MRTI: Title battles to reach crescendo after intriguing Friday at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – Friday marked a critical day for all three Mazda Road to Indy divisions at Sonoma Raceway. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires qualified while both the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had their second-to-last races of the season, each with way more drama than could have been forecast.

PRO MAZDA (Race 1, Updated Points)

Spencer Pigot entered Friday’s race one with a 19-point lead over Scott Hargrove, but the young American lost it all in one fell swoop, and in one lead battle with his title nemesis.

Polesitter Hargrove led Pigot, but Pigot was close and nearly able to catch and pass him through Turns 1 and 2. The two collided while battling over the lead, and both came out the other side of Turn 2 actually still running, but with Pigot’s left side pod and radiator damaged. He spun out of the race from there at Turns 3 and 3A, relegated to a 21st and last-place finish.

In the incident, respective teammates Kyle Kaiser (Pigot’s, Juncos Racing) and Neil Alberico (Hargrove’s, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) made it through the fracas to get ahead of Hargrove, who continued with only minor issues – he’d flat spotted his tires earlier and had braking problems.

Kaiser was left to take his first career victory at his home race, and with third, Hargrove moved into the points lead. Hargrove’s lead is two points, 294-292, over Pigot. Hargrove will have the pole for Saturday’s race two, by virtue of his qualifying time set Friday.

While Pigot and Hargrove’s battle has been clean and respectful most of the season, understandably, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye over what happened Friday.

“I got a great start but then I started struggling with the brakes, especially going into the last two corners,” Hargrove explained. “Spencer got a good run on me. I was a little ahead by middle of Turn 1, he tried to push me down, but neither of us was going to lift. Leading the chamoionship, I don’t think that was the smartest for him. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again for him.

“My only option (going in) is to win to claw back the points, if he finished the races. He didn’t have to win today to win the championship,” Hargrove added.

Pigot tweeted his thoughts Friday evening: “I was hit and taken out of the lead today. Now trailing in points but we’ll be fighting hard tomorrow. Not over yet! We have a good car, set fastest lap today by half a second and only completed a few laps. guys putting the car back together.”

Kaiser, whose first win was overshadowed, still was able to enjoy the spoils.

“Absolutely fantastic, I do feel amazing,” he said. “On the opening laps, usually we struggle, and struggled with the push. Then the car came to me with clean air.”

USF2000 (Race 1, Updated Points)

All Florian Latorre needed to do was finish ahead of RC Enerson and Jake Eidson in Friday’s race one of the Sonoma weekend. But a worst-case scenario happened for the 17-year-old Frenchman.

While going for the lead in Turn 2, Enerson, to Latorre’s inside, contacted the polesitter and sent him into the wall. Enerson gained the lead and the contact was reviewed with no further action taken. But Latorre was out on the spot, and the contact meant both Enerson and Eidson had a chance to gain huge amounts of points.

Enerson was able to control the 15-lap race from there after a restart, while a dynamic start from Aaron Telitz got the ArmsUp Motorsports driver into second. Telitz then held off Eidson and the second ArmsUp driver, Peter Portante, the remainder of the race. Portante was consistently seven to eight tenths per lap quicker than the three drivers in front of him, but unable to make a move stick due to the “aero push” that affects these cars.

“Yeah we were both going for it. It’s really difficult to pass here,” Enerson said. “So whoever took the lead on the start would run away with it. Like Jake said, we both fought for the same real estate. That’s not the outcome I was looking for. I wanted a good clean battle and clean race. That changed it.”

Latorre is still ahead of Enerson, and Eidson is within 10 points (279-275-269). Realistically both Latorre and Enerson would need to have problems for Eidson to snatch the championship. Latorre and Enerson start 1-2 on Saturday.

INDY LIGHTS (Qualifying Results)

This took a backseat to the Pro Mazda and USF2000 proceedings as it turned out, but Indy Lights may have a points shakeup of its own set for Saturday if qualifying results are any indication.

Jack Harvey, who seeks to overcome a 23-point gap to Gabby Chaves, bagged the pole for Saturday’s first race. Chaves is second while Zach Veach, who’s within seven points of Chaves, struggled to seventh on the grid.

Harvey swept the Mid-Ohio doubleheader and the young Englishman seeks to extend the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports championship streak to five in a row. Chaves and Veach also seek their first titles; Chaves would be the first for Belardi Auto Racing while Veach looks to deliver Michael Andretti his first title since 2009.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”