TRACKING THE CHANGES: Indy Lights Silly Season
From one season to the next, the Mazda Road to Indy is never short of changes as there are always drivers in new rides entering another year of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition.
Though right now, there are concerns surrounding the series with only nine drivers confirmed for rides a week before the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Florida. It marks a shrink in competition after seeing 13 competitors run the full schedule in 2017.
Each of those who were part of the series have details lined up and announced, except for Carlin Racing and Team Pelfrey. Neither team has yet to release anything regarding their 2018 Indy Lights intentions, though belief is they will be part of the grid this season.
With that said, let’s review where things stand as of March 2, 2018.
After scoring a pair of wins last season, starting off the year with a victory at St. Petersburg, before winning the wet season finale at Watkins Glen, Aaron Telitz announced he will be back with Belardi Auto Racing in 2018.
As of right now, the American has put together a partial budget for the year, with continued efforts being put in to put enough marketing partners together for all 10 events. The 26-year-old will begin the year at St. Petersburg, and go as far as his budget allows him to do so.
It was then confirmed at the Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training test at Homestead-Miami Speedway that Santiago Urrutia will be back with Belardi Auto Racing, set for the full schedule.
“I am very happy to be back with Belardi, I believe in Brian and in all of the team,” offered Urrutia. “It is going to be my third year with Tim Neff as my engineer, so I know him very well. I know it is going to be a fun year, but also a tough year because it is going to be super competitive. I have to be 100% focused every weekend. I am going to have to be very smart and finish all of the races in at least the top 5. I am looking forward to starting the season strong in St. Pete and then fight for the championship. I have only one goal and that is to win the championship.”
After winning the 2017 championship with Kyle Kaiser, Juncos Racing confirmed that they will field three entries in 2018.
As everyone believed from the beginning, Victor Franzoni is one of those three as he won the 2017 Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires Championship with Juncos Racing, which gives him a scholarship from Mazda to run the full Indy Lights schedule with the Red Soul livery.
“I am so happy to be back with Juncos Racing,” said Franzoni. “We had an amazing year last year and I could not have won the Pro Mazda Championship without all of their support and hard work. We went into each race with such focus and knowing that if anything happened on track it could end the season. After our amazing experience last year, I am confident we will be successful in the Indy Lights Championship. I would like to thank everyone on the team, my family, Mazda, Cooper Tires, and Andersen Promotions for helping me make this possible.”
Juncos Racing then welcomed Alfonso Celis Jr. to their team to drive the second of the three entries. The Mexican enters the Mazda Road to Indy following a success in the World Series Formula V8, where he placed third in the year-end points standings. He also played the role of Reserve Driver for Sahara Force India Formula 1 for the past two years.
A third driver has yet to be confirmed or announced.
Speaking of Kaiser, he will move up to the Verizon IndyCar Series with his scholarship from the 2017 Indy Lights title, set to run at least four events for Juncos Racing. Kaiser told POPULAR OPEN WHEEL (POW) that there’s “definitely a possibility” to add more races for the schedule, adding “the team and myself are working very hard to find additional funding.”
After putting in the time behind the scenes, including a brief break from open-wheel competition, Pato O’Ward will get his chance to run the full Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires schedule, courtesy of Andretti Autosport. He will be behind the wheel of the No. 27 entry.
The 18-year-old has been impressive on the Mazda Road to Indy thus far, including a runner-up in the 2006 Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires season following six victories in the first seven races. O’Ward entered four Indy Lights events last year, but was unable to put together a full campaign due to lack of funding.
Colton Herta will be back full-time for the second straight year, driving for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, in hopes of taking home the championship.
“It would be a lot of weight off of my shoulders,” he told POW in November. “I think the Steinbrenners want to move up to IndyCar in the next few years, and this would be a huge boost because we get the million dollar. It would make things a lot smoother and cheaper as well.”
The other two Andretti Autosport entries will be driven by returning drivers, as both Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett are back for 2018, as well.
After placing seventh in last year’s standings, Nico Jamin has yet to commit to returning to the series in 2018. He competed last year with Andretti Autosport, but took part in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test with Belardi Auto Racing.
“We’re exploring different possibilities right now,” Jamin told POW in November. “We’re obviously talking with Belardi Auto Racing to try to be in back in Indy Lights to try and fight for a title. But we’re also looking at the possibilities outside of single-seaters, so in sports cars for some prototype or GT stuff. So the options are pretty open to me right now, pretty wide, and the off-season will be long. I would like to be back in Indy Lights to fight for a title, but if that doesn’t happen, I will probably go sports car racing and that’ll be an amazing opportunity for me as well.”
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