Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Mid-Ohio weekend digest

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It’s taken a few days to wrap my head around all that went down in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, but will attempt to do so here.

Notes and reflections from Kyle Lavigne and myself over each day are linked here (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

We’ll start off with a bit of housekeeping:

Pro Mazda post-weekend tech clear; no issues

After Sunday’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race, the top three cars from three different teams were impounded and taken back to Indianapolis for further evaluation, in response to allegations of malfeasance that had arisen during the weekend.

Following the review, Pro Mazda confirmed there were no issues found. Here is the full statement from Andersen Promotions:

Following the post-race impounding of Pro Mazda cars 8, 23 and 82 immediately after Sunday’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Allied Building Products, series officials have determined that no illegal components, unauthorized parts or other items that would fall outside of the series technical regulations were in use. This process not only included a complete mechanical inspection and review of the vehicles but also inspection and analysis of aero, engine performance, Timing & Scoring data, oils and fuel.

“This process may occur at any time within any Mazda Road to Indy category and it should be viewed as an extension of the rigorous inspection process already in place,” said Technical Director Daryl Fox. “As it is a more intrusive process which requires more time, it needs to be completed away from the race track in a private setting. We would like to thank the teams involved for their professionalism. We recognize that it adds an unexpected burden on them. We also would like to thank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for permitting us to complete the work in their track garages.”

The results from Race 3 at Mid-Ohio are now classified as final and we look forward to the outcome of this very close championship.

And now for the rest of the weekend recap…

Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda rivalry reaches a fever pitch

Martin (center) and Franzoni (left) crack smiles after Race 3. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

If Road America was the appetizer in the rivalry between Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni and Anthony Martin, then Mid-Ohio was the main course.

Martin won Friday’s first race easily, but it was Saturday’s second race of the tripleheader that saw the battle almost descend into war.

As Martin came upon Franzoni’s Juncos Racing teammate Jeff Green entering the Carousel, he tried to go around him on the outside of the right-hander, but Green washed up the road through the corner trying to get out of the way, and then spun to the inside on corner exit. As he washed up, it was enough to slow Martin down but allow Franzoni past both of them on the inside. That was enough for Franzoni to score a win.

Martin, who like Australian countryman Daniel Ricciardo is rarely without a smile, was downcast on the podium and understandably miffed post-race.

“To get taken out by Victor’s teammate isn’t the way you want it to end; unfortunately these things happen, but there needs to be some more investigation,” Martin said. “I think the biggest thing now is to focus forward. I take that into everyday life too. We’ll look into the race tomorrow, we’ll improve it as we had a great car today.”

Franzoni described his vantage point: “I was a little bit behind, so I saw Jeff’s car moving a lot – then I saw him go outside, and I just went inside and it worked.

“Well, it hasn’t been so clean between us since Road America! That changed it. But we’re racing for the championship, it’s big money at the end of the year, and we have to win it. I understand his part; I understand my part. I think this is a good fight. He’s a really good driver; he doesn’t make mistakes. This race were both in the limit.”

A comprehensive win for Martin in race three helped ease the pain a bit after Saturday, and moved him back into the points lead by four – 259 to 255 – with two races to go.

“It was extremely awesome how today panned out; it couldn’t have gone any better,” he said. “I think after the race yesterday I went over some data, looked at how we could improve and straight from there I put it behind me.”

Franzoni at least took one win from the weekend, to save Martin completing a three-race sweep: “One victory this weekend was huge for me. I needed at least one. This has always been my bad track – here and St. Pete I suck a little bit! But finally we got one.”

A key point here is that the Martin vs. Franzoni battle in Pro Mazda doesn’t happen at all without Jeff Green being in the field. Green’s interest in advancing to this level and support for both Franzoni and the Juncos Racing team is what’s even put these two cars on the grid to make it happen; we have to remember Juncos was not planning to do Pro Mazda this year, initially. Traffic management is something the young drivers need to learn as they advance up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. What happened Saturday will be a teachable moment for both Martin and Franzoni and serves as the counter to Franzoni’s being frustrated having lost at Road America.

USF2000: Askew’s starts nearly stop title push; VeeKay, Thompson press on

Askew’s (No. 3) starts and restarts have been worth watching in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The story of the year in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda has been the combination of speed, poise and start ability turned in by Team USA Scholarship recipient Oliver Askew, who’s been the star of the year for Cape Motorsports. The Floridian won again in race one this weekend but fell off the podium in race two.

His race one win Friday though was not without controversy. Askew’s starts and restarts have been something worth monitoring all year – he’s walking a razor thin tightrope between excellent launches and jumping starts and restarts – and on Friday, he tilted towards the latter. Askew, who was already on probation for previous start violations, was docked 10 points post-race for jumping the initial start, but three other drivers were later assessed a 17-second post-race time penalty for jumping a restart.

It’s worth wondering how the title battle could have changed had Askew been assessed a drive-through penalty for jumping the start immediately after the race, and whether he would have been able to respond and charge through the field from there. Askew’s shown great pace in clean air this year but hasn’t had as many opportunities to carve through traffic.

“The penalty doesn’t change my mindset. The focus is to just keep on winning races and the championship will come in the end. We have the speed to qualify on pole and that’s huge here because it is quite difficult to pass. There was a ton of pressure going into this weekend and that pressure is still there,” Askew said Friday.

From left to right, Thompson, Askew, VeeKay after Friday. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Askew start drama has not helped his closest title rivals, Rinus VeeKay (Pabst Racing) and Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), who are both genuinely nice drivers and super respectful publicly but no doubt were probably seething privately after Friday. Thompson turned that frustration into his third win in the last four races on Saturday, continuing the roll he and Michael Duncalfe’s team have been on. The same story is true for VeeKay, the Dutch teenager having been the ultimate USF2000 model of consistency with finishes between first and fourth in all but one of the 13 races. Askew leads VeeKay by 13 points with one race left; Thompson is locked into third.

“That was amazing. In maybe two percent of my career can I say I had a perfect car but today, I had a perfect race car. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it almost looked easy – and it almost was easy. It was almost unreal when I got to the podium. Right now, I’m not racing for a championship, I’m racing for my career,” Thompson said.

VeeKay added,“My plan going in was just to drive smart and gain as many points on Oliver as I could. I saw Lucas (Kohl) and Kaylen (Frederick) pass him but I had to keep going. Parker had a good start and I was not so good so I had to defend from Oliver. I kept him behind so that was good.”

Indy Lights: A pair of winners who make you ask what might have been for title

Jamin and Urrutia have to wonder what could have been in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin winning the pair of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races this weekend, it was hard to see them up there and think they don’t really have a shot at the title, after a series of lost points throughout the year.

In Urrutia’s case for Belardi Auto Racing with SPM, a slow start out of the gate put pause to his title hopes before they ever really got going. Four finishes of 13th or worse in the first four races left him with 48 total points. Leader Colton Herta had 101 at the time. Urrutia sat 11th in points, 53 back. Now, 10 races later, Urrutia is tied for second in points, only 42 back of leader Kyle Kaiser after a better run of form – one win and four runner-up finishes – but probably too far back to claw back those remaining points unless Kaiser has two more terrible weekends in Gateway and Watkins Glen.

“If I win the next few races there’s nothing else I can do; what happened to me in Toronto where the engine stopped working could happen to Kaiser too. There’s still three or four other drivers fighting for the championship,” he said. “I have the same engineer as last year so the car here was pretty much the same.”

Jamin will be ruing a nightmare stretch of two-plus months from the Freedom 100 through Toronto. The Andretti Autosport driver fought myriad mechanical issues with AER and only scored 53 points in a six-race stretch – the lowest of any driver in the series in that period – which dropped him back outside the top five in points.

“It’s been extremely tough… we’ve had a lot of issues, you guys know,” Jamin reflected after Saturday’s race. “But my whole team and 27 crew has been fighting behind me. It definitely feels so good to be back on the podium.”

With those two having their own rough stretches of races, with Herta having such a roller coaster year where podiums and finishes of 10th or worse have seemed to alternate, and with Matheus Leist having his worst weekend of the year at the worst time as Carlin never quite found the balance this weekend, it allowed Kaiser to maintain a healthy gap in the Lights points with just two races remaining despite his own off-the-boil weekend.

Team USA Scholarship candidates make their pitch

One of the highlights of the Mid-Ohio race weekend is always when the next batch of candidates for the Team USA Scholarship arrive, having been nominated and then meeting a number of key industry stakeholders from IndyCar, the Mazda Road to Indy and sports cars. Many of these stakeholders then go on to judge the candidates as the field gets whittled from 10 to six, and eventually down to the winner of the scholarship(s).

It’s remarkable how the field of 10 candidates are so well prepared and poised for this opportunity. Jeremy Shaw, who runs the program, is renowned for his talent spotting ability and it’s also cool to see so many Team USA Scholarship alumni – Patrick Long, Andy Lally, Spencer Pigot, Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, Conor Daly, Neil Alberico, Aaron Telitz and Oliver Askew were among several on site this weekend – who still support and give back to the program.

Take note of the names present here now before they become big stars, and potentially one or more will be on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder next year.

Other weekend notes

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Shelby Blackstock and Zachary Claman De Melo turned in two of the more quietly impressive weekends in Indy Lights this weekend. Blackstock (Belardi) finally had a trouble-free weekend and with third in race two, made his return to the podium for the first time since this race two years ago. Claman De Melo (Carlin) led Carlin’s charge and the usually boom-or-bust Canadian turned in a pair of top-fives.
  • Blackstock’s teammate Aaron Telitz fought through back pain and made major strides in the races after a pre-race one engine change. Eighth and fifth were good results from lower qualifying spots at a place where passing is difficult, and continued the Wisconsin native’s consistent run of improving all year.
  • The litany of Journey puns made the rounds for Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry this weekend (above), but the Cleveland native didn’t stop believin’ as he made several good passing moves en route to ninth and seventh place finishes; he’s on a run of seven straight top-10 finishes, second only to Claman De Melo (eight) for most consecutive top-10s.
  • In Pro Mazda, Team Pelfrey banged home three more podium finishes – TJ Fischer on Friday then Carlos Cunha on Saturday and Sunday – as part of the team’s 11-podium weekend across Mid-Ohio and Pittsburgh. Kaylen Frederick gave the team a USF2000 podium on Saturday.
  • National class driver Bob Kaminsky kept his nose clean all weekend with three overall top-10s (eighth, seventh, ninth) and three class wins; son Colin Kaminsky also returned to USF2000 competition after a couple-weekend hiatus. John Cummiskey Racing runs these cars; JCR is renowned for its preparation.
  • The younger Kaminsky was one of several drivers back in action in USF2000. He was 13th and 17th in his two races with other returnees or debutantes Bruna Tomaselli 15th and 14th, Andres Gutierrez 12th and 11th, Jacob Abel 16th and 13th and Phillippe Denes 18th both races.

The Mazda Road to Indy has testing at both Gateway and Watkins Glen to come before their final two weekends of the year. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda have a race apiece at Gateway, while at Watkins Glen, Indy Lights and USF2000 race once, and Pro Mazda races twice.

Hamilton tops second Abu Dhabi F1 practice with new track record

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Lewis Hamilton swept to the top of the timesheets in second Formula 1 practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Friday evening, beating Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton trailed Vettel through the daytime-run opening practice session, but managed to strike back by recording a new track record at the Yas Marina Circuit for Mercedes.

Hamilton recorded a fastest lap time of 1:37.877 to finish one-tenth of a second clear of Vettel at the checkered flag, appearing to have an edge across a single lap on the ultra-soft tire.

Red Bull threw its hat into the ring as a possible rival for pole through Daniel Ricciardo, who finished the session third-fastest, three-tenths of a second back from Hamilton at the head of the field.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP2 in fourth place in the sister Ferrari, finishing within half a second of Hamilton, and managed to edge out fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas, who was a further two-tenths back in P5.

Max Verstappen failed to get in a quick flying lap during FP2, ending the session one second down in P6 for Red Bull.

Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s tight intra-team fight at Force India continued through FP2 as the pair were separated by just 0.01 seconds, taking seventh and eighth respectively to finish as the leading midfield drivers.

Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso completed the top 10 for Renault and McLaren, with Felipe Massa following in 11th for Williams on his final Friday appearance in F1.

Massa was fortunate to avoid an accident with Ricciardo during the final 15 minutes of the session after a mix up at the hairpin when the Brazilian tried to get a wider line for the back straight.

Running in Abu Dhabi continues with final practice at Yas Marina on Saturday morning from 5am ET on the NBC Sports app, followed by qualifying at 8am ET on NBCSN.