MRTI: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000 2017 season previews

Amped is a good word to prep for Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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While the Verizon IndyCar Series always gets the headline status at the start of the new season, it’s the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires’ start of a new year that always provides the first glimpse into the potential future stars you could see in IndyCar one day.

The traditional six-pack of races on the streets of St. Petersburg sets the tone for the start of the new year as the run for the more than $2 million in Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships awarded at year’s end gets going.

With that, here’s a look ahead to the respective seasons:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Few would argue last year’s Indy Lights field was one of the strongest in quality in nearly a decade. Seven different drivers won races and six were in contention for the championship with just two race weekends to go.

There’s always going to be a bit of upheaval with a new season and of those top six drivers, only two of them return for 2017, which means both enter as the joint preseason title favorites.

Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Kyle Kaiser could emerge as this year’s champion. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In a nutshell, Kyle Kaiser has consistency and stability in his pocket while Santiago Urrutia has speed, car experience and a change of scenery that he didn’t have this time last year.

The 21-year-old Californian, Kaiser won his first two races at the Phoenix oval and Monterey road course, scored poles there and on the streets of St. Petersburg and finished third in points. A well-rounded driver, Kaiser has grown in maturation over the season and if he can turn some of his sixth places of a year ago into top-fives – he had six of them in 16 races – he could win the title for Juncos Racing.

Urrutia, meanwhile, is in a title-or-bust scenario for his sophomore season. The Uruguayan has speed to burn and the confidence of knowing he can win in Indy Lights, which he did at three different permanent road courses last year.

Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He and engineer Tim Neff move to Belardi Auto Racing in a move that should shore up his oval progression; this has been the type of track that’s given him trouble the last two years. Improve on ovals, and the title is there for the taking after his tough loss a year ago, which he handled with maturity beyond his 20 years.

The five other returning drivers for 2017 – Shelby Blackstock, Zachary Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett, Neil Alberico and Juan Piedrahita – finished between eighth and 13th in points a year ago with only one combined podium finish (Kellett was third at the Freedom 100).

Of those five, you’d have to say Alberico has the highest upside given his usual year-to-year growth in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda when he contended for the title then, and with mechanical issues stunting his first year, he has a chance with Carlin to emerge as that team’s lead driver. Blackstock (Belardi) and Claman De Melo (Carlin) switch teams this offseason. None of these five would be considered a preseason title favorite but two to three of them, at least, should move forward from where they were a year ago.

The eight rookies set to debut at St. Petersburg boast a fascinating mix of talent, speed, personality and family history that will serve Indy Lights well.

Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Belardi Auto Racing fields Aaron Telitz, the Wisconsinite who completes his journey up to final step on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder after winning races in USF2000 and winning last year’s Pro Mazda championship. Telitz, engineer Kent Boyer and the John Brunner-led, Brian Belardi-owned team have clicked during the offseason and he should be an instant contender.

Andretti Autosport has two traditional rookies in Nico Jamin and Ryan Norman. Jamin, the 2015 USF2000 champion and the only other driver in Telitz and Pato O’Ward’s zip code in Pro Mazda last year, will no doubt impress in his step up to Indy Lights, and like Telitz seems a probable first-time winner at some stage this year. Norman enters rather under-the-radar but has experience in the Atlantic series and will look to surprise as the year progresses.

The eyes, the helmet is all Herta... this one's Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The eyes and the helmet is all Herta… this one’s Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

There’s a third rookie from the Andretti stable that will draw a lot of interest in Colton Herta, who at 16 will be one of the youngest drivers in series history and will be the top family storyline going into the year. Herta, the son of Bryan Herta, drives for Michael Andretti (himself the second generation in a three-generation racing family) and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, who brings that family’s winning history from the New York Yankees into racing with the Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry. Young Herta has a lot of experience in Europe and is back Stateside for the first time since 2014, when he raced in USF2000.

Carlin has a pair of rookies in Garth Rickards and Matheus Leist. Rickards, the Pennsylvania native, will look to do what RC Enerson did in 2015 – step up from USF2000 to Indy Lights directly and win a race. Rickards’ qualifying didn’t always bare itself out in great USF2000 results so if he can keep his qualifying performance up in these cars, he could shine. Leist, the teenaged Brazilian, moves Stateside after winning last year’s BRDC British F3 title. He will have to learn quickly.

Lastly a pair of Latin American drivers will be keen to impress. Argentine teenager Nico Dapero came on quickly at the end of last season with Juncos Racing in Pro Mazda and will continue to grow with the team this year. Meanwhile Mexican teenager Pato O’Ward, confirmed only for St. Petersburg with Team Pelfrey, looks to upset the apple cart with nothing to lose and everything to gain in his own step up from Pro Mazda.

The 16-race schedule features no races on the West Coast with Phoenix and Monterey both dropped (probably to Kaiser’s chagrin), and Gateway added. The Freedom 100, Iowa, Gateway and Watkins Glen races are single events with the rest doubleheaders for a total of three oval, four street course and nine road course races.

Four of the five returning teams all won races last year (Pelfrey the exception) and all five made the podium at least once. While a 15-car grid falls short of continuing to build upon the 16 that started last season, it is fortuitous most of the equipment from the disbanded Schmidt Peterson operation found a home elsewhere on the grid for 2017, and keeps the quality of the field still relatively high.

Kaiser and Urrutia enter as the drivers who immediately should be considered preseason title favorites, but the number of rookies that could win races is very intriguing as well. And if any of the other returning drivers make that next step forward this year, then we may well be writing about the seven different winners once again.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

One of the challenges within the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is that as drivers move on, either further up the ladder to Indy Lights or to sports cars, sometimes one of the three MRTI series is hit with a lower car count than you’d hope.

That series happens to be Pro Mazda in 2017, in the final year of its existing chassis with the rotary powered Mazda engine in the back, with car counts only scratching or exceeding the surface of double-digit entries.

But as Indy Lights struggled with single-digit fields as recently as 2013, and is now almost double that, this is very much a “survive and advance” year for Pro Mazda before the new Tatuus PM-18 debuts next season. And if last year with a similarly low car count is any indication, the loss in quantity can be offset by good quality.

Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin's Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin’s Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indeed four of the top five from last year’s Pro Mazda field – Telitz, O’Ward, Jamin and Dapero – have advanced into Indy Lights this year. It leaves a gaping hole at the top of Pro Mazda, of course, but one that several key drivers will look to fill.

USF2000 champion Anthony Martin should be at the head of the field from the off, as he’ll be back in a single-car effort for Cape Motorsports. The Australian overachieved in a single-car team with John Cummiskey Racing in 2015 in USF2000 and translated what he learned then into moving into title ascension with Cape last year. He’ll have full focus on his car this year and because he won’t be in the position of having teammates take points off each other, he has a good chance to match Matthew Brabham as the last driver to win USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles in successive years (2012-2013).

Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Team Pelfrey, meanwhile, will look for its third straight title with three new full-season drivers. The lone holdover is TJ Fischer, the Californian who made a midseason step up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda and learned the ropes. He should make a step forward this year. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin rarely featured in two seasons of USF2000 but should do better here. The wild card is teenaged Brazilian Carlos Cunha, new to the series and the tracks, but a fast prospect who could surprise. Urrutia and Telitz – Pelfrey’s last two champions – have worn Soul Red for Mazda in Indy Lights the following year.

The remainder of the field does not, at present, boast significant title prospects but will look to intermingle at the top when the opportunity presents itself. That said, a surprise or two could emerge from the late entries.

An additional incentive program announced by series operators Andersen Promotions helps, as does the fact it’s only a six-weekend, 12-race schedule with a tripleheader at Mid-Ohio and single oval at Gateway joined by doubleheaders at St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Road America and Watkins Glen.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

While Indy Lights features a bevy of rookies and Pro Mazda features a number of new potential race winners, it’s USF2000 that features both, plus the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis that figures to throw a monkey wrench in the formbook for 2017.

Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

More than 20 cars figure to start the season opener at St. Petersburg this weekend and there’s about half the field, split between returning drivers and talented rookies, who could make some noise.

Cape Motorsports has won the last six series titles but faces a threat to its supremacy in 2017.

The veterans still in USF2000 are all hungry for different reasons. Three drivers enter their third years, and all of Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), Luke Gabin (Exclusive) and Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey) have the most race experience within the series. Whether that translates well with the new car, however, remains to be seen.

Series sophomores Robert Megennis (Pelfrey), Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) and Dakota Dickerson (Newman Wachs Racing) all impressed at various points last year and only Megennis returns to the same team in 2017. It would not be a surprise to see any of these three win their first races.

But it’s the rookies, who without the background of having the previous car and needing to re-learn this one, and with wide-eyed optimism and enthusiasm, who figure to make a big splash.

Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Chief among them is Oliver Askew, who’s a name you should put on your radar sooner rather than later given his star potential. The Floridian has won the Team USA Scholarship and the USF2000 shootout in successive months, and excelled in his first official test with Cape at Homestead-Miami. He’ll win races, the question being when they’ll happen and if it’s enough to give Cape a seventh straight title.

Newman Wachs’ Andre Castro and Pabst Racing’s Rinus Van Kalmthout are two rookies who also figure to make some noise. Two others made one weekend appearance apiece last year, Kaylen Frederick of Team Pelfrey and Devin Wojcik of ArmsUp Motorsports.

The rest of the rookies are sprinkled in at Cape, ArmsUp, DE Force Racing, RJB Motorsports, Pabst, Benik, John Cummiskey Racing and Exclusive Autosport. So there’s plenty of first-year drivers to go around.

Like Pro Mazda, USF2000 only has one oval on its schedule, in Iowa instead of Gateway. That race and Watkins Glen are single races with the rest doubleheader weekends.

You might not know the USF2000 names now but as recent drivers like Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Sage Karam have proved, IndyCar is within reach down the road.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”