Verizon IndyCar Notes & Quotes: St. Petersburg Friday

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ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – The first day of official on-track action is in the books for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series. Some news, notes and quotes after practice to follow.

  • All bar Practice 1 pace setters James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson improved their times in Practice 2. Hinchcliffe and Wilson’s morning times left them sixth and seventh in the combined times.
  • Here’s qualifying groups for Saturday. Hard to call either one harder than the other at the moment…
  • Schmidt Peterson’s Simon Pagenaud, now sporting Environmental Rail Solutions aboard on his all-light blue No. 77 Honda this race, said left several tenths on the table struggling for front grip. Considering he was less than four tenths off the pace of overall leader Takuma Sato, that could be a dangerous sign for the rest of the weekend.
  • In his open-wheel return, Juan Pablo Montoya ended 19th on the combined time charts in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, albeit only nine tenths off Sato. “Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process,” he said. “This is my first time on this circuit, so we had to guess a little bit on the setups. Unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off.” I saw him at one point head-on through Turns 1,2 and 3, and the car looked to have stepped out on him. He’s still got that level of car control.
  • Best of the four Chip Ganassi Racing team drivers on the day? That would be 2009 St. Pete winner Ryan Briscoe, back in a full-time IndyCar seat for the first time since 2012. He ended, fittingly, eighth in the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet. “We made some good setup changes but we still have some work to do for tomorrow. I think we’re on the right track,” said the Australian. Teammates were ninth (Scott Dixon), 16th (Tony Kanaan) and 17th (Charlie Kimball) after all experimenting with different setups.
  • Jack Hawksworth led the quartet of rookies in the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda in 11th. Carlos Munoz was 13th (No. 34 Cinsay/AndrettiTV.com Honda), Mikhail Aleshin 14th (No. 7 SMP Racing Honda) and Carlos Huertas 22nd and last (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda).
  • Huertas, though, was not out of his depth at only 1.8 seconds off the pace of Sato, and half a second behind countryman Sebastian Saavedra. Considering he’d never seen the track or sat in the Coyne car before Practice 1, a fine day’s work in all honesty. Additionally, he was substantially ahead of where Ana Beatriz was after Friday last year, although her car was evil handling to put it nicely.
  • We expect Mike Conway to be something of a miracle worker on road and street courses, but 20th in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet entry probably wasn’t what team or driver expected today. “We didn’t find as much as we wanted between sessions 1 and 2. We are struggling a bit to get the Fuzzy’s Chevy where we would like it in terms of time. We tried a lot of things today and we’ll study our data and see where we can improve for Saturday,” he said.
  • Paul Page made his return to IndyCar for the first time since 2004, his last year in TV for the open-wheel series. The legendary Page is the new voice of IMS Radio, and handled things well throughout the first two sessions back on the mic.
  • Mazda Road to Indy day 1 practice leaders: Gabby Chaves (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires), Spencer Pigot (Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires), Jake Eidson (Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda).
  • Pirelli World Challenge Friday practice leaders: Tomas Enge (GT), Nick Mancuso (GT-A), Jack Baldwin (GTS).

More to come after Practice 3 and qualifying on Saturday.

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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