MRTI Preview: Mid-Ohio

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The forthcoming weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires might be the most pivotal of the season for all three series.

The streets of Toronto had a heavy impact – literally – on the championship battles in all three series. In the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pato O’Ward retook the championship lead by 17 points over Colton Herta, with Herta suffering an injured thumb after a crash in Race 1 qualifying.

Meanwhile, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, things were essentially reset due to a pair of eighth place finishes for points leader Parker Thompson – he had contact in both races – and a weekend sweep from second-place runner Rinus VeeKay.

The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, however, saw Kirk Kirkwood get closer to clinching the title, and he is in position to do so before the calendar switches to the month of August.

Indy Lights and Pro Mazda see their usual double headers, with races on Saturday and Sunday, while USF2000 will enjoy a rare triple header, with races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Talking points for all three series are below.

Indy Lights

  • The most crucial aspect of the Indy Lights title chase centers around the health of Colton Herta’s hand. If he’s fully healthy and can tackle the demanding Mid-Ohio track, then he’ll have a chance to gain on Pato O’Ward – O’Ward leads Herta by 18 points. But, if his thumb and hand aren’t healthy enough, it could give O’Ward a chance to make the gap insurmountable.
  • While Santi Urrutia is 40 points behind O’Ward, he is only 22 behind Herta, whose injury opens the door for Urrutia to close even more in the battle for second. And, 40 points is still within range for Urrutia if gets on a hot streak in the final races of the year. He won two of the final four races last year, beginning at Mid-Ohio, and he finished second in the other two. A repeat performance could sneak him back into title contention.
  • Victor Franzoni looks to rebound after a troublesome Toronto outing saw him crash in Race 1 and then retire from Race 2 to conserve finances and resources.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson only leads Rinus VeeKay by seven points entering Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Parker Thompson’s weekend to forget on the streets of Toronto has essentially reset the championship picture. He leads Rinus VeeKay by only seven points entering the weekend, and the two title combatants are now poised for a duel to the finish after Thompson was on the verge of running away with it. Thompson scored a victory in USF2000 Race 2 last year at Mid-Ohio, and finished third in Race 1, while VeeKay had finishes of third and second. In short, they enter Mid-Ohio very evenly matched, so it’s anybody’s guess as to who is favored among them.
  • Carlos Cunha ranks third in the Pro Mazda championship, and still with a shot at the title. He has been knocking on the door of winning for most of the year, and it’s only a matter of time before he knocks it down.
  • David Malukas and Oliver Askew rank fourth and fifth. Malukas has been fast and has two wins this year, but his season has been blighted by some inconsistency. Meanwhile, Askew has struggled mightily with Cape Motorsports. Both will look for strong results at Mid-Ohio.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood is poised to clinch the USF2000 title at Mid-Ohio this weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • In USF2000, the championship revolves exclusively around Kyle Kirkwood. The 19-year-old from Florida leads Kaylen Frederick by 131 points entering the weekend. If he scores 34 points by the end of the weekend, the championship is his. Anything is certainly possible, but given that he has won six races in a row – and seven in total this year – it would take an enormous amount of misfortune for him to fail to clinch this weekend.
  • Behind Kirkwood, seven points separate Frederick, Igor Fraga, and Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second. All three have been quick in recent races, and any Kirkwood misfortune could see any one of these three end up in victory lane.
  • Of note: Alex Baron and Swan-RJB Motorsports, two-time race winners this year, are again absent from the entry list this weekend.

A full weekend schedule can be viewed here.

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.