Pro Mazda’s title tilt: Urrutia looks to honor fallen countryman, while Alberico seeks title on home soil

Urrutia, Alberico and Florian Latorre at St. Petersburg. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championships have four drivers mathematically eligible for this year’s titles at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, yet both of the two top rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder also have less than four realistically eligible once you factor in the points gaps.

In Pro Mazda, Santiago Urrutia has used consistency to build a 29-point lead over Neil Alberico, with Timothe Buret and Weiron Tan 47 and 51 points in arrears, and needing a bit of help to pull things off. The winner receives a scholarship just shy of $600,000 ($590,300) to move to Indy Lights next season.

Urrutia (Mazda Road to Indy “Meet the Contenders” profile linked here) was a late arrival to North America, as he didn’t even participate in this year’s Cooper Tires Winterfest. But the Uruguayan took over seamlessly after Jack Aitken took Team Pelfrey to the Winterfest title.

He’s won three races this season, including one of the two at the most recent round at Mid-Ohio (others at NOLA, Grand Prix of Indianapolis). Coupled with only one finish outside the top-10 (Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis), Urrutia has been a regular points-scoring presence.

This is going to be an emotional weekend for the 19-year-old, who previously raced in GP3. Urrutia, in the No. 81 entry, will wear a helmet paying tribute to his racing hero and countryman Gonzalo Rodriguez, who was killed in 1999 in an accident at practice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Even more surreal: this weekend will take place on the exact same weekend, 16 years later (Rodriguez was killed on September 11, 1999).

Alberico (Mazda Road to Indy “Meet the Contenders” profile linked here), the Rising Star Racing-backed driver of the No. 3 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing entry, is a 22-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif. who has a longtime Mazda Road to Indy pedigree and is more or less in the same spot where Spencer Pigot was last year.

He’s a talented, confident shoe who was unlucky to get beat to the USF2000 championship by teammate Scott Hargrove in 2013 (another ace in the wings), then was outclassed again by Hargrove last year as both stepped up to Pro Mazda with Cape. Pigot had lost the USF2000 and Pro Mazda crowns to Matt Brabham in back-to-back years, but beat Hargrove to last year’s title in a thrilling weekend at Sonoma.

Alberico actually has four wins, one more than Urrutia, but has gone through a roller coaster campaign including three finishes of 14th or worse to offset the top-shelf results. Simply put, Alberico has been fast but fragile this year, and in order to account for the points deficit, he’ll likely need to win twice and hope Urrutia hits trouble in at least one of two races.

In third and fourth, Buret and Tan have both won races (Buret once, Tan four times) yet need both Urrutia and Alberico to fall off badly to have a realistic shot. If both are more than 33 points back after Saturday’s first race of the weekend, they’ll be eliminated.

Others have starred in various points this year, notably Garett Grist and Pato O’Ward in recent races, but it’s primarily been about the title-contending quartet this season.

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.