With the Verizon IndyCar Series’ field for 2017 largely settled, attention now shifts to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires in terms of other seats to fill out.
Of the three series, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires has the most driver/team announcements fully finalized while Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda should have more announced come the new year. The drivers who are set in those last two series have a leg up and peace of mind heading into the holidays.
In looking at Indy Lights, seven driver/team combinations are already public, with several others due to be formally announced in the new year.
Andretti Autosport leads the way with all four of its drivers confirmed, only one of which is a returning driver from 2016. In Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett, there’s a respectable outlook ahead as the team makes its first foray at a four-car lineup in the series.
Figure Jamin to be the early pacesetter among the four of them, because of his track experience and his natural ability he’s shown in Pro Mazda and USF2000. It might take Herta a race or two to acclimate but he shouldn’t be far behind in the Steinbrenner Racing entry of the Andretti stable. At 16, the younger version of “Hertamania” is well beyond his years from a maturity standpoint. Both of these two should win races this year if the setup is right.
Kellett and Norman don’t figure to be the out-and-out pacesetters but may have their day on occasion. Kellett has a year’s worth of experience under his belt in Indy Lights and should only improve, while the Atlantic cars Norman raced this year are close enough in performance to where he should be able to adapt. Podiums are outside possible but likely the more realistic targets for these two are consistent top-five finishes.
Juncos Racing has two drivers set, with Kyle Kaiser now ready for a third season and Nico Dapero making the step up from Pro Mazda. Kaiser made a quantum leap in performance from year one to year two and thoroughly deserved his wins this year at Phoenix and Mazda Raceway. He’s a title contender without question. Dapero’s growth and maturation was evident over the course of the Pro Mazda season, and he’s tested well so far. He figures to be fast, and his adaptation to the Indy Lights-spec Cooper Tires and endurance over longer races will determine how high he can climb. He should get an early podium or two and start transitioning into race-winning contention by year’s end.
Belardi Auto Racing has only confirmed one driver officially in Shelby Blackstock, who shifts from Andretti next year. A capable veteran, Blackstock is a solid midfield driver who has rarely shown much in the way of polesitting and race-winning pace, but hasn’t made many missteps either.
The rest of the field beyond those seven figures to include an interesting mix of talent.
The last two Pro Mazda champions and Mazda scholarship drivers, Santiago Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, may both be in the field next season. Urrutia’s program in Indy Lights looked to have come to an end after Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ended its run, but the Uruguayan may have been afforded a lifeline following a test with Belardi last week. If he lands there, expect the same combination of fireworks and pace we saw this year.
If Telitz joins Belardi, which seems a good guess following several successful tests, it would be a match made in cheesehead heaven. Telitz shadowed the team at Watkins Glen this year and would be a fellow Wisconsinite operating within the confines of the Brian Belardi-owned, John Brunner-run team. Telitz tends to adapt quickly to new machinery and should be on pace from the off.
The question mark here also comes if Zach Veach returns to Indy Lights for another year. Veach has sought a step up to IndyCar and following a successful test with Ed Carpenter Racing, entered the frame there. But with that door likely closing, Veach could well return to Indy Lights once more, for what would be a fourth season. He ended 2016 as the hottest driver in the championship.
Andre Negrao is another potential race winner-in-waiting if he returns for a sophomore season. The Brazilian, like Urrutia, faces an uncertain future after the SPM shutdown. He had a good test with Juncos and would add a good personality and title potential if he can gather the budget for another campaign.
Carlin is yet to reveal the scale of its program for 2017. The Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-led team is expanding its arsenal next year via a confirmed USF2000 program, the Carlin Benik operation, while rumors continue to percolate that they’d be exploring an IndyCar effort with what is currently the KVSH team. As such, it’s left the Lights program as the topic of least discussion to this point.
Ed Jones moves up to IndyCar while Felix Serralles has tested an IndyCar, FIA WEC LMP2 car, and GP3 car this winter. That leaves Neil Alberico of the three of Carlin’s 2016 drivers to sort out his status and the likeliest to return for a second year, again budget pending. Alberico endured a nightmarish 2016 season, largely out of his own doing, and the Rising Star Racing-supported driver would figure to be better in a second year.
Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards tested for Carlin at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test in October. “ZCD” may head to Europe, while Rickards figures to move on from USF2000, the question being whether to Pro Mazda or Indy Lights.
Team Pelfrey, which now has its Pro Mazda and USF2000 programs operating in Indianapolis, is the fifth and final full-time team expected. The Gary Neal-led team runs a tight, sharp operation and should have two cars. Juan Piedrahita tested for them at the Griffis test. He’s another of the capable midfielders who wouldn’t light the world on fire in a return, but would ensure another quality car on the grid. Garett Grist, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance in his second half of the year with Pelfrey last season. He’s an intriguing prospect who could score podiums in the right situation.
The only other driver who tested at the Griffis test not named here is Slovakian driver Richard Gonda, who tested with Andretti. With those four seats filled, he’d need to look elsewhere.
Of others who raced in 2016, it’d be good to see Scott Hargrove back in a full-season opportunity after two partial campaigns, Sean Rayhall as well for the same reason, and Davey Hamilton Jr., who made a positive impression in his debut at Mazda Raceway. Dean Stoneman would be a title contender if he came back, but that appears unlikely.