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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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski