MRTI: Mid-Ohio digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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With the weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course now behind them, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires only has two race weekends left in the 2018 season.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires head to Gateway Motorsports Park on August 25, while the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda is off until the season-ending weekend at Portland International Raceway – all three series end the season with double-headers at Portland.

The streets of Toronto flipped the championships upside down in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, and Mid-Ohio continued the momentum swing that started at Toronto and saw Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay take control of their respective championships.

In USF2000, meanwhile, the championship is over, as Kyle Kirkwood wrapped it up before the calendar flipped to the month of August in what has been a thoroughly dominant season, especially in the summer months.

A look back at big storylines to emerge from the MRTI’s weekend at Mid-Ohio is below.

O’Ward Begins Distancing Himself from Herta

Pato O’Ward swept Mid-Ohio, padding his championship lead over Colton Herta. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The seesaw title fight between Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta swung very much in the favor of O’Ward in the month July. O’Ward has had back-to-back weekend sweeps at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, while Herta suffered an injured hand after a Race 1 qualifying crash in Toronto that kicked off a problematic weekend – he crashed again during Race 1, and withdrew after a few laps in Race 2 to protect the injury.

Herta made a valiant effort to challenge O’Ward at Mid-ohio, but ultimately came up short, finishing second in both races.

It means that O’Ward leads Herta by 32 points exiting the weekend. Ovals award more points in 2018 – an oval win is worth 45, compared to 30 for road/street courses, but Herta is still going to need help to catch O’Ward.

Even if he gets maximum points (pole, most laps led, and victory) at Gateway and both races at Portland, it will not be enough to overtake O’Ward – Herta would gain 23 points in that scenario, not enough given the 32-point gap between them.

However, even though the Indy Lights field is small, Gateway could see a points swing of as much as 26 if Herta gets pole, leads the most laps, and wins, with O’Ward finishing seventh.

Indeed, it is still possible for Herta to catch O’Ward, but he’ll likely need help to do it. As of right now, O’Ward is the favorite to take the Indy Lights title in 2018.

Pro Mazda: VeeKay Seizes Championship Control from Thompson

Rinus VeeKay and Juncos Racing have a lot to smile about after taking control of the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The month of July began with Rinus VeeKay trailing Parker Thompson by 46 points entering Toronto. As the month comes to an end, VeeKay leaves with a 25-point lead, a swing of over 70 points across the four races at Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

Struggles for Thompson – who had a pair of incidents at Toronto and finished eighth in both races, and then struggled to finishes of fifth and sixth at Mid-Ohio – combined with four straight wins from VeeKay to completely flip the championship on its head.

VeeKay, last year’s runner-up in USF2000, is now in full command of the Pro Mazda championship chase, but the fight between the two is still somewhat up in the air.

If Thompson scores maximum points at Gateway – pole, fastest lap, most laps led, and race win – he’ll shave at least 10 points off the lead, and a similar effort at Portland would put him ahead of VeeKay at season’s end.

Of course, both drivers will have plenty of competition that could disrupt their plans. David Malukas has a pair of wins to his name in 2018, and has been ultra quick all year. Oliver Askew has been hot and cold somewhat, but he has two podiums in the last four races and will be motivated to get to Victory Lane before the year ends.

Harrison Scott also has two wins in 2018, and if he returns at Gateway, he could be a factor again.

Of course, VeeKay has a pair of strong teammates in Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis – Cunha and Megennis have five podiums each, with Megennis particularly strong in recent races and on a streak of three podiums in a row.

More podiums, or even victories, for Cunha and Megennis could hurt Thompson in the final three races, as he’ll need every point he can muster, especially at Gateway.

Granted, he dominated the only other oval on the schedule – Lucas Oil Raceway – leading every lap from the pole to take the win while VeeKay finished fourth. He’ll desperately need a repeat of that to give himself a better title shot entering Portland.

There are still lots of variables in play in the Pro Mazda championship, but rest assured, VeeKay holds the position of power entering the final three races.

USF2000: Kirkwood’s Scintillating “Soul Red” Season

Kyle Kirkwood has been flying high all year in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Seasons like the one Kyle Kirkwood has enjoyed in the 2018 USF2000 season don’t come often. The 19-year-old Floridian traded blows with Alex Baron in the opening four races – each had two wins after St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, though Kirkwood held the points lead due to Baron’s finish of 22nd in Race 1 at St. Pete.

But, a Kirkwood victory coupled with a Baron crash at Lucas Oil Raceway gave Kirkwood a 59-point cushion, and the rout was on from there. Kirkwood has enjoyed a winning streak of nine in a row, bringing his win total to 10 in 2018.

And with Baron not racing at Toronto or Mid-Ohio, little was left to prevent Kirkwood from clinching the championship early.

Kirkwood’s next stop will be Pro Mazda in 2019, thanks to the $325,000 Mazda Scholarship he’ll receive as the USF2000 champ – he’ll also carry the “Soul Red” livery in Pro Mazda next year. But, there are still two more USF2000 races up for grabs before he gets to Pro Mazda next year.

And given how the season has gone so far, he stands a strong chance of taking his winning streak into double digits.

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Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.