Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Urrutia’s in-season rebound set him up for potential IndyCar jump

Leave a comment

One driver who made some noise around the end of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season about his potential jump into the Verizon IndyCar Series was Uruguayan Santi Urrutia, who ended second in this year’s Indy Lights championship after a roller-coaster campaign.

While he hasn’t been confirmed for an IndyCar seat yet although he’s met with a couple teams, he put himself in this position by way of his comeback during the Indy Lights season.

He entered as something of a championship favorite after ending runner-up with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2016 behind Ed Jones, albeit in controversial fashion. Alas, Urrutia moved over to Belardi Auto Racing when SPM shut down its Indy Lights operation, as Belardi and SPM formed a partnership early in the season, evidenced by the ARROW Electronics branding on Urrutia’s No. 5 Dallara IL-15 Mazda this year.

Amid high expectations, Urrutia was confident of a title-contending year. But, in the first half of the season, things did not go as planned.

In the first four races, Urrutia had three finishes of 13th or worse (13th, 13th, and 15th), broken up for a second-place finish in race two at St. Petersburg.

His season began to turn around at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, where he finished seventh and second. He followed that up with fifth in the Freedom 100 before finishing second at Road America race one.

A final lap race puncture dropped him to 11th in race two there, before he rebounded the next couple weekends. A run up to second at Iowa Speedway saw him infamously/hilarious doing victory donuts after a miscommunication (Urrutia had thought he’d won as he was a fair distance behind Matheus Leist) and then added a third at race on in Toronto.

A mechanical issue resigned him to 11th in race two at Toronto. But the final four races of 2017 saw the title-contending form Urrutia had in 2017 return for good.

He won race one at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, finished second in race two, won at Gateway Motorsports Park courtesy of a late-race pass of Juan Piedrahita, and ended the year by finishing second at Watkins Glen behind teammate Aaron Telitz.

All told, Urrutia overcame the rocky start to end up second in the championship for the second consecutive year. Urrutia, true to form, didn’t mince words about his disappointment – particularly in his own performance – at the start of the season.

“Honestly, the first part of the championship, I was really bad. I was all over the place. Didn’t have the pace for top five,” he told NBC Sports at the Watkins Glen season finale.

However, he also detailed that mechanical woes hampered them, and an engine change at Road America helped set in motion their charge in the second half of the season.

“When we changed (the) engine at Road America, it went the right way. I have the same engineer (Tim Neff) from last year. We changed guys in the team. But Belardi won a ton of races last year. They’re competitive. We had the pace, especially second part of the year, but struggled in the beginning because of the engine. Considering I was 11th at Road America and now I’m vice champion, for sure I’m way more happy than last year.”

Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock celebrate the 2017 Indy Lights team championship with team owner Brian Belardi. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Further, Urrutia was a contributing factor in Belardi Auto Racing winning the team championship in 2017, the highlights being a pair of victories for both Urrutia and Aaron Telitz.

“I am so proud of this team,” Brian Belardi said of the accomplishment. “Winning the team championship was a big goal of ours. We’ve had an amazing history in a short amount of time, with drivers like Anders Krohn, Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves, Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach.

“Sometimes you’re a cheerleader, sometimes you’re a father figure. We’re all following a dream here – there have been ups and downs but we seem to prevail somehow so hats off to everyone who’s ever been with our team.”

Looking ahead to 2018, Urrutia has his eyes on the Verizon IndyCar Series, and he seemed confident that he could secure a full-time seat, and even more confident that he can be a contender right away.

Belardi, too, indicated he may be on the verge of an Indianapolis 500 debut – same as Juncos Racing did this year – while focusing full-season on an at least three and possibly four-car Indy Lights program.

“(If) there’s that time I sign the contract, I want to be competitive and win races,” Urrutia said. “It’ll be similar to the Indy Lights car, so that’ll be an advantage.

“It’ll be my first year, and I think I can win races in my first year. It should be fine.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne

 

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

Follow@KyleMLavigne