Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: New oval test awaits Indy Lights, Pro Mazda in Gateway

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An unknown variable to two of the three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series comes with this weekend’s races at Gateway Motorsports Park, the first and only oval for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the third oval for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this season (this race airs August 28 at noon ET on NBCSN).

NEW TRACK ON TAP

The only running for these two series here has been testing, first on the old surface earlier this year and then on the repaved surface a couple weeks ago.

Indy Lights has been to Gateway with both of its prior two iterations, under the Indy Pro Series nomenclature in 2002 and 2003 (won by Ryan Hampton in 2002 and Jeff Simmons in 2003) and four times before that under the old Indy Lights banner in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Those winners included Lee Bentham (now Ed Carpenter’s spotter and the Ed Carpenter Racing driver coach), Shigeaki Hattori, now NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and the late Dan Wheldon, respectively.

Bell holds both the qualifying and race lap records at Gateway, 157.205 mph and 28.625 seconds (qualifying) and 157.043 mph and 29.113 seconds (race), set in 2000, but those records should be smashed on the repaved track and with the new car this weekend.

Pro Mazda makes its debut at the track this weekend with a 55-lap race. Indy Lights will go 75 laps around Gateway. Both races are Saturday evening, at 4:55 p.m. and 6 p.m. CT and local time.

TITLE TILT BREAKDOWN

Kyle Kaiser has chance to win Indy Lights title in Gateway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As the series heads into Gateway, the championship battle could end in one series while it’s all poised to continue in another one.

In Indy Lights, Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing had a nightmare weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but even so, is well-positioned to lock up this year’s title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that goes with it. He has a 42-point lead over both Colton Herta and Santiago Urrutia, 297-255, and will clinch the championship with one race still to go at Watkins Glen provided he leaves Gateway with a 34-point lead.

The maximum swing in points in a 15-car grid is 27 points from first to last, if a driver secures the maximum 33 points (30 for winning with one bonus point apiece for pole, most laps led, and fastest race lap) and the 15th-place finisher scores six points.

A top-five finish for Kaiser will ensure he has at least a 26-point lead over the field, regardless of what others do – he’d have 314 points and the most anyone else could get with the maximum would be 288. So, the odds still remain in his favor barring some extraordinary events.

If Kaiser does clinch this weekend, he’ll be the first to do so in Indy Lights prior to the season finale since Josef Newgarden in 2011, who did so by starting at Kentucky in that year’s penultimate race – he finished second to Stefan Wilson that day. Tristan Vautier and Sage Karam (Fontana), Gabby Chaves (Sonoma), Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) have all won the last five titles at the last race of the year, all in California.

Herta and Urrutia’s tie for second (255 points) sees them in a tightly bunched six-way battle for the runner-up spot. With Matheus Leist (249), Zachary Claman De Melo (243), Nico Jamin (242) and Aaron Telitz (233) could all stake their claim for second.

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

Quite by contrast, Anthony Martin leads Victor Franzoni by only four points in Pro Mazda (259-255) and the battle between the Cape Motorsports and Juncos Racing driver figures to rage over the final three races. Pro Mazda has the oval this week, then two races at Watkins Glen to sort out that battle.

John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, sized up how the MRTI season has gone to date as the series heads into its final two weekends.

“You have ebbs and flows in the season. All three championships are far from being decided,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “The competition level is so intense. The new Tatuus USF-17 has woken some people up internationally as an option.

“Meanwhile I was saying to someone not long ago, the Pro Mazda car is 13 years old and the car has remained relevant that long. To see that car have a sweet swan song with two guys battling out for the title in this car has been great to witness.

“Indy Lights has been ridiculous too. Kaiser has a lengthy points lead, but it’s not done yet. With an oval and Watkins, with multiple races, it’ll be a battle down to the end.”

LOOKING BACK AT RECENT OVALS

Matheus Leist poses at the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights has its third oval this season and Leist, who hadn’t driven on an oval until this season but has instantly clicked with Carlin’s engineering team, somehow has the chance to sweep all three of them. The Brazilian teenager dominated at the Freedom 100 in Indianapolis and continued his midsummer run of form with a win from 10th on the grid at his first short oval in Iowa.

Looking back to last year, Kaiser won his first Indy Lights race on the Phoenix 1-mile oval, a track that’s been recently repaved, and a track he thinks will provide a proper comparison to Gateway. Otherwise it was Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport, Indianapolis) and Felix Serralles (Carlin, Iowa) who won last year.

In 2015, the first year of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, there were also three winners in three ovals: Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Indianapolis), Serralles (Belardi Auto Racing, Milwaukee) and Max Chilton (Carlin, Iowa).

Pro Mazda has not raced on an oval since Lucas Oil Raceway in May 2016, Pato O’Ward delivering the win for Team Pelfrey in dominant fashion. Weiron Tan swept the two Pro Mazda races in 2015 for Andretti Autosport at Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa.

It’s been since 2014, when Spencer Pigot won for Juncos at Milwaukee, that Pro Mazda last raced on a track one mile or longer. Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa are both under one mile. For the car that launched into then-Star Mazda in 2004, this race at the 1.25-mile Gateway track is the longest oval this car has ever raced on.

WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 12: Chad Boat, driver of the #84 Billy Boat Motorsports Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway on January 12, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Chad Boat, in a fourth Belardi Auto Racing entry, will at long last make his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race debut. He was meant to at the series’ last short oval race in Iowa but was ruled out, not medically cleared after an accident earlier that week.

Boat’s presence in the field makes it a 15-car Indy Lights field, which in turn opens up the option – however slim – that if Kaiser was to finish last and Urrutia, one of Boat’s three Belardi teammates, won and scored maximum points, could close the 42-point gap down to 15 points leaving Gateway.

For Boat, the 25-year-old son of past IndyCar veteran Billy Boat, the goal will be to gain experience as a short track, dirt track and part-time NASCAR veteran making a welcome entry into the series. He has tested at Gateway in advance of his debut.

While Boat increases the Indy Lights field by one, the Pro Mazda grid dips from 14 its last race at Mid-Ohio down to 10 cars.

Marquez fights to Aragon MotoGP win, opens up points lead

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Marc Marquez fought through to his fifth win of the 2017 MotoGP season in Sunday’s Aragon Grand Prix, extending his lead in the riders’ championship to 16 points over Andrea Dovizioso.

A fall in qualifying meant Marquez started only fifth at Motorland Aragon, and failed to make any inroads at the start of the race, running only fourth in the early stages as Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo hit the front.

Marquez was able to slowly rise up the order, passing title rival Dovizioso, Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi and finally Lorenzo, taking the lead of the race on Lap 16.

Marquez ultimately crossed the line less than one second clear of teammate Dani Pedrosa, who continued his good record at Motorland Aragon to complete a one-two finish for Repsol Honda.

Lorenzo held on to take his second podium in Ducati colors in third, finishing ahead of Yamaha pole-sitter Maverick Viñales, who dropped to fifth on the opening lap and never recovered.

Rossi’s remarkable return to racing a little over three weeks since suffering a double leg break ended with a run to fifth at the checkered flag, having spent the early part of the race battling at the front before dropping back.

Aleix Espargaro finished sixth ahead of Dovizioso, who slipped to 16 points behind Marquez in the title race by only finishing seventh for Ducati.

Alvaro Bautista crossed the line eighth ahead of Tech3’s Johann Zarco, while Pol Espargaro completed the top 10.

MotoGP returns in three weeks’ time with the Japanese Grand Prix at Twin Ring Motegi.

Palmer calls breakthrough F1 points ‘a weight off the shoulders’

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Jolyon Palmer has conceded that his march to his first points of the 2017 Formula 1 season last time out in Singapore was “a weight off the shoulders” as he looks to gain momentum for the remaining six races of the season.

Palmer recorded his best finish in F1 under the lights at Marina Bay, crossing the line sixth in the first wet night race in the history of the sport.

The result came at the end of a tough weekend for Palmer that saw Renault confirm it would be dropping the Briton from its F1 line-up for 2018, drafting in Carlos Sainz Jr. from Toro Rosso.

Even without an F1 seat to save, Palmer hopes the result can mark the start of a strong run to finish his time with Renault through the final six races.

“Finally we had a smooth race, which is ironic given what was going on with the safety cars and the tricky weather conditions,” Palmer said.

“We made a good start, and the move on [Valtteri] Bottas was fun; a lot happened in the two hours. It feels
like a weight off the shoulders to get some points.

“I hope to push on now and get some more. I know I can do it.”

Should Palmer wish to remain in F1, his only realistic options lie with Williams and Sauber for 2018, although both teams are understood to be looking elsewhere.

A report from Autosport claims Williams has narrowed its shortlist to partner Lance Stroll next year down to existing driver Felipe Massa, reserve driver Paul di Resta and recent Renault tester Robert Kubica.

Ferrari youngster and runaway Formula 2 points leader Charles Leclerc looks nailed on to take one of Sauber’s seats next year, replacing Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein.

Marcus Ericsson is expected to keep his seat with Sauber for a fourth season, with Leclerc’s fellow Ferrari-backed youngster Antonio Giovinazzi seemingly the only alternative for the Swiss team.

Renault F1 expecting to be ‘best of the rest’ in Malaysian GP

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Renault Formula 1 bosses Cyril Abiteboul and Nick Chester are confident of being the ‘best of the rest’ behind the front-running teams and leading F1’s midfield in Malaysia next weekend.

Renault enjoyed one of its strongest weekends of the season so far last time out in Singapore, with Nico Hulkenberg qualifying fifth and Jolyon Palmer picking up eight points for P6 in the race.

The result saw Renault move up to seventh in the constructors’ championship, and Abiteboul wants to keep the momentum going as part of its bid for a top-five finish come the end of the season.

“A positive we can take from Singapore is that we have moved up a position in the constructors’ championship which means a step closer to our end of season goal of fifth place overall,” Abiteboul said.

“Reliability remains our main focus, maximum effort and flawless execution is required by all in the remaining six races to achieve that target.

“Sepang will be about negotiating the unpredictable climate and getting the best out of the whole package in the heat and humidity. As we continue to develop the chassis side, we will introduce a new engine on Nico’s car at the start of the weekend, his fourth, engine of the season.

“We fully expect to have both cars in the top 10 as we have shown our capability on a number of occasions to be the best team behind the top three.”

Technical chief Chester echoed Abiteboul’s thoughts, believing the strengths of the R.S.17 car will put the team in good stead at Sepang.

“We ought to go quite well in Malaysia with the mixture of low, medium and high-speed corners – we should be the fourth quickest car again. The car has good pace and it looked strong in the wet in Singapore,” Chester said.

“The wet running we had in Singapore is useful information for us, given Malaysia is known to throw up a few surprises with its changeable climate.

“Overall the car is working reasonably well at this stage in the season.”

Hamilton has considered quitting F1, but now ‘loving it more than ever’

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed he considered quitting Formula 1 in order to pursue interests outside of the sport, but currently has no plans to retire, saying he is “loving it more than ever”.

Hamilton, 32, is currently fighting for his fourth drivers’ title against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and leads the championship by 28 points with six races remaining.

The Briton enjoys a celebrity profile outside of the sport unmatched by any of his peers, and has interests in fashion and music that he has long expressed a desire in pursuing once his racing career has finished.

After winning last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, Hamilton returned to Europe to attend the fashion week events in London and Milan before jetting to Malaysia next week to continue his championship bid.

Appearing on UK chatshow The Jonathan Ross Show, Hamilton discussed his future plans and admitted he had considered turning his back on F1 in the past.

“You try and go as long as you can. It’s not a sport you can go back to,” Hamilton said.

“When you’re in Formula 1, you’re in the spotlight, you’re at the top of the world – then it’s downhill from there on.

“You don’t earn the same money, there’s not a huge amount of opportunities because you’ve been in that world for so long. I’ve been there since I was eight.

“For me at the moment, for these past five, six years I’ve really been trying to work on what I enjoy outside of the sport so that when I stop I can walk away and still have other things.”

When asked directly if he was planning to retire soon, Hamilton said: “No. There have been talks about it, and I definitely have thought about it.

“There have definitely been times when I’ve thought there are other things I want to do, but then we’re in the heat of this battle right now and I’m loving it more than ever.

“The training, all the work that you put into something, and then you get to really show your abilities, it’s the greatest feeling ever.

“So I’m going to keep going for as long as I can and see what I can do.”

Hamilton existing contract with Mercedes expires at the end of the 2018 season, the Briton having made his F1 debut back in 2007.