Urrutia's "Red 5." Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

SPM back in Indy Lights… sort of, via Belardi link-up for Urrutia

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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ departure from the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series over the winter, as first reported by Trackside Online, was that series’ biggest story of the offseason. Fortunately, with most of its equipment having found homes in other teams, the car count only dropped by one from the St. Petersburg 2016 season-opening weekend from 16 cars to 15.

However, keen-eyed observers at St. Petersburg will have noticed Arrow Electronics signage appearing on Santiago Urrutia’s red No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing car at the season opener. It was a sign that although SPM the team was gone, there was still enough interest with Urrutia, who nearly won last year’s title for the team, that the story was going to play out more into 2017.

That first glimpse at a greater alignment has now been acknowledged formally by both sides, SPM and Belardi Auto Racing having announced a “driver development program partnership” on Thursday which will now see Urrutia’s car fully adorned in the same Arrow Electronics gold and black colors as James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Urrutia has tested the car in this livery earlier this month and will premiere it to the world this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

In the release, co-owner Sam Schmidt said this keeps the SPM name involved in Indy Lights, and noted that there’s a link-up for drivers to continue to advance into IndyCar.

“This new program with Belardi Auto Racing is all about assisting young talented drivers any way we can to get them to the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Schmidt said. “Santi did a great job for us in 2016, coming just one point shy of becoming an IndyCar driver this year. Brian Belardi has a great history of doing everything possible with talented drivers, like Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach, so we think this is a great fit. Arrow Electronics and their guests will now have another car to cheer for this season.”

Belardi added, “I’m very excited for this combined effort. I’m looking forward to the partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and having the Arrow Electronics name on our No. 5 car. I believe this new collaboration is a great step forward for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder program. I’m very proud with the fact that our former drivers like Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach will be in this year’s Indianapolis 500, and I know that this new driver development program will help graduate more of the Belardi family into the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

The entry on Urrutia’s car was changed from Belardi only to Belardi Auto Racing w/SPM for Barber, which essentially makes official what was unofficial at St. Pete: although Urrutia and engineer Tim Neff came over from SPM to the Belardi umbrella, they were almost a separate “team within a team.” Teammates Aaron Telitz and Shelby Blackstock were racing in traditional Belardi red cars, although Telitz’s car is Soul Red this season owing to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship he received for winning the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

For Belardi, this link-up makes sense if the Wisconsin native has IndyCar aspirations down the road. Belardi, like Juncos Racing and Carlin, are the next generation of new potential IndyCar team owners, but how they actually enter the series comes down to strategic decisions with a long-term view. Juncos, which announced its entry for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil earlier this year, has found the going tough in assembling its program but will have at least one car in next month’s race.

As for Schmidt, this keeps his skin in the Indy Lights game without having the equipment of a full team itself. The question that will present itself down the road the rest of this season will be if Schmidt will welcome any Belardi team victory this season, or just those by Urrutia in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Dallara IL-15 Mazda.

Urrutia finished second in race two at St. Petersburg to Colton Herta, while Telitz actually won the first race of the season in race one in dominating fashion.

The subplot of the Arrow Electronics-liveried Belardi entry racing against the Soul Red-liveried Belardi entry and the standard Belardi red entry will be one to watch throughout the rest of the 2017 Indy Lights season.

Three in position to capture World Rally Championship title at Rally Australia

Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Defending champion Sebastien Ogier goes into this weekend’s Rally Australia with a chance to clinch his sixth World Rally Championship in a row. Thierry Neuville, a runner-up four times but never a champion, hopes to change the world order.

Neuville led the series for much of the season but Ogier’s win in Britain and a second place in Spain has given the Frenchman 204 points, three ahead of Neuville, heading into the final rally of the championship.

“We are not the best friends but we are rivals and respect each other for our performances,” Neuville said Wednesday. “I’ve been second many times in the championship now, we are so close to the main goal.”

“If we need to take more risks because we need to pass Sebastien we’re going to try,” the Belgian driver added, “we’ll take the maximum risks.”

Ogier says the feeling is mutual when it comes to his main rival.

“We are different, definitely, but most important we’re in a great fight together and respect each other for that,” Ogier said. “It’s about trying to beat each other and do it with respect.”

Ott Tanak of Estonia sits 23 points behind and with 30 points for a win in Australia, and other results going his way, he could also capture the world title.

Ogier will be hoping for some Friday morning rain to settle the dust and gravel before he sets off first on what will be more than 300 kilometers (180 miles) of timed racing through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast, about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports