2017 was the eighth year of the Mazda Road to Indy, and arguably its most successful, as Josef Newgarden became its first graduate to become IndyCar champion.
It is one of the best schemes in the world of sport at bringing competitors from lower categories to the top.
Entrants are competing on the support bill of the IndyCar series, the peak of American single-seaters, and can mingle in the paddock with established stars Scott Dixon, Will Power and 2017 champion Newgarden.
In only a few sports do the feeder categories use the same venues as the top tier, and in even fewer does that happen in front of the very sportspeople and teams they intend to emulate.
The MRTI also emulates several American sports by guaranteeing seats in the tier above to the best driver in the tier below. Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 hand their champions scholarships in the $100,000s, and ensure that there is a seat in the Indianapolis 500 available to the Indy Lights champion.
Without such financial assistance, the likes of Newgarden, Spencer Pigot, Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier may not have made it to IndyCar, and made such an impact.
The action in the three support categories this year provided frequent excitement, with USF2000 champion Oliver Askew instantly validating the introduction of the new Shootout tier, which was introduced in 2016 and had Askew as its inaugural winner.
Two of last year’s Indy Lights racers are confirmed entrants in IndyCar this season, including champion Kyle Kaiser, and Colton Herta has tested with the Andretti Formula E team and has recently become a BMW junior driver.
The 2017 Indy Lights title fight may have ended in a slightly uninspiring fashion, but the 15 races before that provided plenty of action and some star drives.
St. Petersburg held the season opener, and it looked like it would be a season for rookies after Pro Mazda graduates Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) and Patricio O’Ward (Team Pelfrey) went fastest in qualifying.
O’Ward then crashed, leading to a red flag, meaning his fastest time was removed and third-year driver Kyle Kaiser was promoted to the front row.
The race, with the debut of Indy Light’s own ‘push-to-pass’ system, did go to reigning Pro Mazda champion Telitz, but second place was available to anyone who wanted it in the 35 lap race.
A missed braking point by Juan Piedrahita at the first turn immediately reshuffled the order, with Carlin’s Matheus Leist, the 2016 BRDC British Formula 3 champion, and Neil Alberico coming out in second and third. The driver that used his push-to-pass to perfection to end the race in second, having come out of the opening lap melee in sixth, would be the star of the early part of the season: Colton Herta.
The then 16-year-old Andretti Steinbrenner driver went one better and won the second race, breaking the record for the youngest ever winner, and set down the foundations for a title challenge.
Herta started his car racing career on the MRTI ladder in USF2000 as a 14-year-old?in 2014, but a lack of results led to him switching to Europe, where has gone up against and beaten the likes of Lando Norris and Dan Ticktum. For 2017 he returned to America, stepping straight into Indy Lights, and with the aim of taking wins straight away.
He was proven right at St. Pete, and repeated the feat in the second Barber Motorsports Park race, extending his championship lead. His immense pace continued to be on show for the rest of the season, including four pole positions, but he only graced the podium again on four occasions.
Nico Jamin accompanied Herta as an early-season star and rookie race-winner by winning the first race at Barber, and the Frenchman took pole for the first Indianapolis road course race too.
Jamin won that race, while Herta’s early-season momentum deserted him, as a puncture led to a pitstop and a 12th place finish.
He still led the standings, but in reality this marked the end of his title ambitions. His best finish over the next three races would be 10th, undermined by mechanical woes and clashes. He did turn it around at the end of the season, finishing third twice and second once, and is favourite to win the 2018 title.
Kaiser took control of the championship from this point onwards, as he took his first win of the season in the second Indianapolis race.
Oval rookie Leist controlled the Freedom 100 though, held on the hallowed IMS oval, and demonstrated the style of driving that made him the man to watch on ovals throughout the year, and what earned him an AJ Foyt IndyCar seat for this year.
The Freedom 100 tends to go down to a photo finish, and so for a Brazilian teenager with no oval experience nor knowledge of the American style of racing to dominate set a huge impression in the IndyCar paddock. At Iowa and Gateway he demonstrated the same level of performance; often running multiple lanes higher than any other driver to achieve maximum cornering speeds.
Leist made it two wins in a row after his IMS victory by triumphing at Road America, but his results on road and street courses, especially in the latter half of the season, meant he was unable to put a title challenge together. Nevertheless, he’ll be sitting on the IndyCar grid in just over a month’s time, with 2004 champion and countryman Tony Kanaan at his side, while may of his 2017 rivals are still looking for Indy Lights drives.
Kaiser struggled to ninth in the Freedom 100, but actually extended his championship lead over Jamin, who finished 10th.
He then finished third in the first Road America race, just behind Santiago Urrutia, the 2016 championship runner-up. His points lead grew further however with second in race two, as?Zachary Claman DeMelo took his first ever win.
The 19-year-old Canadian took a step forward in his second season in Lights driving for Carlin, and after going on to make his IndyCar debut before the end of the year, is set to be confirmed in the coming days at Dale Coyne Racing, albeit in seat share with World Series Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi.
Another oval meant another win for Leist at Iowa Speedway, despite starting the race down in 10th, with Urrutia finishing second and moving himself into the title battle.
The Uruguayan arguably lost the 2016 Indy Lights title through team tactics alone, and his inability to afford an IndyCar seat meant he returned for a second season in Lights, this time with former rivals Belardi Auto Racing.
The partnership didn’t immediately thrive, despite visiting the podium on two of three circuits visited at the beginning of the season, but Urrutia’s determination meant that in the second half of the year he emerged as Kaiser’s greatest rival.
Kaiser would prove difficult to beat though, as proven when the Juncos Racing driver won both races at Toronto, although Herta could’ve taken the second had he not had a brush with the barriers. Urrutia and Telitz got a podium each, but neither were as consistent as DeMelo, who finished on the podium on both days.
The Kyle Kaiser that turned up to Mid-Ohio was completely different to the one in Canada, and an ill-handling Juncos car and a failed pass on Piedrahita left him with two 12th places. Having done the double in 2016, Urrutia was predictably the man to beat, and he took his first victory of the season in the first race.
He was second in race two to Jamin (the Frenchman also carrying across an impressive record around the circuit from his time in the lower categories) and Kaiser’s championship lead was reduced to 42 points over Urrutia, with 66 available.
At Gateway, Urrutia beat surprise pace-setter Piedrahita to victory, but with Kaiser finishing fourth, he only needed to start the final race to secure the title.
The Watkins Glen title decider occurred in torrential rain, and became a case of who had the ability to keep their car on track.
Telitz did the best job, moving past pole-sitter Herta on lap two, then managing the pace to the flag. Urrutia and Herta fought over second in Telitz’s spray, with Herta also fighting against his own mishandling car.
Newly crowned champion Kaiser was seventh, but only through the misfortune of others was he able to finish in the top 10. He initially ran 12th of the 13 cars that ran, and after a lap-six spin continued to haemorrhage time to those ahead.
He will remain with Juncos for his 2018 IndyCar programme, which will begin at the second round at Phoenix.
Urrutia has continued to test in an Indy Lights car, and may return for a third attempt at the title he so richly deserves, as it looks unlikely he will get an IndyCar seat, a drive he deserves even more.
1 Kyle Kaiser Juncos Racing 330pts (3 wins, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps)
2 Santiago Urrutia Belardi Auto Racing 310pts (2 wins, 1 pole, 3 fastest laps)
3 Colton Herta?Andretti Steinbrenner Racing 300pts (2 wins, 6 poles, 3 fastest laps)
4 Matheus Leist Carlin 279pts (3 wins, 2 poles, 1 fastest lap)
5 Zachary Claman DeMelo Carlin 274pts (1 win, 3 fastest laps)
Last year’s Pro Mazda championship was the last for the rotary-engined Star Mazda chassis, and it received a proper send off at the hands of Victor Franzoni and Anthony Martin.
Martin beat Franzoni to the USF2000 title in 2016, and although the latter took the spoils in 2017, he was denied the rookie crown as he has raced in Pro Mazda in the past.
The pair had total control of the top step, and there were only two races where they did not finish one-two.
Martin was the first to strike, winning both races at St. Petersburg. Franzoni struck back at Indianapolis, and showed why he would go on to be the champion.
In qualifying he was almost half a second up on Team Pelfrey’s TJ Fischer in second place, but threw that advantage away with a poor start.
He took five laps to move from third back to first, with no help from poor start benefactor Martin, and then pulled away to take his first ever Pro Mazda win by five seconds.
If the first race looked dominant, then the second was peerless, as the Brazilian won by 13 seconds, which he attributed to his “unbelievable machine”.
Martin simply did not have the pace to match, finishing fourth on merit, and conceding 14 points to Franzoni: more than three quarters of the final gap between the pair in the standings.
They got a win each at Road America, although it was very nearly a Franzoni double once again.
He took the win, pole and fastest lap in the first race, but started from the back for the second after a red flag in qualifying prevented him from setting a representative time.
In four laps he moved from 15th to third, and when Fischer encountered engine problems he only had Martin to get past. The Australian held on by less than two tenths of a second, but conceded another point to the Brazilian in the standings over the weekend.
At Mid-Ohio, Martin struck back by winning two of the three races, enough to put him back in the lead of the championship.
It was only a slender lead though, and three wins for Franzoni in the final three races, coupled with Martin only finishing third in the Watkins Glen curtain closer, meant the Juncos Racing driver won the title and received the?$790,300 scholarship towards a season in Indy Lights.
Team Pelfrey trio Carlos Cunha, Fisscher and Nikita Lastochkin followed the top two in the standings, with Cunha being the only driver to beat Franzoni and Martin in qualifying after taking pole at Mid-Ohio. The Brazilian will move to Juncos for his second year in the championship.
2018 will be a big year for Pro Mazda, with the introduction of the new Tatuus PM-18 car and the arrival of crack Euroformula Open team RP Motorsport. Nine seats on the grid have already been filled, including 2017 EF Open champion Harrison Scott, who will be making the switch to America.
1 Victor Franzoni Juncos Racing 351pts (7 wins, 5 poles, 7 fastest laps)
2 Anthony Martin Cape Motorsports 333pts (5 wins, 4 poles, 6 fastest laps)
3 Carlos Cunha Team Pelfrey 237pts (1 pole)
4 TJ Fischer Team Pelfrey 224pts (1 fastest lap)
5?Nikita Lastochkin Team Pelfrey 203pts
The best thing about the rivalry between Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay is that it will continue in Pro Mazda this year.
The American and the Dutchman are highly rated young talents, and both came into 2017 with less than a full season of experience in single-seaters.
Askew’s limited experience did include a runner-up spot in the Walter Hayes Trophy though, and he was the winner of the inaugural MRTI Shootout.
He beat VeeKay in the first six races, winning five of them along the way, while the Pabst Racing Services driver never finished lower than sixth.
VeeKay struck back at Road America with his first win of the season, and cut Askew’s championship lead by a third in the process after the American encountered a mechanical problem.
Loose camber shims on one of Askew’s wheels caused severe vibrations in the first race, and restricted the Cape Motorsports driver to 17th.
A second win of the season for VeeKay in the next race, coupled with Askew finishing third, meant the gap between the pair shrank once again. It was back on the rise though after Askew won at Iowa, and then beat VeeKay in the first Toronto race, which was won by Canadian Parker Thompson.
Thompson beat VeeKay in the second Toronto race, although Askew had been set for the win initially.? He broke the qualifying lap record, but a messy first half of the race meant he dropped to third, and when the top two collided he got caught up in the incident, eventually finishing 12th.
He took back control at Mid-Ohio with another win, but failed to finish on the podium once again in the second race, which went to Thompson. Two podiums for VeeKay meant he went into the Watkins Glen season finale 13 points behind Askew in the standings, the equivalent of an eighth place finish.
Askew extended his lead by taking pole, but had no answer to VeeKay in the race, who passed him on the first lap and went on to win by almost ten seconds, smashing the lap record by five seconds in the process.
Second was enough for Askew to secure the championship though, and means this season’s Pro Mazda drive will be paid for by Mazda. VeeKay, who also finished second in BOSS GP last year in a second-generation GP2 car, has already signed for Juncos Racing for his first season in Pro Mazda, where he hopes to be the one to win the scholarship to Indy Lights.
1 Oliver Askew Cape Motorsports 351pts (7 wins, 8 poles, 7 fastest laps)
2 Rinus VeeKay Pabst Racing Services 344pts (3 wins, 1 pole, 3 fastest laps)
3 Parker Thompson Exclusive Autosport 269pts (3 wins, 3 poles, 1 fastest lap)
4 Kaylen Frederick Team Pelfrey 240pts (2 fastest laps)
5 Calvin Ming Pabst Racing Services 207pts (1 fastest lap)
In 2016, Mazda expanded their effort to support young drivers by creating the MRTI Shootout. The winner of the two day event received a $200,000 scholarship towards a season in USF2000.
Simultaneously, they announced that 18 championships, and a Brazilian MRTI Shootout would become official feeder series to the MRTI ladder, the champions or winners of whom would make up the entrants to the main Shootout.
For 2017 some of these championships lost their status, with new ones replacing them, including the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy.
Formula Ford 1600 star Joey Foster won the Festival, but was too old for the Shootout, handing second place man Keith Donegan the entry ticket. The Irishman went on to win the Shootout.
The WHT was also won by a driver who was ineligible, and ended in controversy. Michael Moyers overtook longtime rival Josh Fisher on the final lap, with Fisher believing Moyers did so while yellow flags were waved. Moyers was cleared of wrongdoing, and the Shootout ticket was handed to Oliver White, who dominated much of the final before being hit out.
The BRSCC National FF1600 title went to Luke Williams, who won seven of the 22 races to beat Neil MacLennan. Former British Formula 4 driver Ross Martin and 2016 Festival and WHT winner Niall Murray won the equivalent titles in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The MSVR SuperSeries doesn’t award points, instead nominating a “Driver of the race” to the best driver under 25 years old in each race. The winners then entered a shootout, which was won by Jamie Thorburn.
Max Videau and Liam Lawson were the FF1600 stars down under, winning the Australian and New Zealand championships respectively. Lawson was only beaten once over the 15 race season, and also won five times in Australian F4. He was also the fastest driver in the 2017 Shootout, and looks set for a successful future.
Matthew Cowley and Jonathan Kotyk fought over the American F1600 Championship Series title, with Englishman Cowley triumphing. Kotyk struck back by beating him in the WHT.
Formula Enterprises, which formerly ran as the National Class in USF2000, was won by Elliot Finlayson, while Carter Williams won the fastest of the Formula Mazda-based Formula Car Challenge?championships.
The Pacific F2000 championship, which includes Indy 500 runner-up and Indy Lights champion J. R. Hildreband as alumni, was won by Canadian Mitch Egner, with his home country’s Formula Tour 1600 title being won by Polish-American Conrad Czaczyk.
Anindith Reddy denied Sandeep Kumar the ultimate honours in MRF F1600, which is also a feeder category to MRF Challenge, but was not invited to the MRTI Shootout.
Mexican Manuel Cabrera won the Formula Panam title, with the Central American championship being joined by FIA F4 NACAM as an MRTI feeder for this year’s Shootout.
How a classic junior formula still has great relevance today