By Steve Wittich
Over the course of four days between February 27, 2017 and March 2, 2017, the three levels of the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire ladder will take to the 1.5-mile oval (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire only) and 2.21-mile, 14-turn road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first and only official test before the season kicks off with Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda practice on Thursday, March 9, 2017 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
TSO Ladder will have full on-site, in-depth coverage of the four day test.
Here are two questions for each series that we hope to have answers for by the time the roar of the Mazda engines go silent on Thursday afternoon.
Two questions, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire edition.
1) It is only testing, can we learn anything about who will be in championship contention for the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship when the series heads to Watkins Glen International in six months?
The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire series conducted an official two-day test on the 2.21-mile, 14-turn road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of January in 2016.
That test was led by Belardi Auto Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, who’s quickest lap time of 1:14.4371 topped the swiftest laps turned by Santiago Urrutia, and Ed Jones by less than one-tenth of a second. Those three drivers combined to win half of the 18 races in 2016, and Jones and Urrutia battled for the title until the very last lap during the finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September.
While it’s not guaranteed that the drivers who end the test on top of the timesheet on Thursday evening will be in championship contention come Labor Day weekend, it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the speediest drivers dueling it out for the scholarship to end the season.
2) Who is the first driver to assert themselves among the rookies and the veterans?
The 14 entries for the season’s first official test is split evenly among seven veteran drivers and seven rookie drivers.
If the past two seasons of Indy Lights competition are any indication of what fans will see in 2017, expect to see rookies and veterans battling for wins and the championship from the drop of the green flag in St. Petersburg in two weeks. But, first the veterans and rookies must sort out who amongst themselves will be fighting at the pointy end of the field.
Past results would lead one to believe that the battle to be the top veteran would be between Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Santiago Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), a pair of 20 year-olds, who have stood on the top step of the podium a total of six times between them.
But, it wouldn’t be wise to count out a jump in performance from Neil Alberico (Carlin), Shelby Blackstock (Belardi Auto Racing), Zachary Claman DeMelo (Carlin), Dalton Kellett (Andretti Autosport), or Juan Piedrahita (Team Pelfrey). All five drivers have shown they have the pace to be on the podium. Could one of them be this year’s surprise?
If the first two seasons of IL-15 completion are any indication, don’t be surprised to see 2016 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire champion Aaron Telitz (team TBA) fighting for wins and the championship. In 2015, Spencer Pigot won back-to-back championships, and last year, 2017 Pro Mazda champ Santiago Urrutia battled with Ed Jones for the crown.
Looking strictly at past racing resumes, one would could conclude that 2016 BRDC British Formula 3 Champion Matheus Leist (Carlin), 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda champion Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), and five time Formula 3 race winner Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing), would be the drivers most likely to challenge Telitz.
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Two questions, the Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire edition?
1) Can anybody touch Team Pelfrey?
The Indianapolis, Indiana based Team Pelfrey dominated the 2016 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire season by winning 13 of the 16 races, and finishing first and second in the championship.
The two day test at Homestead-Miami Speedway will serve as an exit-poll for the 2017 season, to see if World Speed Motorsports or Cape Motorsports will have anything for the black and yellow Mazda Renesis powered machines of Team Pelfrey.
2) Who emerges as the team leader at Team Pelfrey?
TJ Fischer, who has the most experience at the wheel of a Pro Mazda car. Nikita Lastochkin, who spent the past two months gaining valuable seat time in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand. Or, will it be Carlos Cunha, a Brazilian who has two years of South American Formula 3 experience under his belt.
Two questions, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda edition
1) With five straight championships, will it be business as usual for the Cape Motorsports, or will the brand new Mazda powered Tatuus USF-17 shake things up?
Matthew Brabham, Scott Hargrove, Florian Latorre, Nico Jamin, and Anthony Martin have brought home five consecutive driver’s championship for the St. Petersburg, Florida based, Dominic and Nicholas owned Cape Motorsports.
However, if the introduction of the new Indy Lights IL-15 taught us anything in 2015, it is that the status quo is certainly not safe when new equipment is introduced. In the decade prior to the introduction of the new Indy Lights car in 2015, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports won the majority of races and six of the ten championships. After the introduction of the IL-15, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports experienced stout competition from Indy Lights main stays Belardi Auto Racing, and newcomers Carlin, and Juncos Racing.
It would be surprising if Cape Motorsports was not near the top of the time sheets at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but don’t be surprised if they have close company from experienced teams like Pabst Racing and Team Pelfrey, and newcomers like Newman Wachs Racing and Exclusive Autosport.
It will likely be apparent by the end of the day which team or teams has gotten an early handle on setting up the USF-17.
2) Is this the year that a rookie can win the title?
Over the past few years, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda championship has become a series dominated by veteran drivers.
The last time a rookie won the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda championship was in 2012 when Matthew Brabham beat his Cape Motorsports teammate Spencer Pigot to the title by a scant seven point margin.
The last time a rookie driver won a Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race was in 2014, when Jake Eidson, Aaron Telitz and Victor Franzoni all won races.
Will highly touted rookies Oliver Askew (Team TBA), Andre Castro (Newman Wachs Racing), Rinus Van Kalmthout (Newman Wachs Racing) and Kyle Kirkwood (Benik) be able to challenge veterans Dakota Dickerson (Newman Wachs Racing), Robert Megennis (Team Pelfrey), Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey), Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport) and Luke Gabin (Exclusive Autosport). Only time will tell, but we should have a good idea of how the rookies stack up by Wednesday evening when the two-day test comes to an end.
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