By Steve Wittich

When the eventual quickest driver of the road course portion of spring training, Santi Urrutia, began his final lap just before the checkered came out, all seven drivers were within a scant four-tenths of a second of each other. But thanks to a triple hit of push-to-pass, which feeds the 2.0L turbo-charged Mazda, and addition 50hp, the double Indy Lights vice-champion, ended the test on the 2.21-Mile Homestead-Miami Speedway road course four-tenths of a second ahead of the rest of the field.

“The problem is that I used my push to pass at the end,” explained the Uruguayan who will be back for a third Indy Lights season. “I think the quickest car today was Aaron (Telitz – his Belardi Auto Racing teammate). We’ve worked on set-up for St. Pete. We were pretty good, but we need to fix some problems that we had today. I think that it’s going to be tough this year. Only 10 cars, but all 10 cars can win the championship. If you look at the times today, it’s really tight.”

Santi Urrutia, who will return to Indy Lights for a third season and Belardi Auto Racing for a second season, led the first official road course test of the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

The road course portion of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires spring training on the 2.21-Mile, 14-Turn Homestead-Miami Speedway road course got underway promptly at 9 am, and was scheduled to be split into two sessions, the first running from 9 am – noon, and the second running from 1:30 pm – 5 pm.

However, the first session was interrupted by a light rain shower at 11:15 am. The series and teams opted to break for lunch at that point, and start the final session 45 minutes early at 12:45 pm.

When the shower came to end the shortened session, sophomore Aaron Telitz, who will return to Belardi Auto Racing for a sophomore year, had the quickest lap at 1 minute, 16.4000 seconds. That was only one-hundredth of a second ahead of his 2016 Pro Mazda teammate and title challenger Patricio O’Ward.

However, all seven drivers that took part in the morning session were within a half-second of Telitz.

When the track went back to green, reigning Pro Mazda Champion Victor Franzoni was the first driver on track, and also the first pilot to break the 76-second barrier. He was quickly joined by Santi Urrutia and O”Ward in that category.

Telitz was the next driver out on the track, and after dialing in his car on used tires, he did a sticker tire run to set what ended up being the fourth quickest lap of the day, a lap at 1 minute, 15.045 seconds. At that point, the team decided to pack up for the day, and save the crew, car, and Mazda engine for the opening round of the championship.

“We learned what we needed to learn,” explained the 2016 Pro Mazda champion to TSO Ladder. “And, Homestead is a little hard on tires, so there is no reason to burn through extra tires that you don’t need to burn through. We felt like we tested the items we wanted to test. Things went smooth, and it’s better to keep our Mazda engine fresh for St. Pete, so we just went ahead and called it a day early.

“Basically we’re just confirming things. Obviously, we never race here, and going for an overall fast time is great if you can get the fastest time, that’s awesome. We really rolled off the truck quickly today. Early in the morning, we were quick, and this afternoon we just built on that. I don’t know if it’s super important to be fast here at Homestead, but it’s a good place to get warmed up for the season.”

Aaron Telitz is shaded by an umbrella held by former teammate Shelby Blackstock (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

It wasn’t too long after the Rice Lake Weighing Systems sponsored No. 5 of Telitz was packed away that a pair of Andretti Autosport teammates moved ahead of the sophomore, but not by much. For most of the last half of the afternoon session, the top four drivers were all within one-tenth of second of each other, and spots two through seven on the timesheet ended up being separated by only three-tenths of a second.

Right up until Urrutia threw down the last minute flyer, it was Friday’s quickest driver on the oval, Ryan Norman, that looked like he would duplicate his teammate Colton Herta’s feat from last year, and “win” both rounds of testing.

Ryan Norman and his Andretti Autosport / Journey Mazda just missed out on leading both the oval and road course portion of Indy Lights spring training. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

“I think the confidence is definitely up, especially from last year, said the Aurora, Ohio native. “We’re so much closer now. I was struggling a little bit this morning and after lunch, we hit the reset switch and try to calm down and I ended up coming back.”

O’Ward, who is confirmed for the entire season with Andretti Autosport turned in the third quickest time.

Five of the seven drivers ended the day with lap times below the benchmark of 1 minute, 15.201 seconds set by Herta during testing last year. Somewhat surprisingly, Herta was not one of the drivers to best that lap. He was awfully close though – missing the mark by a mere 0.09 seconds.

Combined Indy Lights timesheet from testing on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

1 5 Santi Urrutia Belardi Auto Racing 01:14.5024 —— 68
2 48 Ryan Norman Andretti Autosport 01:14.9442 -0.4418 81
3 27 Pato O’Ward Andretti Autosport 01:15.0077 -0.5053 91
4 9 Aaron Telitz Belardi Auto Racing 01:15.0453 -0.5406 53
5 23 Victor Franzoni Juncos Racing 01:15.0822 -0.5798 91
6 28 Dalton Kellett Andretti Autosport 01:15.2182 -0.7158 93
7 98 Colton Herta Andretti Steinbrenner Racing 01:15.2947 -0.7923 76

Indy Lights Notebook

  • Newly signed Juncos Racing driver Alfonso Celis, Jr. was scheduled to test today but is having some licensing issues with INDYCAR. They hope to have things sorted out in time for the season-opening race in just under two-weeks. Despite not being in the car, the 21-year-old told TSOLadder that he still had an extremely productive day,  exlpaining “Today was very good. It was very productive. It might have been better than actually driving because I saw the whole picture. Obviously, it’s great to drive, but today I digested everything so much. I know in a test how everything works. I learned everything about the Cooper Tires, and how the team works. If I was driving the car, I would have been less of a sponge. If you’re driving, you’re only thinking about that part. It was very helpful.

Despite not being in the car today, Juncos Racing newcomer Alfonso Celis, Jr. had a productive day learning from Victor Franzoni and the team (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

  • Santi Urrutia has not been officially announced at Belardi Auto Racing, but TSO Ladder was told by the team that the two-time Indy Lights vice-champion has been signed for the entire 2018 campaign. We were also told the team is close to putting together a deal for a familiar face to pilot a third entry for the first event of the year.
  • Andretti Autosport veteran Dalton Kellett is working with former Indy car driver Darren Manning as his driver coach. Manning, who owns the full-service iAdvance Motorsports, will be working with the Canadian driver for the third season. Manning, who made 79 Indy car starts, told TSO that he has seen tremendous growth in the 24-year-old, and he believes this will be his best season of racing yet.
  • Stephen Simpson, who is a full-time driver of the JDC-Miller Motorsports N0.99 Oreca 07 Gibson in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, will be serving as the driver coach for all of the Belardi Auto Racing drivers. Simpson worked solely with Shelby Blackstock last year.
  • George Michael Steinbrenner, the co-owner of Colton Herta’s Andretti Steinbrenner Racing / Curb Mazda No 98 missed the oval portion of testing on Friday because the New York Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers in the opening game of Spring Training. The bad guys (hey, I’m a long time Tigers fan) beat the good guys 3-1 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. If you are headed down to the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a day early, the Yankees will be taking on the Philadelphia Phillies at 1:05 pm.
  • Victor Franzoni, who didn’t have to, hung around the track on Saturday and Sunday coaching the drivers from the Juncos Racing Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire team. He told TSO Ladder: “I enjoy it. I didn’t’ even need to come (to the track). I just came to help them and spend some time with them. It was good to be part of the team and come back to Pro Mazda a little bit.”