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, indications are that this could be the weekend that defines the championships for both series.

SATURDAY “DR. JEKYLL” VS. SUNDAY “MR. HYDE”

The Saturday and Sunday races could not have been more different for USF2000 and Indy Lights.

Saturday’s outings were straightforward affairs. Parker Thompson scored a victory from pole in USF2000, leading all 25 laps, while Kyle Kaiser scored a victory from pole in Indy Lights, leading all 35 laps.

Sunday, however, was a different story. Thompson was elevated to the lead in USF2000 Race 2 after Alex Baron, David Malukas, and Oliver Askew all crashed together in turn 3 (more on this later).

In Indy Lights Race 2, Kaiser inherited the lead when Colton Herta suffered a broken rear suspension after contact with the wall. Further, Matheus Leist, Santi Urrutia, Nico Jamin, Shelby Blackstock, and Neil Alberico were all involved in incidents at some point, with Urrutia, Jamin, Blackstock, and Alberico all failing to finish.

Across both series, nine of the 31 drivers who started Sunday’s races recorded DNFs.

The close confines of street courses tend to breed contact, and there was more than a fair share of it on Sunday in Toronto.

 

“DOMINANT KAISER” REPLACES “CONSISTENT KAISER”

Kyle Kaiser celebrated victory not once, but twice in Toronto Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

It was almost surprising, in some ways, that Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser led the Indy Lights championship entering Toronto. He didn’t have the fanfare of being a former champion of another MRTI series (such as Aaron Telitz, last year’s titlist in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, or Nico Jamin, the 2015 USF2000 champion). He wasn’t a proven race winner in the cut-throat world of European racing (such as Colton Herta or Matheus Leist, last year’s BRDC British F3 champion). And Juncos Racing, though a force in other championships, was only entering its third Indy Lights season and does not have an Indy Lights crown to its name.

Yet, entering Toronto, there stood Kaiser atop the standings. While others had stolen the spotlight at various times, Kaiser remained a model of consistency, winning once and finishing ninth or better in every race this year.

However, he shed the “consistent” moniker last weekend and replaced it with “dominator.” As described earlier, he romped to victory in Race 1 and was the last man standing in a chaotic Race 2, maintaining his composure to score victory as others around him faltered.

Simply put, it was a dream weekend for the 21-year-old. “I knew this would be a good weekend for us because the team has always had a good setup here – Spencer (Pigot) won both races two years ago. But it’s really been a dream weekend – I’ve never had a double win weekend before. Actually, I can’t believe it!” Kaiser revealed after Race 2.

On the back of both wins, his season total now at three, Kaiser now leads Matheus Leist by 51 points ahead of the next round at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. And while he knows there’s pressure in leading the championship, he is happy to have a cushion back to second place.

“I am definitely more confident and more relaxed heading into Mid-Ohio, having a little bit of a cushion in the championship. It’s unrealistic to say that the pressure won’t affect me, but it is a little bit less now,” Kaiser added.

INDY LIGHTS CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS FALTER

While Kaiser had the broom out and swept the weekend, his championship rivals stumbled.

Colton Herta finished fourth in Race 1 and appeared set to win Race 2 before his rear suspension failed after wall contact early in the race. Matheus Leist nosed into the turn 8 tire barriers while running third in Race 1, and then did the same in turn 3 in Race 2, though he was able to rejoin the fight and finish fifth.

Nico Jamin ran into the stationery Leist in Race 1 following the Brazilian’s accident, damaging himself and Leist enough to knock both cars out of the race, and then Jamin got squeezed into the outside wall in turn 1, lap 1 of Race 2 after going three-wide with Kaiser and Santi Urrutia.

Later in Race 2, Urrutia then ground to halt on the front straightaway after suffering a mechanical failure.

The only title rivals of Kaiser’s to have strong outings in Toronto were Zachary Claman de Melo, who finished second and third in both races to move up to fourth in the championship, and Aaron Telitz, who scored finishes of fifth and second. However, at deficits of 72 points (Claman de Melo) and 76 points (Telitz), it may be a case of “too little, too late” for both.

As a result of the chaos, a once tight championship suddenly tilted heavily in the favor of Kaiser. And any more errors from any of the aforementioned drivers could bring their title hopes to an end.

THOMPSON RIGHTS THE SHIP

The 2017 season has been rough on Parker Thompson. The 19-year-old was a winner of four races in 2016 and entered 2017 as a possible threat for a title.

However, with no wins and only two podiums to his name entering Toronto, 2017 was leaving a lot to be desired.

But, he and Exclusive Autosport, contesting its first USF2000 campaign this year, are starting to find their stride, with Toronto as evidence of that. A weekend sweep saw the combination take their first wins together, and on home soil at that.

Parker Thompson and Exclusive Autosport were all smiles after a pair of wins in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“The Exclusive Autosport crew has done such a great job – to take two wins, two poles and multiple podiums in their first season on the Mazda Road to Indy is outstanding. We’re only getting stronger,” Thompson asserted after Race 2.”

While Thompson, at a deficit of 77 points to championship leader Oliver Askew, may not be in contention for a title this year, he is showing the mettle of a driver capable of making it all the way to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP COMES ALIVE

When USF2000 arrived at Road America at the end of June, it seemed a formality that the championship would go to Oliver Askew. A winner of five out of six races at the time, he led Rinus VeeKay by 60 points and looked all but unstoppable.

Since then, however, despite adding a sixth win (Iowa Speedway) to his resume, Askew’s record has been blighted by finishes of 17th (Road America Race 1) and 12th (Toronto Race 2). Neither was his fault (camber shims came loose at Road America, and he was collected in a crash that started when Alex Baron and David Malukas were battling for the lead), but they remain blackmarks on his season.

Meanwhile, VeeKay has two wins, two seconds, and one third in that same timespan.

Now, as USF2000 heads to Mid-Ohio, a championship that was once a runaway for Askew sees the 20-year-old Floridian with a slim 18-point lead over the 16-year-old Dutchman.

It’s likely a two-man race for the title, but that race is now up for grabs between those two.

OTHER NOTES

  • Aaron Telitz had a second at the Freedom 100 but his second place in race two for Indy Lights on Sunday took the Mazda scholarship driver and Belardi Auto Racing ace to his first street course podium since his win in the season opener at St. Petersburg. Telitz is the only driver in Indy Lights to have four top-five finishes in all four street races. While Telitz went 5-2, teammate Santiago Urrutia went 3-11 after stopping on course on Saturday and teammate Shelby Blackstock had a nightmare weekend.
  • Since his win at the Indy road course, race one, Nico Jamin has been mired in a funk. The talented Frenchman was fourth in race two but hasn’t been better than sixth in the last six races, with three DNFs in the last four races.
  • Sixth and fourth was the best back-to-back run of finishes for Team Pelfrey’s Juan Piedrahita, with fourth the best finish of his season.
  • With ninth then eight place finishes, Carlin rookie Garth Rickards posted his first set of back-to-back top-10s this season.
  • In USF2000, ArmsUp Motorsports rookie Devin Wojcik has a good roll going with five straight top-10s, and a best result of sixth in Toronto race two.
  • Series newcomer Jose Sierra (DE Force Racing) was fourth in race one while the rapidly improving Darren Keane banked a career-best fourth in race two for Newman Wachs Racing. Keane is coached by sports car veteran Ozz Negri.
  • Besides Thompson, Exclusive Autosport teammate Jayson Clunie returned after missing Iowa and was ninth in back-to-back races, his best finish of the season.

All three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder return at Mid-Ohio on July 28-30, with double-headers in Indy Lights and USF2000 and a triple-header in Pro Mazda.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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