Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: St. Petersburg preview

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The 2018 season kicks off for all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and all three series will feature double-headers, with races on both Saturday and Sunday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

All three series have seen many changes since their 2017 seasons wrapped up at Watkins Glen International last September, with all three featuring a degree of unpredictability as 2018 begins.

Below are previews of the opening weekend for all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy.

Indy Lights

Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, carries the “Soul Red” Mazda livery in Indy Lights for the 2018 season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights saw three race winners from 2017 move on to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Kyle Kaiser, the 2017 champion, and Zachary Claman DeMelo will have part-time IndyCar rides with Juncos Racing and Dale Coyne Racing respectively, while Matheus Leist moves into the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing.

The drivers who return to Indy Lights in 2018 all experienced varying levels of success in 2017, but all had stumbling blocks that prevented them from taking home a championship.

Santiago Urrutia won two of the final four races in 2017, but also had five finishes of 11th or worse. Colton Herta won twice and had seven poles, but also displayed a level of inconsistency that saw him have a “feast or famine” first half of the season – his finishes in the first nine races were 2-1-10-1-12-10-13-12-3.

Aaron Telitz book-ended the season with wins in Race 1 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Watkins Glen, but he only had two other podium finishes all year. Ryan Norman and Nico Dapero finished outside the top ten in the championship, while Pato O’Ward only contested the first four races.

Last year’s Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni moves up to Indy Lights in 2018 and figures to be in the mix for the championship as well.

All told, there are 10 entries as of writing for the Indy Lights season opener. Andretti Autosport will have Norman, O’Ward, and Dalton Kellet, with Colton Herta piloting the sister Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing effort.

Belardi Auto Racing will see Urrutia and Telitz return. Juncos Racing has two entries, one for Franzoni, and a second with a driver yet to be announced as of writing. Team Pelfrey will field cars for Neil Alberico and Shelby Blackstock.

Carlin is not on the entry list for St. Petersburg, but expectations are that they will return later in the year on a part-time basis.

Telitz and Herta both took victories last year at St. Petersburg, while Urrutia was fastest during testing at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course in February. As returning race winners from the 2017 season, they will likely be the favorites heading into the weekend, but expect the field to be very competitive regardless.

Pro Mazda

Oliver Askew sports the “Soul Red” livery in Pro Mazda, having won last year’s USF2000 title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda has the potential to be the most intriguing series of the 2018 Mazda Road to Indy season. First and foremost, the Tatuus PM-18, with a new two-litre MZR-PM18A engine as well, makes its race debut after a year of testing and development.

And initial impressions are very positive, as IndyCar on NBCSN’s Kevin Lee noted from the Homestead test.

The driver lineup is also an intriguing prospect. The top three from last year’s USF2000 championship have all moved up to Pro Mazda. Defending USF2000 champion Oliver Askew is with Cape Motorsports (the team with whom he won the USF2000 crown), runner-up Rinus Veekay is with Juncos Racing, and third-place finisher Parker Thompson moves up with Exclusive Autosport.

Robert Megennis, the only other driver to win a race in the 2017 USF2000 season, joins VeeKay at Juncos as well.

Askew, VeeKay, and Thompson were fast during pre-season testing at Homestead and Barber Motorsports Park, but none of them actually had the fastest individual laps. VeeKay’s other teammate at Juncos Carlos Cunha went fastest at Homestead, closely followed by Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb, while BN Racing’s David Malukas was quickest at Barber.

Last year’s Pro Mazda season saw only two drivers take victory, the aforementioned Franzoni along with Anthony Martin – Martin also swept the weekend at St. Petersburg last year. The 2018 season looks to be completely different, however, and the stage looks set for an ultra competitive battle all year long.

USF2000

Keith Donegan will sports the “Soul Red” livery in USF2000 in 2018, having won the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The four drivers won races in the 2017 USF2000 season – Askew, VeeKay, Thompson, and Megennis – have all moved on to Pro Mazda in 2018, leaving this year’s USF2000 championship up for grabs.

Still, while many drivers are relative unknowns, there are a number of drivers who could be poised to emerge as title contenders. Below is a selection of drivers to watch in the USF2000 ranks.

  • Kyle Kirkwood: A former Team USA Scholarship recipient and last year’s F4 United States Powered by Honda champion, Kirkwood joins the powerhouse Cape Motorsports outfit in USF2000. Cape drivers have won every USF2000 title since 2011, and Kirkwood’s young but impressive resume indicates he has everything he needs – both in his driving skills and in the team he has behind him – to continue that dominance.
  • Kaylen Frederick: One of the pleasant surprises from last year, the 15-year-old Frederick quickly established himself as a contender with a pair of second-place finishes at Barber Motorsports Park. He added three more podiums on his way to fourth in the championship. Now entering his second USF2000 season, he joins Pabst Racing – Frederick was with Team Pelfrey in 2017 – and looks to secure his first USF2000 victory in 2018 and become a championship contender.
  • Rasmus Lindh: One of Frederick’s teammates at Pabst, Rasmus Lindh joins USF2000 from the karting ranks in Europe. A native of Sweden, Lindh spent 2017 running in the OK Senior class of the karting World Championship, where he finished fifth. He showed impressive speed during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, turning the second fastest lap of the weekend, so Lindh could easily surprise people with his prowess in 2018.
  • Lucas Kohl: Another driver from the Pabst lineup, Kohl comes off a 2017 season that saw him get better as the year went on. He scored a podium in Race 1 at Road America on his way to seventh in the standings. He also impressed at the Homestead test, turning the third fastest lap of the weekend.
  • Calvin Ming: With a quiet run to fifth in the 2017 standings, Ming flew under the radar somewhat, but did score four podiums in a solid effort with Pabst. Back with the same team in 2018, Ming looks to build on that foundation and become a regular frontrunner.
  • Keith Donegan: The 2o-year-old Donegan is the recipient of the $200K Mazda Motorsports scholarship after winning the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. Joining ArmsUp Motorsports for 2018, Donegan will look to emulate the success of last year’s shootout winner Oliver Askew, who parlayed that scholarship into a USF2000 title. Donegan’s debut with ArmsUp at the Homestead test did not stand out – he had the 13th fastest lap of the weekend – but it’s not necessarily indicative of a struggling team or driver. Donegan will most certainly be one to watch this weekend.
  • Other drivers to watch include Kory Enders (DEForce Racing), Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), and Sabre Cook (Team Benik).

All three series have practice and qualifying for Race 1 of their weekends on Friday, qualifying for Race 2 on Saturday morning, with their first races of the weekend scheduled for Saturday late in the morning (for USF2000) through the afternoon (Pro Mazda and Indy Lights).

Indy Lights will have its second race of the weekend on Sunday morning, with Pro Mazda and USF2000 running their second races later on Sunday afternoon after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Entry lists are linked as follows: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000.

A weekend schedule can be found here.

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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.

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