A near flawless drive by Santiago Urrutia, who started from pole and led all 30 laps of Saturday’s “sprint” race, gave the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy it’s seventh different winner in 2017. The trip to the top step of the podium is the 20 year-old’s third straight at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course after winning both Indy Lights races in 2017.
Urrutia, who’s win marks the third race in the last four that he’s visited the podium (the fourth, in Toronto, where he had a mechanical issue, would have likely been a podium as well) credited the hard work that he and the Belardi Auto Racing squad have put in since Road America, for the improved pace and results.
“It’s been an up and down season for sure,” explained Urrutia. “The key is that my team has never given up, they have been working so hard and I have been working hard too. We put everything yesterday in qualifying, and today in the race, and I’m happy to back here at the top.”
Championship leader Kyle Kaiser, who started the race in sixth place lost three spots on the first lap, and fought an ill-handing No. 18 Juncos Racing machine all day, eventually finishing a disappointing 12th.
Fortunately for Kaiser, his closest competitor entering the race, Matheus Leist, was only able to was only able to finish one spot ahead of him in 11th. Kaiser, a 21 year-old Californian, held a 51 point lead heading into the race, and starts Sunday’s 38-lap “feature” race with a 49 point lead.
Herta’s stellar drive leap-frogged him over Leist on the points table, and the 17 year-old American is now in second place. Leist remains in third, a single point behind Herta and 50 points behind Kaiser. Race winner Urrutia jumped from 6th to 4th in the points, and starts Sunday’s race 10 points out of second, and 59 points out of the lead.
The front row of Urrutia and Herta brought the two-by-two field slowly through The Carousel (Turn 12) , but when they were in the middle of the final corner(Turn 13) before entering the entering the start zone on the front straight, the starter showed the field the yellow flag to wave off the start.
The 14 Dallaras powered by Mazda turbo-charged 2.0L made their way back around to Thunder Valley where they started paring up for a second attempt to get the first Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Powered by Mazda underway. Once again, race control deemed that the pole sitter was not going the prescribed speed and the start was waved off for the second time.
The third time was the charm, as the field, at a visibly rapider pace, took the green flag and streamed towards Turn 1, and finally began green flag racing on the third of thirty scheduled laps.
Up front, Urrutia was able to hold off Herta to lead the first lap, but the outside front row starter gave up the second spot to his Andretti Autosport teammate Nico Jamin.
As the field steamed under the starter’s stand on that first green flag lap, the top 10 were: Urrutia, Jamin, Herta, Shelby Blackstock, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Neil Alberico, Aaron Telitz, Dalton Kellett, Kyle Kaiser, and Juan Piedrahita
As things settled in, and drivers started to conserve their tires, Herta spent the next four laps hounding fellow rookie Jamin, and on Lap 7 was finally able to get by him on the long run downhill to Turn 4. Despite an ill-handling car and some mechanical issues, the Frenchman held on for his fourth podium of the year, and 26th of his MRTI career.
“I was struggling quite a bit with the car,” explained the 21 year-old. “I don’t think we made the right changes for the conditions, and I had a few power issues as well. I was losing power for three seconds, and then it would come back. That happened 10 or 15 times during the race.”
Herta immediately started to eat into the 2+ second lead that Urrutia had built up at increments of one and two tenths of a second per lap. With the help of push-to-pass, the second generation driver was able to close to within three tenths of a second of the leader, and made an attempt to get by Urrutia in Turn 6, but couldn’t get the pass completed.
“Throughout the race, I had a little understeer, and that got amplified when I got close to Santi,” said Herta. “I had one crack at him, but he drove a good race, and didn’t make any mistakes, so I didn’t really get another good shot.”
Urrutia, and Herta were consistently the quickest cars on track, but not by much. The top five consisting of those two, Jamin, Blackstock and Claman DeMelo were never out of touch, if Urrutia and Herta had an issue. The top five spent the race covered by a scant four or five seconds. Belardi Auto Racing veteran Shelby Blackstock set the quickest lap of race, completing a circuit of the 2.258-mile, 13-Turn natural terrain road course in 62.5798 seconds on his 21st lap of the race.
Neil Alberico, who moved from eighth to sixth, and Dalton Kellett, who moved ninth to seventh, were the two biggest movers of the race.
Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Powered by Mazda race # 1 results
|Zachary Claman De Melo