Looking ahead to Indy Lights’ next race, and new future with new chassis

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The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season resumes next weekend at Pocono Raceway, marking the series’ first race since the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of May.

We’re a month removed from the series’ unveil of its new car, the Dallara IL-15, at IMS, and also one month away from the car’s official on-track debut in Mid-Ohio. A shakedown in Italy is scheduled for two weeks from today, on July 15.

It’s a little early to say yet what the demand and interest level in the new chassis will be. But initial discussions from key players set to be involved with the car after the unveil were positive.

Start first with project leader Tony Cotman, who had previously been instrumental in the creation of Champ Car’s new Panoz DP-01 chassis in 2007. While visually there are some similar lines to the DP-01 – including just a roll hoop with no airbox – Cotman called this a “clean slate” project.

“There were not too many parameters from Dan (Andersen) that tied your hands,” Cotman told MotorSportsTalk. “I didn’t walk in with any preconceived notions. We formed it as we went along. Any new car is exciting, and to be honest, it’s the most fun I’ve had on one.”

He added about the decision to avoid the airbox, “It’s one of those things where this particular vehicle didn’t need it. There’s many that like the no airbox look – me included – so we took that opportunity.”

Andersen, whose Andersen Promotions organization runs and operates the top three rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, said details were important for the first new Indy Lights chassis since the series was reincarnated in 2002.

“There were so many big and little decisions to do, from the wiring, the water pumps, the fuel systems and on down the line,” he said. “We brought the car weight down 160 pounds, added more horsepower and created a better layout overall.”

Lower costs are a goal with this new chassis, but crucially, Andersen wants this chassis to serve as a selling point more for the opportunity and clarity the Mazda Road to Indy ladder creates.

“Cost is important, critical in fact. But I don’t know that current problems (with the series) have to do with budget. It’s about perception of what the series has,” Andersen explained. “Drivers pay double in Europe compare to a current Lights budget, with no guarantee of advancement, with no prize money, no exposure. We have to do a better job of selling what our championship is.”

Andersen said as a promoter and entrepreneur he’s “nervous” until he gets results, but did say there was good interest. Several team principals from other Road to Indy series – Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – were on hand at the chassis unveil at IMS.

One big racing name who is involved in this project is that of Dyson – their Advanced Engine Research company, AER for short – is tasked with being the engine for the new car. Rob Dyson, and later son Chris, were on hand at Indy for the unveil.

“I think it’s an evolution that was necessary,” Rob Dyson said of the new car. “It needed a freshening in every respect. I’m proud they’ve done not only the chassis but the engine combination with our technology. I’m elated we’re part of it.”

Driver-wise? Quick chats with Tristan Vautier, who will handle most of the car’s testing, and Spencer Pigot, the Pro Mazda points leader who’s poised to advance into Indy Lights next year, brought rave reviews for the car’s look.

“I really like the design – it’s got that Italian class, I guess,” Vautier said. “It’s a good mix of the American race car style, and Indy style, with modern European style as well. It’s a good blend. It looks beautiful and should be quick.”

Added Pigot, “It’s a very cool looking car; it’s a big improvement from the current model and the performance should be better. It’s very modern looking. It looks like a fast race car.”

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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