New Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: First look at 2018 comes this weekend at Griffis test at IMS

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway enters its seventh year this year, and always serves as a first look at the new season to come for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires.

While last year it was the debut of the new Tatuus USF-17 Mazda that turned heads, this year it will be the new Tatuus PM-18 – in its first official public test by teams, after private testing has followed series testing over the last several months – that will be most intriguing to watch.

The new car is already reportedly several seconds faster than the venerable Star chassis with the Mazda Renesis rotary that served as the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ stalwart chassis for more than a dozen years, thanks to a moderate power jump to a 275 HP 2.0-liter Mazda MZR-PM18A motor developed by Elite Engines, with a six-speed sequential transmission. Reliability might need to be monitored as well as the new engine gets put through its paces.

There’s 11 cars listed in Pro Mazda, which is a good sign this early on in the process as teams look to put together programs for a new season. The last two years, the car count has hovered between eight to 15 cars, with only eight to 10 of them full championship class contenders.

Existing teams Juncos Racing, Team Pelfrey and Cape Motorsports have six of the 11 cars entered. Juncos has evaluated several drivers already in private testing and for its three PM-18s this weekend, the series’ defending champions have Carlos Cunha, Sting Ray Robb and Robert Megennis in its three cars.

Cunha enjoyed a successful first year in the U.S. with Pelfrey this year, and finished with a run of five podiums in a row to end the year. Robb, the teenager, learned throughout his year with World Speed Motorsports while Megennis had a tougher second season in USF2000 with Pelfrey despite winning his first race.

Pelfrey will test Kaylen Frederick as the Maryland teenager will look to impress after a solid first full year in USF2000, along with Kris Wright, who drove partial seasons in USF2000 (John Cummiskey Racing) and Pro Mazda (JDC Motorsports). Cape will run Oliver Askew, the USF2000 champion, in preparation for his graduation.

The five other cars come from three new teams, as USF2000 outfits BN Racing, Exclusive Autosport and Pabst Racing join the grid in anticipation of Pro Mazda efforts next season. Parker Thompson, Nikita Lastochkin, Calvin Ming and David Malukas all raced in USF2000 or Pro Mazda last year with all four now set to test this weekend; Malukas will have Dutchman Leonard Hoogenboom as a teammate a second car at BN Racing.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field features some new intriguing driver/team combinations.

Andretti Autosport and Juncos Racing will field four drivers each. For Andretti, it’ll be three of its four 2017 drivers with Colton Herta (in an Andretti-Steinbrenner entered car), Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett all listed along with Anthony Martin, who expects to graduate to Indy Lights next year after a year in Pro Mazda, and after coming up just short of the title to Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, meanwhile, will make his Indy Lights test debut with Juncos this week. This will be a special week for the Pro Mazda champion as he comes home to IMS, as it’s where he made his first test with Juncos last year at this event and then promptly swept the IMS road course weekend in May in Pro Mazda. Like Askew, Franzoni’s team choice for 2018 will be announced at a later date by Mazda, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for either driver to continue with their 2017 teams for another season.

Beyond Franzoni, Cunha, Nicolas Dapero and Heamin Choi will be in the Juncos Indy Lights cars. Dapero is believed to be returning to the Juncos team for a second season, looking to build on a year of development his rookie season.

Belardi Auto Racing is targeting anywhere from three to four cars next season, although none of its 2017 drivers are set to test with the team this weekend. Aaron Telitz will be on site helping a USF2000 team (RJB Motorsports) through its paces. Belardi will test Telitz’s seemingly eternal sparring partner in USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights race winner Nico Jamin, along with Dutch standout Rinus VeeKay, who’s also had private tests with Juncos Racing, Pabst Racing and Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda.

Elsewhere Pato O’Ward and T.J. Fischer will be teammates again as they were in Pro Mazda with Pelfrey at its Indy Lights team, Fischer making his test debut here in a Lights car. Carlin is notably absent this weekend, opting not to test.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda the first rung on the MRTI ladder, this test provides the first real introduction to a large list of rookies. Only Telitz and Thompson (who wouldn’t be racing in USF2000 next year), Lucas Kohl, Darren Keane, Callan O’Keefe, Jacob Loomis, Andres Gutierrez and Jayson Clunie have any level of USF2000 race experience among those listed to test, and the last five there have only run partial seasons.

The field isn’t as big as it could be with the F4 U.S. Championship season finale happening this weekend at Circuit of The Americas along with the Formula 1 weekend, and with a number of international and domestic talents – including this year’s Team USA Scholarship recipients in Jonathan Kotyk and Aaron Jeansonne – on display at the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in England.

Still, there’s more than 20 drivers entered, including the only two females set to run this test with Sabre Cook (John Cummiskey Racing) and Zoey Edenholm (BN Racing) both part of the lineup. Cook was one of 10 drivers selected as a finalist for the Team USA Scholarship this year, and she, Loomis, David Osborne and Elliott Finlayson make it four of the 10 nominated that are testing a USF2000 car this week.

The full schedule is linked here, along with the entry list.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.