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Urrutia on IndyCar prospects: ‘It’s getting close’

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Santiago Urrutia is closing on moving up to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018, even if the Uruguayan driver does not win this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

Urrutia was a hard-luck runner-up finisher in the 2016 season driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but fell into an uncertain situation over the offseason as SPM shuttered its Indy Lights program.

A late and rather interesting deal came together later during the offseason between Urrutia and Belardi Auto Racing, with his No. 5 Dallara IL-15 Mazda then having taken on Arrow Electronics signage at the first race at St. Petersburg and a full change to a gold and black Arrow Electronics livery under the Belardi Auto Racing with SPM banner from the second weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

That allowed Urrutia a second season in the series. While a tough start occurred with three finishes outside the top-10 in the first four races, Urrutia’s won twice since and scored eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races, and has closed to within 31 points of points leader Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser will clinch the title at the Watkins Glen season finale next week provided he starts the race.

In the break in-between the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Gateway Motorsports Park race weekends, Urrutia held a press conference in his home country of Uruguay to say he has “70 percent” of the budget secured for IndyCar next year.

He expanded on that a bit this weekend at Gateway, following his win in Saturday night’s penultimate race of the year.

“It’s getting close. I’m not sure I can say anything, but I definitely want to be in IndyCar next year,” Urrutia told NBC Sports.

“I think I’ve showed everyone that I’m ready for IndyCar. So, let’s see what we can find at the end of the year if I can sign a contract. But right now I’m in a really good position, so I hope I can sign as soon as I can a contract.”

Urrutia had to win Saturday night in Gateway to keep his Indy Lights title hopes alive, and did so after a late-race pass of Juan Piedrahita for the victory.

“Yeah, it was good. The only thing I got to do was win, so that’s what I did. I said, after the restart when I was second, ‘Okay, I win this race or I put the car in the wall,” because I don’t want to be second. I took a lot of risks on that pass and everything, but I got it, so I’m happy to be first, I’m happy to take the win.

“Now, I’m looking forward to Watkins Glen and get the win there again. If I win again at Watkins Glen, it’s going to help even more (trying to get to IndyCar).”

The Gateway win was also important for Urrutia from an overall development standpoint, as it marked his first win on an oval. He’d driven very well at Iowa this year, climbing to second and then overlooking race winner Matheus Leist before accidentally doing donuts on the front straight.

But this Saturday evening showcased a tenacity on the ovals without making a mistake, which had happened previously in Urrutia’s Indy Lights career the last year and a half.

By far, he’s excelled most on the permanent road courses, as his five other Indy Lights wins have come on those tracks (three at Mid-Ohio, one apiece at Barber and Road America).

“It was good,” he said. “I was pretty close in the Freedom 100, but I hit the wall. I like the ovals. This oval I didn’t like the first time. I got here, in the first few laps, I crashed into the wall. I said ‘Oh, this oval is going to difficult for me.’

“But as soon as we got the car ready, it was good. The car was super, super quick. So I think the Belardi guys did a great job today. The car was awesome, so thank you to the team.”

In a recent “Meet the Contenders” series piece on those drivers eligible for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires titles, Urrutia hailed his close relationship with engineer Tim Neff, who came with him from SPM to Belardi over the offseason.

“I really trust Tim. I don’t have a lot of friends in racing and I can call him my friend,” Urrutia said. “I believe in him and we have a really good relationship. If he makes a mistake, he tells me – and if I make a mistake, I tell him what I did. I can work closely with him and he really helps me. I know he’ll give me 100 percent to make the car as quick as he can, and he knows I’ll drive it as fast as I can. I’m really glad that we were able to do a deal for this year and I hope that if I go to IndyCar I can bring him with me.”

If Urrutia can make it to IndyCar, as he’s aiming to do and having tested previously with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last year, he’d be the first Uruguayan driver in the series since Juan Caceres made one Champ Car start for Dale Coyne Racing in 2006.

It’s the late Gonzalo Rodriguez though, who is Uruguay’s racing idol. He drove for Team Penske in CART two race weekends in 1999. Urrutia’s 2015 Pro Mazda title was clinched at the same track and on the same September weekend when Rodriguez lost his life 16 years earlier.

“It’s a country that is all about soccer but people are learning more about motorsports and they hope to see another driver in the biggest league, like Gonzalo Rodriguez did in 1999. It’s great for everyone,” he said.

“Fans at home and fans here in America want to see me in IndyCar next year and we’re working hard toward it. I know it won’t be easy, especially if we don’t win the scholarship, but it’s not impossible.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.