In a nutshell, the hope for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend is that the title battle between the three primary protagonists – and the three others who’ve worked their way into contention in recent weeks – doesn’t end in tears for any of them.
Last year proved a hugely pivotal weekend with the Ed Jones and Jack Harvey battle and contact, while Spencer Pigot kept his calm and cool throughout the weekend and moved into position to capture the Mazda advancement scholarship that came with winning the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Sean Rayhall (8Star Motorsports) were the two race winners after the chaos.
Heading into Mid-Ohio this year, series sophomore Jones of Carlin holds a 24-point lead (268-244) on 2015 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires champion Santiago Urrutia, of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
A further eight points back is one of Jones’ two Carlin teammates, Felix Serralles, who is three points clear of the stealthily lurking Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and a further three clear of Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport).
After those three, who sit at 236, 233 and 230 points respectively, Zach Veach still has hope alive at 221 points for Belardi Auto Racing. The Stockdale, Ohio native, who will have local support from John Deere this weekend, needs a big one if he’s to stay in the fray.
Very happy to have Ohio's #1 @JohnDeere dealership on board with us this weekend! Give @jdequipmentinc a follow! pic.twitter.com/aQ4oryNt2g
— Zach Veach (@ZachVeach) July 28, 2016
The grid is reduced to a season-low 12 cars beyond the top half of the field, with the temporary absence of Felix Rosenqvist and the perhaps longer one of Juan Piedrahita after Toronto.
Rosenqvist is racing with past Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier (2012) and Renger van der Zande in a Mercedes AMG GT3 at the Spa 24 Hours and Belardi is down to one car.
Meanwhile Team Pelfrey, the winning entrant here last year as 8Star, is down to just Garett Grist. Still though, the talented driver out of Grimsby, Ontario is something of a Mid-Ohio specialist – he has won here in both Pro Mazda and USF2000 previously and has five Mid-Ohio poles, including both at Mid-Ohio last year. TSO would not be surprised to see Grist secure his first top-five, or perhaps his first podium, in Indy Lights in one of the two races here this weekend.
TSO thinks we could see the second Belardi car back this year with Rosenqvist, who starred in testing an IndyCar for Target Chip Ganassi Racing last week, but it remains to be seen whether the second Pelfrey car comes back.
Andretti’s other two drivers, Shelby Blackstock and Dalton Kellett, are both hugely experienced at Mid-Ohio and enter this weekend on the heels of being announced to test an Andretti IndyCar next month at Watkins Glen (along with Stoneman).
Neil Alberico is also hugely experienced and a past Mid-Ohio winner for Carlin; it’s only Andre Negrao of Schmidt Peterson who’s down on Mid-Ohio experience by comparison. But the talented young Brazilian has scored podiums at both Road America and Toronto and could be poised to do likewise again this weekend.
Practice 1 Recap:
Times dropped as the 30-minute opening practice, run from 9:15 to 9:45 a.m., went on this morning. It makes sense given how much the high grip, 2.258-mile road course rubbers in over the course of a session.
By the end of it, Santiago Urrutia – who won one of the two Pro Mazda races here last year – was the top car as the only driver in the 1:11 bracket at 1:11.953 in the Soul Red No. 55 Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Schmidt Peterson.
Shelby Blackstock, who traditionally runs well at Mid-Ohio and scored his first career Indy Lights podium here a year ago, was second in the session in his No. 51 Starstruck entry for Andretti Autosport. He was lowest in the 1:12s at 1:12.177.
Felix Serralles, Kyle Kaiser and Andre Negrao completed the top five in the first practice.
As for the other championship contenders? Points leader Ed Jones was only sixth, with Dean Stoneman in eighth.
Zach Veach later tweeted he had a turbo issue.
Turbo issue this morning! I know our car is quick though; next practice is around 3pm
— Zach Veach (@ZachVeach) July 29, 2016
Times are below:
|11||13||Zachary Claman De Melo||1:13.510||1.5566||19|
Practice 2 Recap:
We’d offer a practice two recap except for one slight problem: it didn’t happen.
Heavy rains that came down during the tail end of second IndyCar practice continued into the scheduled second Indy Lights session of the day, which was supposed to run from 3:30 to 4 p.m. ET and local time.
The one thing we did discover on Friday was that the Andretti Autosport team did diagnose the mechanical issue that sidelined Stoneman’s No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda before it even got to run at Toronto’s second race.
The next session for Indy Lights is qualifying, which is scheduled from 7:50 to 8:20 a.m. ET and local time Saturday morning.
If it rains, the grid would be set by points – a situation which occurred at Iowa Speedway earlier this month.
We’ll check back in with more tomorrow from the Indy Lights paddock, as they qualify and have their first race.