Bulletin: Mazda Ends Partnership with Andersen Promotions and Road to Indy

Just announced: Mazda has ended its nine year association with Andersen Promotions, promoter of the Road to Indy which sanctions USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights.

A statement from John Doonan, Director of Mazda Motorsports, said it was time for Mazda to focus its “resources on other areas of our motorsports footprint.” Mazda will continue its association with Andersen Promotions through the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup series.

Dan Andersen thanked Mazda for their participation and said his company is committed to maintaining the ladder structure currently in place.

” We are currently in discussions with several potential companies as we actively pursue a new partner.”

I have no doubt Dan Andersen can find a new partner. I have no idea which companies he is talking with. I doubt if Honda or Chevy are involved. Could it be someone who is also interested in being a third OEM for Indycar? Possibly but not likely. A manufacturer involved in both series would give the appearance of having an advantage with the information gained in the Road to Indy program.

Mazda has been a great partner. I hope the next engine partner will further the program and help strengthen Indy Lights.

I will have more as this story develops.

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Season Preview, Part 1- New Teams Hope New Aero Package Levels the Field

New teams, new drivers, new sponsors, and a new aero package are ready. The fans are more than ready. The 2018 Indycar season starts Friday when practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins.

In a three part series, I take a look at each team and make some predictions for the year.

Today I focus on the new teams. In all parts of this preview, team order is random and is not intended to be a prediction of season long results.

Michael Shank Racing

It has been a long road to Indycar for Michael Shank, beginning last year with the Indianapolis 500. Jack Harvey drives the Shank car, which has a technical partnership with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. The team has scheduled 6 races this year so far. Harvey will drive at St. Pete, Long Beach, The 500, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma. The team may add a couple more races. This will be an interesting team to watch. They might be able to grab a couple of top 10s, but I see them using this season to learn and build.

Juncos Racing

Ricardo Juncos may be pioneering the model for future Indycar teams. Juncos has been a long time steady participant in the Mazda Road to Indy, winning the 2017 Indy Lights championship with Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser and the team both move to Indycar this year. Juncos has eight scheduled races this year. Kaiser will drive in four, and newcomer Rene Binder will drive the other four. There is hope to add some more outings for Kaiser, the team’s primary driver.

Binder will open the season at St. Pete, then race at Barber, Toronto, and Mid-Ohio. Kaiser debuts at Phoenix, then goes to Long Beach, and finishes the season at Indianapolis, driving in the GP of Indy and the 500. The hope is to add more races for Kaiser. I hope that happens because he needs more seat time and needs to have races deeper into the season.

I think this team will struggle to get results, but they will build a solid foundation for the following years. Juncos still has a presence in the Mazda Road to Indy with Victor Franzoni headlining their Indy Lights program.

Carlin Racing

It was just a matter of time before Carlin moved to Indycar. After a successful two years in Indy Lights, including the 2016 championship with Ed Jones, they become a two car team with former Ganassi drivers Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. Carlin knows how to run races and their two drivers have Indycar experience.

Chilton is still learning the craft and showed improvement last year. Kimball is at a crossroads. Were his problems last season a part of being on Ganassi’s B team? This will be a pivotal year for him.

I think they will have some good results and will end up in the upper half of the field.

Harding Racing

A three race toe dip last season and now Harding is a full time entry with Gabby Chaves. In their brief time last year the team produced two top 10s and was running at the finish of every race. Chaves is a steady driver. The team strengthened their leadership hiring Brian Barnhart as president and Al Unser, Jr. as driving coach. That experience alone gives them a bit of an edge over the other new teams. Look for a consistent season with some very good results on occasion. Harding could be the best of the newcomers.

Tomorrow-

A. j. Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, Schmidt Peterson Racing, and Ed Carpenter Racing

Rolex 24 Preview- Racing Returns

It’s not Indycar, but many current and former Indycar drivers will be driving in the Rolex24 at Daytona this weekend. IMSA has shown steady improvement since Grand Am and the American LeMans Series merged in 2012 and the new series began racing in 2014. The series begins 2018 with new teams, a very large prototype class, and some new full time drivers. Here is a look at the teams with Indycar connections.

Roger Penske starts a full time entry into the series with two Acura prototypes. Former Indy 500 winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya each drive one of the cars. Castroneves is in the number 7, and Montoya is in car 6. For the Rolex, Graham Rahal will co- drive with Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud will team with Montoya. Ricky Taylor is Castroneves’ full season teammate. Dane Cameron is Montoya’s co-pilot for the full season.

Chip Ganassi continues to field Ford GT cars in the GTLM class. Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe drive number 67 this weekend. Sebastien Bourdais will be in the 66.

New Indycar team owner Michael Shank-gosh it feels great to write that phrase- has former Indycar drivers Katherine Legge and A.J. Allmendinger in his 86 machine. Bruno Junqueira drives number 93 for Shank.

Bobby Rahal’s BMW team, cars 24 and 25, race in the GTLM class. Connor DePhillippi is one of his drivers.

Spencer Pigot is back in the 55 Mazda with Team Joest in the Prototype class.

Fernando Alonso makes his endurance debut in car 23 for United Autosport. The car is a Ligier Prototype, one of ten LMP2 cars.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is driving car 10 for Wayne Taylor Racing, the defending race champion team.

Two drivers from Indy Lights of note- Pato O’Ward, who returns for a full Indy Lights season this year, will drive the Performance Tech number 38; Felix Rosenqvist, who had a brief run in Lights and is the current pints leader in Formula E, co-drives the Jackie Chan entry number 37.

Fifty cars will start the race Saturday. There are 20 prototypes, 9 GT Le Mans cars, and 21 GT Daytona machines. Gone is the Prototype Challenge class.

I plan to watch the Indycar test at Sebring on Wednesday before going to Daytona. 15 cars are scheduled to test, including newcomers Carlin and Shank. It should be a busy day.

The Cadillacs of Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express will be strong again. I’m interested to see how strong the Penske Acuras are in their first race. They should be contenders later in the year. Ganassi Ford GTs will likely dominate the GTLM class. The GT Daytona class is usually wide open, but I’ll go with the Porsche 911 team for the win.

I hope to post about it Wednesday night and provide update from Daytona this weekend.

 

 

Blue Cars, Red Flags, New Stars- Indycar Season Review

Intriguing. Weird. A look into the future.The 2017 Indycar season had all of that. The first half of the season was chaotic and amazing.  It looked like there would be a wide open fight for the championship. Yet the Penske armada was lurking, picking up poles and leading laps, but not winning a lot until later on. Then Josef Newgarden jumped into first place at Mid-Ohio and hung on to the end. His path became more difficult with his miscue leaving the pits at Watkins Glen, but winning the pole and finishing as runner-up in Sonoma clinched the crown for him.

The year began with seven different winners in the first seven races. Overall 10 drivers won races.  Penske drivers won 10 of the 17 races. Josef Newgarden won four times to lead the series. Graham Rahal was the only non-Penske driver to win more than once with his two wins at Detroit. Surprisingly, Scott Dixon won only once. Despite that he entered the final weekend at Sonoma only three points out of the lead.

Honda’s early engine failures changed the results of races through May. Honda teams used up their engine allotments early and saw their manufacturer lead evaporate since they couldn’t score points in the later races. Reliability improved the second half of the season, but Chevy/Penske was dominating by that time.

I don’t remember as many races in one year stopped by red flags for accidents. Phoenix, The 500, Detroit race 2, and Texas  had stoppages for cleanup. The flag at Detroit I thought was a bit questionable. Iowa was red flagged for rain although I thought it could have been stopped sooner.

What color should our car be this week? I know. Blue and white! In several races this season one third of the field was in blue/white liveries, many in the same pattern. This made it difficult to distinguish cars as they approached at the track and was challenging on television to tell them apart.

I thought this was a really fun year, and next year should be even better with the new look aerokits. The new bodywork looks sleek and fast. Josef Newgarden leads a growing field of rising stars including Alexander Rossi, Ed Jones, and Spencer Pigot. The newcomers will have strong competition from the established core of Scott Dixon, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud. I cannot wait for St. Pete.

Highlights:

Best wins: Sebastien Bourdais at St. Pete, Newgarden at Gateway, Rossi at Watkins Glen, Takuma Sato at Indianapolis.

Most improved driver: Alexander Rossi

Best races: Pocono, Road America, Indianapolis 500, Watkins Glen

Worst races: Texas, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Phoenix.

Best pass: Newgarden over Pagenaud at Gateway.  AyrtonSenna would have been proud of that pass.

Worst decision: Fernando Alonso as sole winner of 500 rookie of the Year. Ed Jones deserved a share of the award.

Notes:

Honda and Chevy will be testing the new aerokits soon. The last test for Indycar was Tuesday at Sebring. Team testing begins in January.

Carlin seems to be on the verge of having an Indycar team next year.

The 2018 schedule should be out soon, likely with a TBA date. The earthquake in Mexico may push that event back a year. Other than that, the circuit should be similar to the last two years. This consistency is a great thing for all concerned.

2017 drivers without 2018 commitments as of today: Conor Daly, Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz, James Hinchcliffe, Ed Jones, J. R. Hildebrand. Jones is likely to be back at Coyne and Hinchcliffe is  likely to be back at Schmidt.

I will be going to the SCCA Runoffs this weekend. This is essentially their national championship event. Past winners include Paul Newman and Willie T. Ribbs. I’ll report about it next week.

Thank you for reading this season.

Endings and Beginnings- Thoughts on Sonoma

The last race of the season creates a conundrum. There is a race to watch and people want to see a race winner. But there is a season title on the line which creates another layer of watching.  Point scenarios are discussed for a week. Very little attention is on the race itself.

Sonoma itself has unique issues a site for the finale. It’s a beautiful venue in a beautiful setting. Track management does a great job presenting the event as the finale. Yet the race is usually not the type of race a series needs for the one that decides its champion. Passing is at a premium. The cars get strung out. Pit strategy is the way to get by someone. An oval in prime time would make for a better ending to the season and add more drama to the title fight.

The 2017 edition of Sonoma was better than most races thanks to Simon Pagenaud’s four stop strategy. It was clear this was the plan from the start when his first pit stop came two laps before the pit window opened. He continued to build his gap after the other drivers pitted each time by staying on reds until his last stop. Pagenaud’s gap was big enough by the time he made his last stop to beat Josef Newgarden out of the pits. Newgarden tried to pass a couple times, but decided, or actually Tim Cindric did, that second place meant the title.

Newgarden is one of the youngest drivers to win the series championship. He took the lead at Mid Ohio and never looked back. The only hiccup the last two months was his problem leaving the pits at Watkins Glen.  The rest of his final stretch showed first or second place finishes. Newgarden is destined to add a couple more titles to his resume.

While we’re possibly seeing the beginning of a new Indycar star, we may have seen the last of another one full time. Indications are even stronger now that Helio Castroneves will not be a full time driver next year in Indycar. He will run the 500 and possibly the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but he will be driving for Penske in the IMSA sports car series. I’ve never been a fan of Castroneves, but the last two years he has done the best driving of his career . The paddock will seem empty without him.

The race was the final outing for the manufacturer aerokits. New bodywork for next season should make for better racing since most of the downforce will be on the underside. I will not miss the rear bumpers. I thought they made Indycars look too much like sportscars.

Scott Dixon fought hard for fourth in the race and finished third in the points. The bar Newgarden is shooting for as a career? Dixion has finished in the top 3 in points 11 of the 12 years he’s been in the series.  I hope everyone appreciates that we are watching a legend drive.

Thoughts

I thought the crowd was the biggest I’ve seen at Sonoma in the four years I’ve been there. It was definitely the best Saturday crowd I’ve seen.

Zachary Calaman de Melo did a good job during the weekend. His main job was to get laps and he accomplished that.

I watched Friday’s second practice from the turn 2 and 3 area. It is a great spot to see most of the track. Cars tended to have a bit a back end slide through 3.

Word came yesterday that Ganassi will be a two car team next year. This should not come as a surprise as signs have been there for awhile. I have a couple friends on the 8 and 83 crews. I hope they can land another spot soon.  Brendon Hartley is expected to drive the 10 car.  Nothing against Hartley, a great driver in sports cars, but I’d rather see the opening go to someone who has gone through the Road to Indy.

Will Carlin be full time in Indycar in 2018 with Max Chilton and possibly Charlie Kimball?

Conor Daly ended the season with a couple of top tens and led some laps at Sonoma. Is it enough to save his job? Many of his early season issues were team related.

Silly Season is looking to be very short. Most of the regular seats are filled. We are waiting to see what some possible new teams are planning. I think it’s possible there may be several teams who make select appearances during the year rather than go full time.  The car count may look stable at every race, but some teams will be different.

Thanks to all of you for reading my posts this year. I’ll be back next week with a season review and then I will be posting stories of races past throughout the off season.

 

The Late Blooming Summer Flower- Rossi Has Arrived

There is always one flower in the garden that doesn’t bloom until nearly fall. You wait and wait, just knowing that when it blooms it will be amazing. This flower very much parallels the brief Indycar career of Alexander Rossi. before last year’s Indianapolis 500, no one gave him much thought. Following his win in the 100th running he had some very good runs the rest of the season. A likely podium at Pocono was lost when he was involved in a pit road accident. Coming into this year, Rossi was someone to watch. He would surely get at least one victory. The summer of waiting began.

A strong run at Long Beach was thwarted by an engine failure. Pit stop issues cost him positions at other races. Then a bud formed. Rossi began appearing on the podium. Finally,  on Sunday, the blossom opened. Rossi  has an average finish of 4.8 in his last 6 races. Beginning with Toronto, his worst finish is 6th. Sunday was his third podium in that span.

Rossi dominated a good race with lots of passing. His dominant win did not come without drama. A fuel hose problem on his first stop put him back in the field and cause him to need to stop out of sequence on lap 24. It was a long stop since the fuel hose had to be manually opened. He got help from a yellow three laps later and  was able to return to the front of the field as everyone else made their second stop. Rossi had enough of a gap to make his final stop and then blow past everyone else as they pitted. Fuel also played a bit of a role in his second career win again, but in a different way than it did in his first.

I expected the points battle to tighten, but not in such a dramatic way. Scottt Dixon finished second, gaining 28 points on Josef Newgarden, who had a problem on his last pit stop. While there was drama at the front of the field with Rossi’s fueling issues, points battle drama took a huge twist on the last stop. Josef Newgarden slid into the barrier leaving the pits and then was rammed by Sebastien Bourdais. The indcident reminded of Ryan Briscoe at Twin Ring Motegi who had a similar problem leaving the pits. Briscoe also was the points leader with just a couple races to go. He finished third in points.

Next season we could see two Americans, Newgarden and Rossi, fighting for the championship. Andretii Autosport seems to have finally figured something out and with everyone having the same aerokit next year, this team, with Rossi leading will be in the thick of the fight.

Notes:

The Indy Lights finale was one of the best races I have seen this year. The race was run in a heavy rainstorm, but the drivers raced and raced hard. The first five laps had close, intense battles, including a three wide run into turn 1 at the green flag. It was essentially a clean race.It would have been easy to just string out and run single file, yet they were going at it as if the weather were dry.  Hats off to these guys for a great show in difficult conditions. The race will be shown on NBCSN Wednesday evening at 6 pm. It is worth watching.

Congratulations to Mazda Road to Indy champions Oliver Askew, USF2000; Victor Franzoni, Pro Mazda; and Kyle Kaiser, Indy Lights.

Indy lights driver Zachary Claman De Melo will drive a second car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing at Sonoma. This could be an audition for a possible third car for the team in 2018.

Attendance at Watkins Glen was down significantly from last year, although there were more fans at the track Sunday than I expected with the weather.  Significantly fewer campsites were occupied.

I will return later in the week to begin discussing some championship scenarios. While there are many possibilities, it is still less complicated than nascar’s playoff format.

 

Watkins Glen- The Semi Final

Hard to believe there are just two races left in the Indycar season.  This weekend’s race at Watkins Glen will tell us what might happen in two weeks at Sonoma. It’s great that IndyCar can race at another historic track this late in the season and that it has meaning in the title pursuit.

The return to Watkins Glen last year as an emergency replacement for the failed Boston Grand Prix was a hit with the fans.  The picturesque setting rivals Road America in natural beauty. The track is fast and provides great viewing spots. Unlike last year, when Simon Pagenaud pretty much had the championship in hand, this year will set the stage for a possible title showdown at Sonoma.

This should be another strong track for Chevy, although Honda will not be at the disadvantage they were at Gateway last week. I think we will have as  good a race here as we did at Road America. Penske cars could dominate qualifying with the Hondas of Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal rounding out the Fast Six.

If Scott Dixon wins this race, as he did last year, the series goes to Sonoma with a major points battle to decide the champion. If Josef Newgarden finishes ahead of Dixon, he will be in very good shape barring a significantly bad finish in California to win his first Indycar title. Just 43 points separate the top four in the standings. Will Power is 83 points behind in fifth. Realistically, this race is between Newgarden and Dixon assuming both finish well this weekend.

Other things to watch this weekend- Will A. J. Foyt racing continue the momentum they gained at Gateway? Will Ganassi park another car? Can Ryan Hunter-Reay get one more good result? Alexander Rossi might be in for a very good weekend. He has shown great growth in driving Indycars and is becoming a fan favorite off the track as well.

How will the swirling rumors surrounding Andretti Autosport affect them this weekend? News reported yesterday I’m leaving in the unconfirmed column for the moment.. I think the only solid part as of now is that Takuma Sato is going to Rahal-Letterman -Lanigan Racing as a teammate to Graham Rahal.

Who shows up in Victory Circle? Scott Dixon will win and  tighten up the points race. The series will go to Sonoma with the championship very much up in the air.

I will be at Watkins Glen this weekend beginning Thursday. I plan to drive the original course on the public roads and will share my experience next week. I’m also planning on going to Ithaca for dinner one night. Hope it’s not too much of an odyssey to get there.

Notes

The Mazda Road to Indy season concludes this weekend. Kyle Kaiser wins the Indy Lights title simply by qualifying. Oliver Askew should win the USF 2000 crown. He has a 13 point lead over Rinus Veekay. The Pro Mazda champion  will be either Victor Franzoni or Anthony Martin. Franzoni leads Martin by just 2 points.

Final attendance figures for Gateway have yet to be announced, but it appears the total will exceed 40, 000.  Gateway is my nomination to host the Indycar season finale in the future. More on this next week.

I’m hopeful Andretti Autosport puts an end to all the speculation this weekend and declares which engine they will use this weekend. Manufacture testing starts soon after the end of the season, and they need to get a handle on the new package quickly.

Jack Harvey will drive the SPM number 7 car this weekend and at Sonoma. The two time Indy lights runner-up is the second driver in the car since Mikhail Aleshin left the program before Pocono. This could be part two of an audition for this car for 2018.

Josef Newgarden has three wins and a second place in the last four races.