Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: St. Petersburg weekend digest

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It was a packed weekend to begin the 2018 season for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece to kick off their respective seasons.

It’s also somewhat of a preview of the 2018 season as a whole, with Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires having seven double-header weekends each, while USF2000 has five double-headers as well as a triple-header at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And the tightly packed weekend had more than its fair share of dramatics, including first-time winners and and problems befalling expected championship contenders.

Indy Lights: Urrutia Shows Maturity As Season Opens

Santi Urrutia celebrates his win in Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Typically, 21-year-old Santi Urrutia has struggled in at least one race during the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg. In 2016, he finished fourth in Race 1, but 13th in Race 2. Last year, he was 13th in Race 1 before rebounding to finish second in Race 2.

This weekend, however, was a different story for the Uruguayan driver, who had finishes of 2-1 on the weekend and leads the Indy Lights championship leaving St. Petersburg.

What’s more, Urrutia was not the fastest driver and did not appear to have the fastest car at any point during the weekend, yet he manufactured both results through smart driving while those around him faltered.

His Belardi Auto Racing teammate Aaron Telitz took the pole in Race 1, but was unable to make the start after crashing during qualifying for Race 2. The team was able to borrow a chassis from Carlin so Telitz could start the second race, but contact with Victor Franzoni saw Telitz spin into the Turn 2 wall right after the start, meaning his two races consisted of only two corners combined.

Pato O’Ward looked set to sweep the weekend after winning Race 1, but overshot Turn 4 late in Race 2, going into the runoff area and then stalling after re-entering the track. He ended up finishing seventh.

Colton Herta again showed speed, finishing third in Race 1, but still showed the inconsistency that plagued him in 2017, crashing while trying to chase O’Ward for the lead early on in Race 2.

It all added up to a favorable outing for Urrutia, who also had problems of his own during the weekend, crashing during practice on Friday. But, as he emphasized, strong teamwork from the Belardi group enabled him to bounce back.

“I’m especially happy for the team, after the way the weekend has gone – I had a crash on Friday, and of course, Aaron crashed yesterday. The guys have been working all night long and I feel so sorry for them and for Aaron. But we have a very good team and everyone has worked so hard so we’ll keep working this way and hopefully, everything will be fine,” Urrutia said following Race 2.

He leaves St. Petersburg on 55 points, eight ahead of O’Ward to lead the championship.

Pro Mazda: VeeKay Rolls to Weekend Sweep

Rinus VeeKay won both Pro Mazda races to open the 2018 season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

To bring back a phrase that was used very often in 2018, across all three Mazda Road to Indy Series, Rinus VeeKay had the broom out at St. Petersburg, winning both Pro Mazda races to seize early control of the championship.

And his victories came in different fashions. He had to outduel Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory after the Exclusive Autosport driver led most of the way. Race 2 saw VeeKay start on the pole, but a starting error saw the green flag come out prematurely, and VeeKay dropped like a stone, falling back to ninth.

However, race control ultimately stopped the race, reorganized everyone back into their original starting positions, and tried again. VeeKay took advantage and rocketed away when the green flag waved, dominating Race 2, even surviving a late caution that allowed second-place David Malukas to close in, to complete the weekend sweep.

“This is amazing, just like last year when I won both races at Road America and was fighting with David (Maluka)! But both of us were confused at the start because the green came so early, so everyone passed us. I’m happy that the series saw the mistake and gave us a chance to recover. I had a comfortable gap through the race and when I saw the yellow flag I thought ‘oh, no!’ I knew the restart had to be very good and I did get enough of a jump to stay in front,” VeeKay said of the Race 2 battle.

With a whopping 62 points to his name, VeeKay leads Thompson, who had finishes of 2-5 for the weekend, by 19 points. Of note: USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend, taking finishes of 5-6, and sits sixth in the championship standings.

USF2000: Kirkwood Shines on Debut Weekend As Others Falter

Kyle Kirkwood dominated USF2000 Race 1 in St. Petersburg to take the win in his first USF2000 start. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood did not dominate the weekend like VeeKay did in the Pro Mazda ranks, but Kirkwood’s USF2000 debut was still plenty impressive.

Last year’s champion of the Formula 4 United States Championship Powered by Honda, Kirkwood ran away with race 1 after starting on the pole, and drove a quiet but solid Race 2 to finish fifth.

Meanwhile, drivers expected to challenge for the 2018 USF2000 title struggled in at least one race over the weekend. Kaylen Frederick had finishes of 11th and ninth for the weekend, and was one of several drivers to receive a drive-through penalty in Race 2. Lucas Kohl scored a 13th and a third. Darren Keane was third and 12th. Jaime Caroline scored a 24th and a fourth. And Race 2 winner Alex Baron finished 22nd in Race 1.

All told, it gives Kirkwood the early championship lead on 48 points ahead of DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra, who sits on 41 points after finishes of second and sixth. Exclusive Autosport’s Igor Fraga sits in third, ten points behind Kirkwood.

“There’s a bit of relief! Our deal came together really late, but I know I’m in the right place at the right time,” said Kirkwood following his Race 1 triumph.

Indy Lights and Pro Mazda return to action at Barber Motorsports Park in April, while USF2000 takes a two-month break before returning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”