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MRTI: Team Pelfrey primed for big first full season in Indy Lights

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It’s a mix of new and old blended together for Team Pelfrey ahead of its first full season in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with the Dale Pelfrey-owned squad forging full speed ahead with a projected two-car program.

The genesis of Pelfrey’s Lights team – which is a different entity from the Pelfrey Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and F1600 programs – originates from Pelfrey wanting to get closer to IndyCar, but trying to figure out the best path forward in which to do so.

Following the acquisition of 8Star Motorsports, including all crew, assets and equipment and the Pompano Beach, Florida-based workshop, Team Pelfrey’s Lights program has its systems engaged as it looks ahead to 2016.

According to Team Pelfrey team manager Gary Neal, the timing was right for this opportunity to materialize after the 8Star team starred in a partial 2015 schedule with Sean Rayhall and Scott Hargrove driving.

“Dale was interested in starting a new team, or a new venture in Indy Lights on his own, but then was looking at partnering with Enzo (Potolicchio) about 8Star Motorsports,” Neal told MotorSportsTalk.

“In the period of four days, he came to the conclusion he’d like to own a team rather than partner. He’d made the decision to acquire the team, including keeping me as director of ops and Yves (Touron) as engineer. We closed two weeks after the initial meeting.

“It’s not an expansion so much as an extension. Dale owns this team outright, and Nigel (Tuckey) has more (of a leadership role) in Team Pelfrey (other teams).

“He was interested in the fact that it’s a new car, with a new lifespan ahead of it. Dale wanted to get back closer to IndyCar, the next level below IndyCar. He’s run a quality organization. His business has always been founded on quality relationships.”

The 8Star team had one of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda chassis and following the purchase, Pelfrey purchased a second chassis outright. Both cars are targeted to race for the full season.

Compared to more Indianapolis area-based teams, having a Florida base is beneficial for Team Pelfrey in the winter when it comes to testing.

“We have two really good tracks with Palm Beach and Sebring (International Raceways), within two hours of the shop,” Neal said. “And Homestead is a good track also. But not as good as PBIR.

“It’s a 50-50. Teams based in Indianapolis have less travel costs during year. But in winter mine are cheaper than theirs. It doesn’t make much difference than Indianapolis during the races. Maybe some races, my truck arrives home a day later than Indianapolis. It doesn’t compromise us any.”

Neal confirmed he’s tested Hargrove and 2015 FIA Formula 3 European champion Felix Rosenqvist over two days of testing at Palm Beach International Raceway. Juan Piedrahita has also been linked to a seat, but nothing is confirmed yet.

“We actually ran two days in Palm Beach, one day with Scott Hargrove and Felix Rosenqvist,” Neal said. “Scott jumped back in and was up to speed. Since he’d tested at Palm Beach, he knew what the car was going to do.

“What we’d learned from the season and with Sean developing the car further it was a newer setup, and it was improved from the beginning of the year. There were five other cars on the track but I know we were competitive.

“Felix, he’s the F3 champ and has won Macau the last two years. He’s a very competent driver. It would be great if we can get him in the car.”

The team’s planned deadline for naming drivers is just prior to the single-day oval test at Phoenix International Raceway, February 25. Neal noted the importance of the test because 8Star didn’t run the short oval races last year.

“Everybody would loved to have had our seats done before Christmas, but there’s still a bunch of time,” Neal said. “My deadline is the 19th or 20th of February, right before the Phoenix oval test.

“For the team, it’s crucial we make that test because we miss the short ovals last year.

“We need a driver. Scott is high on our list… and he’s one of our targets. We’re working hard to get with Scott to see if we can get him in the car. Continuity is important. Changing during the season doesn’t help anybody.”

Anyone who will have paid attention to 8Star’s sports car program, owned by Enzo Potolicchio, would not have been surprised at the quality of the effort turned in last year in Indy Lights.

Pelfrey’s more of a known name within the open-wheel world compared to 8Star, but Neal says he and the small team’s background – they only have three full-time staff members – make up for quantity with quality and heart.

“My engineer and I came home to open-wheel racing,” Neal said. “He’d been an engineer in IndyCar (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing most recently) prior to coming to 8Star. I’d been at McLaren, and also Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar racing. We had the experience. A race car is a race car.

“Open-wheels, or closed wheels, it’s the experience we bring. Methods work. Were quite competitive with the IMSA Lites cars when we ran them. Those procedures work for us. We had some good drivers as well. It’s all part of the chemistry.

“We want to run a quality team. We don’t want to make up the numbers.”

F1: Max Verstappen provides late-lap thrills at U.S. Grand Prix

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AUSTIN, Texas — Leave it to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to provide some late-race thrills at the U.S. Grand Prix.

Verstappen’s key block on Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton late in Sunday’s race denied Hamilton a chance to maybe chase down Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to win. And it helped deny Hamilton’s bid for the season championship.

Verstappen’s defensive skills allowed the Red Bull driver to finish second, his best result yet at the U.S Grand Prix, his fourth podium in six races. By keeping Hamilton third, it kept the season championship alive, even if just another week to the Mexican Grand Prix.

Last season, Verstappen had surged past Raikkonen on a final-lap pass to finish third. It was the kind of aggressive move that earned him the “Mad Max” nickname. Before he could even reach the podium, race officials declared Verstappen’s move illegal and bumped an angry Verstappen down to fifth.

The Circuit of the Americas this week installed a new curb on the same corner, dubbed “Verstoppen,” to punish drivers who tried anything similar this year. It worked when Verstappen hit it hard enough in qualifying to knock his car out of the session with a damaged suspension and gear box. He started Sunday’s race 18th.

The Dutch driver launched a furious attack through the field and found himself in the thick of things late Sunday. His move to block Hamilton wasn’t on the same corner with the curbs, and it came with him playing defense instead of being the aggressor.

Verstappen had to make multiple moves to keep Hamilton behind him and finally drove the Mercedes wide, forcing Hamilton to finally concede the position and the race.

“I was trying to get close to Kimi but at the same time keeping an eye on Lewis in my mirror. It was close, but we managed to hang on,” Verstappen said. “It is safe to say today went a lot better than expected.”

Knowing Verstappen’s aggressive nature, Hamilton said there was too much at stake to risk a collision.

“The key to me was to make sure I finished ahead of Seb. I don’t care when you win a championship, just that you win,” Hamilton said. “”For Max, to come back from so far, he did a great job.”

Verstappen has been just as aggressive at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

In 2016, race officials ruled he improperly left the track to gain an advantage on Vettel to finish third and he was bumped from the podium. Last season, Verstappen’s strong start sent him into the lead out of the first turn, while Hamilton and Vettel bumped each other. The collision ruptured one of Hamilton’s tires.

Verstappen won the race while Hamilton limped home in ninth place, but still won the season championship.