Telitz tests No. 9 car. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Telitz, O’Ward both formally confirmed for Indy Lights step-up

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The two protagonists for the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championship, Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward, settled who’d win the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship in September at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Telitz took the crown, and would be confirmed for his graduation into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in a Soul Red-liveried car.

While the graduation was known in September, it’s taken until today before all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed on the formal confirmation of Telitz’s seat in the No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, thus ending months of informal chatter about the seat and even a quick inside joke that Telitz’s team was “Real Big Secret,” a joke that spread to social media.

In another humorous twist, O’Ward, who battled Telitz all season with Team Pelfrey a year ago, has been confirmed for his own step up to Indy Lights in the No. 3 Pelfrey entry on exactly the same day. The 17-year-old Mexican will join Pelfrey’s Indy Lights program for this week’s Spring Training test at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course and the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Clearly, the two drivers still can’t get away from each other after pushing each other all last year in Pro Mazda.

The long and short of that background is that these two will round out the expected field of 15 cars for the season-opening weekend, which is only one car lower than 2016 despite the withdrawal of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and its four cars. Belardi (has grown from two to three cars), Carlin (three to four) and Andretti Autosport (three to four) have all added an extra car to pick up three of the four-ex-Schmidt Peterson cars.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Telitz, the 25-year-old from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, was invited by Brian Belardi’s team to Watkins Glen last fall for the introduction, and completed a comprehensive testing program over the winter – primarily in Florida and also at Gateway Motorsports Park – in preparation for his step up.

“John Brunner, the team’s general manager, and [team owner] Brian Belardi invited me to the IndyCar/Indy Lights race at Watkins Glen last fall before the Pro Mazda season ended,” Telitz said. “I had a head-start in knowing the guys and seeing how the team works and knowing their cars are fast. They won that weekend and then again at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I just really enjoyed how the Belardi guys worked. They were really professional and Brian is from Wisconsin. It’s great to have that home-state connection, as most of my personal supporters are from Wisconsin.”

“All of us at Mazda are thrilled to have Aaron carrying Mazda’s Soul Red color in 2017 with Belardi Auto Racing,” said John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports. “To see a talent like Aaron achieve success in the Mazda Road to Indy is ultimately what the program is all about. When he pulled into victory lane after winning the Pro Mazda Championship last fall, I told Aaron that he needed to savor the moment and remember all of the challenges he faced getting there. We cannot play favorites in the Mazda Road to Indy, but we wish Aaron the very best as he opens this new chapter in his racing career and is one step closer to the Verizon IndyCar series.”

Telitz completes the team’s three-car lineup alongside Santiago Urrutia and Shelby Blackstock, series veterans who shift to Belardi from Schmidt Peterson and Andretti, respectively. Telitz’s additional supporters include Rice Lake Weighing Systems, Rising Star Racing, Morrie’s Chippewa Valley Mazda, Styled Aesthetic, Fred Thomas Resort, Team USA Scholarship, among others.

Photo: Team Pelfrey
Photo: Team Pelfrey

For O’Ward, the Indy Lights drive is a slight surprise as he’s also committed to a full season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship PC class with Performance Tech Motorsports, confirmed after he was part of the Brent O’Neill-led team’s victory at the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

O’Ward is the third consecutive driver confirmed to a St. Petersburg-only weekend with Team Pelfrey. Scott Hargrove was confirmed for the same role last year with Pelfrey and in 2015 with the team’s former incarnation as 8Star Motorsports. Hargrove continued through the month of May with Pelfrey last year but only raced at St. Petersburg in 2015.

With O’Ward’s eight-race IMSA schedule, there’s only one conflict weekend between PC races and Indy Lights, the weekend of July 8-9. PC races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Indy Lights at Iowa Speedway both on July 9.

Interestingly, O’Ward parlayed a first two weekends-only announced deal into an eventual full-time role with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda last year, so he’s got experience in succeeding despite no guarantee of further races. As last year, he carries support from Gap Guard and Topo Chico.

“I am back with Team Pelfrey in Indy Lights for the first official Series test and for the first race of the season in St. Petersburg,” said O’Ward, whose teammate is the very experienced Juan Piedrahita. “A big thank you goes to the creator of Gap Guard, better known as Dale Pelfrey, once again for the opportunity and the whole Team Pelfrey crew as well for the continuous support they have given me the last few years.”

“We are very excited to confirm Pato on the Indy Lights front,” added Team Pelfrey IL team manager, Gary Neal. “Not only does this mean we have an exceptionally talented driver, but it’s also great to see the Team Pelfrey ladder system in full swing. We are looking forward to a strong outing at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.”

Three other Mazda Road to Indy signings have come in in the last few days, as well:

  • Team Pelfrey rounds out its three-car Pro Mazda lineup with Russian driver Nikita Lastochkin and Brazilian driver Carlos Cunha joining the previously announced TJ Fischer, the young Californian. Cunha has Formula 3 Brazil experience while Lastochkin steps up after two years in USF2000.
  • Exclusive Autosport rounds out its three-car USF2000 lineup with karting veteran Dev Gore joining a pair of third-year drivers in Parker Thompson and Luke Gabin.

Testing continues today and tomorrow at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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

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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 need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski