Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: IMS road course weekend recap

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The INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend not only serves to help kick things off for the Month of May for the Verizon IndyCar Series, but it has also quickly become a showcase for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda have all seen double headers in each of the five Grand Prix weekends – Pro Mazda even had a triple header in 2015 – and the ability to race at perhaps the most famous racing facility on the planet has proven to be an invaluable asset to all three series.

And for the second year in a row, Royal Purple Synthetic Oil partnered with the Lupus Foundation of America to again raise awareness of the disease and funds for research and treatment, with all MRTI races contested under the banner of the Royal Purple Synthetic Motor Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis supporting the Lupus Foundation of America.

Both Friday and Saturday were full days for all three series, and they more than lived up to the billing. Whether it was Colton Herta carving through the Indy Lights field on both days to sweep the weekend, Harrison Scott and Parker Thompson emerging as race winners after a thrilling pair of Pro Mazda races, or Kyle Kirkwood and Alex Baron putting on driving clinics in USF2000, the MRTI did itself very proud on the IMS Road Course.

A recap of major stories to emerge from all three series is below.

Indy Lights

Colton Herta celebrates his Race 2 victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Colton Herta has always been fast, but he lacked a consistency and maturity needed to be a genuine championship contender in 2017. The 2018 version of the young Herta, however, looks to be championship material. He is still a little rough around the edges – his pass and contact with Aaron Telitz early in Race 2 is evidence of that – but he is certainly a long way ahead of where he was in 2017. While his battle with Santi Urrutia for the win in Race 2 was intense, Herta did nothing wrong and the contact was on Urrutia for trying to push him wide exiting Turn 1. But, Herta was fully alongside and held his ground, as was his right. If Herta can can keep his maturity and pace in check, he will most certainly battle for an Indy Lights crown this year.
  • Urrutia, meanwhile, did not do himself any favors in Race 2, and he frankly made an error in fighting Herta as hard as he did. Herta was very clearly faster than Urrutia in the final laps, and it seemed inevitable that Herta would find his way passed. In trying to push Herta wide exiting Turn 2, and ultimately spinning himself out, Urrutia cost himself two spots – he was in line to finish no worse than second, but ended up in fourth. Given the small Indy Lights field, those few points he lost in Race 2 could loom large later in the year.
  • Despite taking the pole in both races, Pato O’Ward had somewhat of an off weekend, though it was not entirely his fault. Race 1 saw him get bumped by Victor Franzoni as the field jetted into Turn 1 off the start. That pushed him back to fourth, and stayed there the rest of the race. In Race 2, he was in line for a podium before a cut tire forced him into the pits, and he finished seventh. He did stay in the championship lead, but only by one point over Herta. He’ll look for a big rebound at the Freedom 100.
  • Aaron Telitz’s luck may finally be turning around, as he has finishes of fourth, third, and second in the last three races. He finished second in the Freedom 100 last year, and a victory would put him solidly back in title contention for 2018.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson celebrates a Race 2 victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Other drivers have been more dominant in their early-season races, but Parker Thompson is doing the most important thing a championship contender can do: he isn’t making mistakes. His Race 2 victory was his second of the year, and he has two second-place finishes and two fifth-place finishes to his name in 2018 as well. In other words, his worst finish is fifth, and it all sees Thompson in the championship lead after six races. It’s still very early, but Thompson is possibly emerging as the man to beat in Pro Mazda.
  • Rinus VeeKay had a second tough weekend in a row. After finishing second in Race 1 to Harrison Scott, VeeKay dropped out on Lap 1 of Race 2 in a bizarre incident that involved himself, Harrison Scott, and David Malukas – Scott and Malukas bumped wheels trying to tuck in-line, which collect VeeKay and briefly sent him airborne before his car before it came to a rest on the front straightaway. Combined with his struggles at Barber Motorsports Park, it leaves VeeKay 22 points behind Thompson. But, he has plenty of speed in hand, and he is more than capable of getting back ahead of Thompson.
  • Oliver Askew finally looked like the Oliver Askew of last year. The pole sitter in both races, Askew looked properly quick for the first time all year. He finished second and fourth in the races, and Race 2 was quite impressive as he came back from a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. At 48 points behind Thompson, Askew is a long way back, but if he can maintain this pace, he could claw himself back into championship contention.
  • Harrison Scott may be the fastest driver in the series right now, but he’s developing a habit of “feast or famine” results. He has two wins and a second this year, but also has a pair of 12th place finishes. He has all the potential to be a title contender, so long as he can avoid the poor finishes.
  • David Malukas and Carlos Cunha were quick all weekend, and though neither of them got wins, victories may come sooner than later for both.

USF2000

Alex Baron (left) and Kyle Kirkwood (center) were the drivers to watch in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With two race wins and a worst finish of fifth, Kyle Kirkwood has helped put Cape Motorsports once again in position for a USF2000 crown – they have six driver’s championships in a row. The former Team USA Scholarship recipient has gelled nicely with the team, and is having a very nice start to his MRTI career.
  • Despite leading the championship, Kirkwood may actually be overshadowed by Alex Baron. After finished 22nd in Race 1 at St. Petersburg, Baron has finishes of first, first, and second. And his drive in Race 2 may have been the most impressive of the weekend, as he overcame Lap 1 contact with Jamie Caroline that relegated him to the very back of the field to finish in second. Long-time MRTI fans may not be surprised by Baron’s prowess – he was a race winner with Belardi Auto Racing in the 2014 Indy Lights season – and Baron most certainly possesses the speed to be a USF2000 title contender. Expect him and Kirkwood to duel more as the year goes on.
  • While Kirkwood and Baron have distanced themselves from the USF2000 field – Baron is 29 points up on third place – the battle for the third in the championship is quite close. Jose Sierra, Igor Fraga, and Julian van der Watt are 10 points apart in that battle, and sixth place Darren Keane is only 13 points out of third. And if Kirkwood and/or Baron stumble at all, any one of those four could be in position to capitalize.

All three series will next be in action on May 25, with Indy Lights’ taking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Freedom 100, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 will take to Lucas Oil Raceway Park.

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IMSA: Sims, De Philippi deliver first win for BMW M8 GTE in Michelin GT Challenge at VIR

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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DANVILLE, Va. – After coming tantalizingly close two weeks ago at Road America, the BMW M8 GTE is a first-time winner.

Co-drivers Alexander Sims and Connor De Phillippi delivered the new-for-2018 race car’s first victory anywhere in the world in a strong and strategic performance aboard the No. 25 BMW Team RLL machine en route to the Michelin GT Challenge victory at VIRginia International Raceway.

The No. 25 duo combined to lead a race-high total of 32 laps of 88 trips around the 3.27-mile road circuit that comprised the two-hour, 40-minute race. Sims led the final 31 laps and crossed the finish line 1.323 seconds ahead of Jan Magnussen to take the victory.

The VIR victory was redemption of sorts for the No. 25 team after the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, when De Phillippi appeared on his way to victory only to be forced to pit lane for fuel with two laps to go.

Sunday, the team had to overcome a midrace incident in which Sims tangled with the GT Daytona (GTD) class car of David Heinemeier Hansson. Sims had to serve a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility.

“It’s fantastic,” Sims said. “The team’s done an awesome job. They’ve been working really hard all year. Some races haven’t really gone our way. But they haven’t given up. BMW and Rahal have done a mega job. It’s fantastic to get us this first win for the M8. Connor did a great job at the start of the race to get us up to third.

“He did a flawless stint, despite my mistake at the start of my first stint. I kind of held my hands up. That was my mistake. We deserved the drive through. We got back in the race after the safety car and had mega pace. I was really, really pleased.”

It was Sims’ fourth career WeatherTech Championship victory and the second for De Phillippi. Both drivers’ last victory came at Motul Petit Le Mans last season, Sims in the final race for the BMW M6 GTLM and De Phillippi with the Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi team in GTD. De Phillippi became a BMW factory driver prior to this season.

“It was down to the last pit stop,” De Phillippi said. “Obviously, after the contact, we had to rethink what we were going to try to do. We went with a more aggressive strategy and we saw that if we stayed out longer we’d have a clear track and the others would be hitting the GTD traffic. We went forward with that strategy and with that we gained while they were stuck in traffic which was enough to keep us out front.

“The Michelin tires were hooked up and held up so well we didn’t have to put any on the last stop. Alex just drove the wheels off to it for the finish. This win feels amazing. This is a new program, and obviously when you switch to a new brand and a new family you always want to win the first year out. I got one at the Nürburgring, and now to do one with my full-time team in this series, it’s really special to me and feels really great.”

After winning the Michelin GT Challenge each of the past two years, Magnussen came up just shy of a three-peat in the No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R along with co-driver Antonio Garcia. It was the team’s seventh podium result of the season and sixth consecutive and it vaulted them into the GTLM championship lead by four points, 269-265, over No. 67 Ford GT co-drivers Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe with three races to go.

John Edwards and Jesse Krohn made it two BMW M8s on the podium with a third-place run in the No. 24 BMW Team RLL entry. In addition to it being the first victory for the M8, it also was the first time two M8s finished on the podium in the same race.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing saw its GTLM winning streak stopped at four in the Michelin GT Challenge. No. 66 Ford GT co-drivers Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller finished fourth, while the No. 67 entry of Briscoe and Westbrook was forced to retire early from the race with clutch problems. Westbrook started the race from the pole position and led the first 28 laps before pitting to turn the car over to Briscoe, and the problem reared its ugly head shortly thereafter.

No. 912 Porsche co-drivers Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor came back from an opening lap incident with the No. 4 Corvette to finish fifth.

Baumann In Right Place At Right Time As Lexus Wins Thriller At VIR

Dominik Baumann and 3GT Racing celebrate a GTD triumph. Photo courtesy of IMSA

It was an example of being in the right place at the right time for Dominik Baumann in a victorious effort alongside co-driver Kyle Marcelli in Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway.

Running in the fourth position with 30 minutes remaining, Baumann successfully navigated his No. 14 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 through a series of incidents involving the top three ahead of him. Once clear, he went on to lead the race’s final 17 laps, beating the No. 58 Porsche 911 GT3 R of Patrick Long to the stripe by 0.567 seconds in a thrilling last-lap battle for the GT Daytona (GTD) class win.

The race-winning sequence began when the No. 44 Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Andy Lally got a run on the race-leading No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 of Lawson Aschenbach. The two made slight contact allowing the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Jeroen Bleekemolen to pull alongside Lally for the lead. One corner later, Lally and Bleekemolen made side-to-side contact, sending the No. 33 into a spin with Baumann capitalizing to pass both for the lead.

“I saw the Audi and Mercedes fighting in front of me and going off,” said Baumann, who won earlier this year alongside Marcelli at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “We just stayed out of trouble and just did our race.”

“Thanks to the Mercedes, and the Audi and the Acura coming together, it inherited us the lead, and those closing laps under pressure are tough to drive, and Dominic was a true professional today,” added Marcelli. “I think if you look up and down the grid, we’ve all made a few mistakes, but it’s just minimizing them. It’s a track that’s demanding physically and mentally and easy to make mistakes and drop wheels and fill the radiator full of grass. It was he who made the least mistakes who came out with a victory today.”

It certainly wasn’t easy for Baumann from there, however. In the closing minutes, Katherine Legge made up a nearly 10-second deficit in her No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing w/ Curb-Agajanian Acura NXS GT3 to get to the bumper of Baumann on the final lap.

The two raced side-by-side up the backstretch of the 3.27-mile circuit, but Baumann had the benefit of the inside line. Long took advantage of the battle ahead of him and was able to slip by Legge to finish second alongside co-driver Christina Nielsen.

Legge and co-driver Mario Farnbacher finished third, with Legge making up significant ground in the GTD points race with two races remaining. A midrace unscheduled pit stop for contact for the points-leading No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow relegated the team to a sixth-place finish. Sellers and Snow now lead Legge by 13 points, 275-262, heading to the penultimate race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

The No. 63 WeatherTech Ferrari 488 GT3 of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette finished fourth, with Bleekemolen and co-driver Ben Keating finishing fifth. Lally was hit with a stop and go penalty for his previous contact with Bleekemolen and finished seventh with co-driver John Potter.

Next up for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the penultimate round of the season, the America’s Tire 250 as part of the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 7-9.

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