Pro Mazda field. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Potential dramatic weekend looms ahead at Mid-Ohio

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The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course serves as the second-to-last weekend for the first two rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder and the second-to-last doubleheader weekend for the top one.

In simplest terms, each of the seven races at the 2.258-mile road course will be pivotal for the respective championship chases, and will likely play a key role in who wins the Mazda advancement scholarships for the following year.

Here’s what’s ahead for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championships:

INDY LIGHTS

Jones (11) and Stoneman (27) are two of the six Indy Lights title contenders. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Jones (11) and Stoneman (27) are two of the six Indy Lights title contenders. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

None of the three primary title protagonists – Ed Jones (Carlin), Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport) and Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) – had a banner weekend in Toronto and Stoneman was the one who drew the shortest end of the stick with a mechanical issue sidelining him before the second race even started.

Meanwhile in the second tier of title contenders, Kyle Kaiser reasserted himself as a still-in-the-frame driver after a pair of third place finishes on the streets of Toronto. Finishes of second and 10th (Felix Serralles) and ninth and sixth (Zach Veach) didn’t truly help either of them, although Serralles moved up on the heels of Stoneman’s DNS.

With Felix Rosenqvist not racing this weekend as he’s at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, after dominating the Toronto doubleheader, the win chances are reopened for one of the remaining drivers in the field.

The top six – Jones, Urrutia, Serralles, Kaiser, Stoneman and Veach – are separated by just 47 points with five races remaining, including two this weekend.

These two races last year were the definition of chaotic and controversial with Jones and then-title rival Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson) having their coming together and Spencer Pigot (Juncos) avoiding the controversy and coming out cleaner from a points standpoint. Meanwhile RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson) and Sean Rayhall (8Star Motorsports) won the two races.

Neither Enerson nor Rayhall is back this year but in the “they could they be a first-time winner” file, respective replacement drivers Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson) and Garett Grist (Team Pelfrey).

Grist is a past Mid-Ohio winner (in both Pro Mazda and USF2000) and has five poles at the track, including both Pro Mazda races last year.

Negrao, who was on the podium again in Toronto, seems closer than ever to his first win this year.

Neil Alberico – who’s had a nightmare season in terms of mechanical failures with Carlin – is also a past Mid-Ohio winner in Pro Mazda along with Urrutia, as the pair split the wins last year. In a year where nothing’s gone right for Alberico, on the heels of a decent Toronto weekend and a recent trip to Carlin’s UK headquarters, this could be the weekend when things come right.

Shelby Blackstock has also podiumed at Mid-Ohio before – he did so last year in Indy Lights and has in Pro Mazda as well – and if Andretti Autosport’s road course setup is better than its street course one he could be a sleeper.

Dalton Kellett and Zachary Claman De Melo, who tested an IndyCar last week at the track, round out the reduced 12-car field, a season-low. Rosenqvist is absent owing to his European commitments while Juan Piedrahita, a several-year Mazda Road to Indy veteran, has withdrawn his entry from Team Pelfrey.

PRO MAZDA

O'Ward and Telitz, with Jamin lurking. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
O’Ward and Telitz, with Jamin lurking. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Only once this year has the Pro Mazda weekend featured split wins – the season opener at St. Petersburg when Pato O’Ward and Aaron Telitz won the pair of races.

Since, O’Ward and Telitz have gone on respective weekend runs of their own. O’Ward did the business at Barber, the Indianapolis road course and the lone oval at Lucas Oil Raceway for five in a row with Telitz now on a four in a row run after sweeps at Road America and Toronto (blog on it here for Team USA Scholarship website).

Fittingly, the Team Pelfrey teammates enter this weekend tied on 297 points, although O’Ward has six wins to Telitz’s five. Simply put, whoever emerges ahead here emerges ahead in the title run in the penultimate weekend of the year.

There’s also a tie for third between Nico Jamin and Will Owen on 207 points, Jamin having finally hit the sweet spot on setup with three straight podium finishes. At a track where he swept all three USF2000 races last year, Jamin could be well poised to win his first Pro Mazda race and break the Pelfrey perfection from the first 11 races.

Owen’s Juncos Racing teammates Jake Parsons and Nico Dapero are then only split by seven points for fifth (177-170). Parsons needs a clean weekend after two accidents in Toronto.

Both Pro Mazda races are Saturday at Mid-Ohio, one in the morning and one to close the day’s activities.

USF2000

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Thompson and Martin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

After a few weekends where it appeared his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Anthony Martin (No. 8) held the edge, Parker Thompson (No. 2) regained the momentum on the heels of a third place and then a home country win in Toronto on Sunday, while Martin soldiered on despite a hand injury.

Thompson now holds a 20-point lead (270-250) heading into the Mid-Ohio tripleheader, at a place both drivers raced at but didn’t podium last year. All of Telitz, Jamin and Jake Eidson locked out the podium – Jamin winning all three races.

At 42 points back (228), ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni is about the only other driver in with a realistic title shot with five races remaining. But he’d need a Jamin-like Mid-Ohio weekend sweep to realistically account for that deficit, and/or have to hope for both Thompson and Martin to hit trouble. It’s not impossible, but it’s not entirely likely either.

Elsewhere in the 22-car grid, it’ll be interesting to see the respective fortunes at Pabst Racing and John Cummiskey Racing this weekend. Jordan Lloyd made it to second in race one in Toronto in a familiar car – his 2015 JCR chassis – following a deal reached between the two teams to run it after his own crash in his own car in practice.

The situation was made easier by the fact Ayla Agren wasn’t in Toronto, and thus her car was available.

With Agren making a welcome return this weekend though alongside Lucas Kohl, the question becomes which car goes where in a case of musical cars. Lloyd and Garth Rickards both had incidents in Toronto; Rickards, in particular, is owed a trouble-free weekend without issues. Meanwhile Yufeng Luo, the third member of Pabst’s trio, has been steady if unspectacular with fifth to ninth place finishes in six of the last seven races.

Luo is only one point ahead of Robert Megennis, the 16-year-old rookie out of New York who’s been dynamite this year on a one-car Team Pelfrey. Coming from 18th to fifth in Toronto, and keeping the car clean all weekend on the menacing street course, is no small feat. Those two sit behind Luke Gabin, fifth in points, still in search of his first win.

Elsewhere on the grid, Team USA Scholarship winners Dakota Dickerson (Mazda scholarship driver) and Michai Stephens have started to find their form of late – fourth and ninth last time out in Toronto marked both drivers’ best results this year. Jordan Cane is also looking for his first top-five since switching to Cape, and either he or Nikita Lastochkin could essentially knock Franzoni out of the title chase if they get ahead of the lead ArmsUp driver.

The USF2000 field has one race apiece on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things have to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Otherwise, whether he wants it to be that way or not, Kanaan could be doing a farewell tour in 2019 – and not have a choice about it.

Follow @JerryBonkowski