Martin (left) and Franzoni (center) duel for Pro Mazda title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: It’s time to decide next round of champs at Watkins Glen

Leave a comment

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires concludes its 2017 campaign this weekend at Watkins Glen International with four total races, two for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and one apiece for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

While Indy Lights is set to avoid any controversial ending thanks to Kyle Kaiser all but mathematically clinching last time out at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s Pro Mazda and USF2000 where the drama will take center stage, as more than $2 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships will be doled out.

PRO MAZDA: The final Franzoni vs. Martin bout

Martin vs. Franzoni for Pro Mazda title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Two is the magic number heading into the final weekend for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine and existing chassis before the new Tatuus PM-18 arrives next year.

With two races and the two title rivals separated by just two points, and with one of the two drivers looking for his second straight MRTI title, there’s two chances for glory – and heartbreak – in the pursuit of $790,000 (out of an overall fund of $1.1 million) toward a season in the Indy Lights class in a Soul Red race car.

Victor Franzoni leads the standings by two points over Anthony Martin, Franzoni having seized the momentum following a dramatic pass for the lead – and win – last time out at Gateway.

On permanent road courses this year, Franzoni swept at Indianapolis, and the two split weekends at Road America and Mid-Ohio. Both of the latter two weekends featured drama. Franzoni felt he was blocked at Road America to lose a win there, while Martin felt Franzoni’s teammate, Jeff Green, had inadvertently compromised his lead at Mid-Ohio as he spun out trying to get out of the way.

The gloves are off between these two and it’s a shame, really, one of them has to lose. Juncos has won past Pro Mazda titles with Spencer Pigot (2014) and Conor Daly (2010) while Cape, surprisingly, never has despite frequently running a car adorned in Soul Red livery for the previous year’s USF2000 champion stepping up.

“It’s been an incredible battle to watch, not just for side-by-side action, but watching the two elevate each other during the course of the season,” said Anders Krohn, who serves as NBCSN’s Indy Lights analyst and has been an IndyCar pit reporter several races this year.

“It’s actually very similar to Spencer Pigot and Scott Hargrove in 2014, and we all know that final weekend ended up being rather wild. They are both fully deserving of the championship and it’ll be tough to see one of them lose it. I firmly believe both of them can get the job done in Indy Lights, so I hope to see both of them there next year, regardless of outcome this weekend. One thing is for sure, I’ll be watching both races closely.”

For the other drivers entered, it’s a chance to make one final statement in a pair of races. Team Pelfrey will look for its first win of the year in a year where Martin and Franzoni have swept the first 10 races between them, winning five times each. Robert Megennis also makes his Pro Mazda debut, while also running in USF2000 for Team Pelfrey.

USF2000: Askew vs. VeeKay to step up

VeeKay vs. Askew for USF2000 title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

A whirlwind year-plus will come to an end for Oliver Askew, with the Floridian and last year’s Team USA Scholarship recipient seeking another Mazda scholarship, valued at nearly $400,000. Rinus VeeKay has been the consistent surprise of the season, the Dutch teenager having finished between first and fourth in all but one of the 13 races thus far.

Askew can deliver Cape Motorsports its seventh straight USF2000 title, following Martin (2016), Nico Jamin (2015), Florian Latorre (2014), Scott Hargrove (2013), Matthew Brabham (2012) and Petri Suvanto (2011). VeeKay will look to secure a title for Augie Pabst and his Pabst Racing team.

The Floridian enters with a 13-point lead and can seal the title with a podium finish in the lone USF2000 race on the schedule. It’d take some trouble for Askew for VeeKay to overcome the deficit, but he’ll press on regardless.

“Having heard input from the U.S. karting community, they all knew Askew would be a superstar and boy has he delivered,” Krohn said. “Speed in karts don’t always translate to open-wheel cars, but in this case, it certainly has. Askew really took advantage of polished performances early in the season when everyone else were finding their feet. Where VeeKay shines, is in progression. He’s just got better every single weekend and he seems to be the stronger of the two, mentally, despite being the younger one.

“With Watkins Glen only being a single-header, the odds are in Askew’s favor, but he needs to execute a solid weekend without being on the defense. For VeeKay, it’s win or nothing, which is almost a better position to be in because he doesn’t need to worry about looking in his rear view mirrors.”

Parker Thompson has secured third in the championship for Exclusive Autosport and will look to continue with his second half of the year flourish, with nothing but pride to race for this weekend. Kaylen Frederick has secured fourth for Team Pelfrey, with Calvin Ming all but assured fifth for Pabst unless Robert Megennis (Pelfrey) can spring a miracle and book-end his year with wins. Sixth through ninth could change hands with Devin Wojcik, a Buffalo native, looking to impress in his home race for ArmsUp Motorsports.

The rest of the field features some intriguing battles elsewhere and some new or returning drivers. Niall Murray (Newman Wachs Racing) and Zach Holden (BN Racing) make their debuts, with Callan O’Keefe back with Team BENIK for the first time since the Indianapolis road course weekend.

INDY LIGHTS: Kaiser’s coronation but plenty to fight for

Kyle Kaiser in an interview after a victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Unlike last year where the final lap dictated the Indy Lights championship under controversial circumstances – Ed Jones emerging ahead of Santiago Urrutia only after Felix Serralles let Jones through for fourth place – Kyle Kaiser has no such concerns this weekend and will need only to start Sunday’s Indy Lights race to win the title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that comes with it. He enters with a 31-point lead and the maximum one driver can gain in a race is 27 from first to 14th.

“The history actually goes back further than his first Lights year. I watched Kyle Kaiser in his first Pro Mazda race in 2013 at Circuit of the Americas. He would fly through the esses on one lap, and go about a nautical mile off the racing surface on the next,” Krohn reflected.

“And I really think that’s been the story for Kyle’s development. He’s gone from being a driver that could put a lap or a corner together, to now a much more complete product, one that has the ability to push hard when he needs to or take a step back when he’s not in position to challenge for a win. On outright pace you could argue there are two or three drivers on the grid that are quicker than Kyle, but his consistency this year has been truly impressive.”

Two key battles for other spots are for second and fourth. Santiago Urrutia holds that down by eight points over Colton Herta; if Urrutia does end second, he’d mirror Jack Harvey in coming second, two straight years. Herta has rallied in the final quarter of the year after a tough midseason stretch.

Similarly, eight points separate Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman De Melo and Nico Jamin for fourth place. Leist and Jamin have won in their rookie seasons while Claman De Melo has been quite likely the most improved driver of the season, and could have a year-on-year jump from ninth to fourth in points.

Aaron Telitz and Neil Alberico are more or less assured seventh and eighth in points after the young Americans started strong but have had tough rest of seasons. Finally there’s nine points separating the next four drivers, with Shelby Blackstock, Juan Piedrahita, Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman all fighting over the final two places in the top-10.

NOTES

  • The Pro Mazda Watkins Glen Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires will take the green flag Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Sunday at 7:55 a.m. EDT.
  • The Mazda USF2000 Watkins Glen Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires will take the green flag at 1:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
  • The Mazda Indy Lights Watkins Glen Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires will take the green flag Sunday at 10:50 a.m. ET. The NBCSN broadcast is scheduled for Wednesday, September 6 at 6:00 p.m. ET.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR Photo
Leave a comment

It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500