Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Urrutia’s in-season rebound set him up for potential IndyCar jump

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One driver who made some noise around the end of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season about his potential jump into the Verizon IndyCar Series was Uruguayan Santi Urrutia, who ended second in this year’s Indy Lights championship after a roller-coaster campaign.

While he hasn’t been confirmed for an IndyCar seat yet although he’s met with a couple teams, he put himself in this position by way of his comeback during the Indy Lights season.

He entered as something of a championship favorite after ending runner-up with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2016 behind Ed Jones, albeit in controversial fashion. Alas, Urrutia moved over to Belardi Auto Racing when SPM shut down its Indy Lights operation, as Belardi and SPM formed a partnership early in the season, evidenced by the ARROW Electronics branding on Urrutia’s No. 5 Dallara IL-15 Mazda this year.

Amid high expectations, Urrutia was confident of a title-contending year. But, in the first half of the season, things did not go as planned.

In the first four races, Urrutia had three finishes of 13th or worse (13th, 13th, and 15th), broken up for a second-place finish in race two at St. Petersburg.

His season began to turn around at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, where he finished seventh and second. He followed that up with fifth in the Freedom 100 before finishing second at Road America race one.

A final lap race puncture dropped him to 11th in race two there, before he rebounded the next couple weekends. A run up to second at Iowa Speedway saw him infamously/hilarious doing victory donuts after a miscommunication (Urrutia had thought he’d won as he was a fair distance behind Matheus Leist) and then added a third at race on in Toronto.

A mechanical issue resigned him to 11th in race two at Toronto. But the final four races of 2017 saw the title-contending form Urrutia had in 2017 return for good.

He won race one at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, finished second in race two, won at Gateway Motorsports Park courtesy of a late-race pass of Juan Piedrahita, and ended the year by finishing second at Watkins Glen behind teammate Aaron Telitz.

All told, Urrutia overcame the rocky start to end up second in the championship for the second consecutive year. Urrutia, true to form, didn’t mince words about his disappointment – particularly in his own performance – at the start of the season.

“Honestly, the first part of the championship, I was really bad. I was all over the place. Didn’t have the pace for top five,” he told NBC Sports at the Watkins Glen season finale.

However, he also detailed that mechanical woes hampered them, and an engine change at Road America helped set in motion their charge in the second half of the season.

“When we changed (the) engine at Road America, it went the right way. I have the same engineer (Tim Neff) from last year. We changed guys in the team. But Belardi won a ton of races last year. They’re competitive. We had the pace, especially second part of the year, but struggled in the beginning because of the engine. Considering I was 11th at Road America and now I’m vice champion, for sure I’m way more happy than last year.”

Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock celebrate the 2017 Indy Lights team championship with team owner Brian Belardi. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Further, Urrutia was a contributing factor in Belardi Auto Racing winning the team championship in 2017, the highlights being a pair of victories for both Urrutia and Aaron Telitz.

“I am so proud of this team,” Brian Belardi said of the accomplishment. “Winning the team championship was a big goal of ours. We’ve had an amazing history in a short amount of time, with drivers like Anders Krohn, Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves, Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach.

“Sometimes you’re a cheerleader, sometimes you’re a father figure. We’re all following a dream here – there have been ups and downs but we seem to prevail somehow so hats off to everyone who’s ever been with our team.”

Looking ahead to 2018, Urrutia has his eyes on the Verizon IndyCar Series, and he seemed confident that he could secure a full-time seat, and even more confident that he can be a contender right away.

Belardi, too, indicated he may be on the verge of an Indianapolis 500 debut – same as Juncos Racing did this year – while focusing full-season on an at least three and possibly four-car Indy Lights program.

“(If) there’s that time I sign the contract, I want to be competitive and win races,” Urrutia said. “It’ll be similar to the Indy Lights car, so that’ll be an advantage.

“It’ll be my first year, and I think I can win races in my first year. It should be fine.”

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F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.