Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Toronto weekend digest

Leave a comment

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.

 

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Power tops final practice at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.