Mazda Road to Indy enjoys busy two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Test at COTA

Shelby Blackstock. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy enjoyed a busy, trouble-free and fortunately dry couple days of testing over the weekend at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas, in the fifth annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test, to provide the first glimpse at what’s ahead for the respective 2016 seasons.

Here’s quick recaps from all three series:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Series returnees Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport) led the way in Saturday’s opening sessions, with Kaiser half a second clear of Blackstock on a new tire run. As the Californian noted, chemistry, more than ultimate lap times, were more important given COTA isn’t on the 2016 calendar.

“I’m just working with the team and trying to get fast for next season,” said Kaiser, whose best time was 1:54.224 (107.158 mph) on Saturday. “I am working with some new teammates so the team chemistry is a little different. Overall, it was a really good day. This is one of my favorite tracks and that’s the main reason I am here. I just wanted to drive this track in an Indy Lights car. It was a blast.”

Blackstock led Sunday’s final day of running, albeit a fraction shy of Kaiser’s best time of the weekend, just 0.0494 of a second in arrears. Nevertheless, the young American seeks to improve upon what was a challenging first season in Indy Lights in 2016.

“We were working through our test plan pretty aggressively,” Blackstock said. “We were P1 in the first two sessions today and making good progress with the car. These two days have been massively beneficial especially from where we were last year. We are going through a big test plan and the car is definitely responding in the right way. Mike (Reggio, engineer) and I are working really well together and have a good communication down. The test plan is coming along nicely.”

Canadian rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo and Jose Gutierrez, the latter stepping up from Pro Mazda, impressed for Juncos Racing. Dalton Kellett (Andretti) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James French and Heamin Choi also tested.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda champion Nico Jamin impressed in another outing for his USF2000 team, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, but now in Pro Mazda machinery. The 19-year-old Frenchman ran a 2:05.224 on Saturday to lead that day. But likely series returnee Pato O’Ward of Team Pelfrey clocked in a 2:04.767 on Sunday to end as the fastest time of the weekend.

“The hopes are to do Pro Mazda again. I love working with Team Pelfrey,” O’Ward said. “They have been a second family to me. These have been a very productive two days and we had a lot of time to test a lot of things.”

Juncos Racing’s thus far confirmed trio of Will Owen, Nicolas Dapero and Jake Parsons all tested, as did several others.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

Jamin’s Cape USF2000 car had a new driver but not a new spot on the timesheets for this test. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, in his first test with the dominant team in the series, led both days in USF2000 with a 2:10.217 on Saturday and a 2:09.545 on Sunday.

Others who impressed were two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz, in the new-to-USF2000 RJB Motorsports entry, at 2:10.7042 before he handed over the controls to rookie Clint McMahan, and Dutch teenager Rinus Van Kalmthout impressed Sunday aboard a second Cape Motorsports car.

After gaining his first experience of USF2000 equipment Saturday with Afterburner Autosport as part of the Mazda Road to Indy/MAXSpeed Group Driver Development Program, the car racing rookie took full advantage of the additional mileage to post the third fastest time overall at 2:10.2804.

Van Kalmthout and Lastochkin might be the early clubhouse leaders in the unofficial “Best Names in the Mazda Road to Indy” category.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.