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Road to Indy season review: How three star champions crowned Mazda’s farewell

by Ida Wood

All photos: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Elliot Wood looks back at the 2018 Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 seasons, the last to run with Mazda Motorsports as the title sponsor.

Four months ago, this author used this exact phrasing in reference to Mazda’s support of IndyCar’s support ladder in an interview with Michelle Kish, the chief operating officer of said support ladder:

Two months later, Mazda announced it would leave its role as title sponsor, and as a result ending its scholarship programme that has brought countless drivers from the first steps of single-seaters to the Indianapolis 500.

Patricio O’Ward will be the last recipient of the $1,000,000 scholarship from Indy Lights to IndyCar, and the fact that he and his Andretti Autosport team-mate Colton Herta have already made their IndyCar debuts is a perfect end to the Mazda era. Pro Mazda and USF2000 also delivered a pair of talented champions equally deserving of their prizes.

Indy Lights

Ahead of the season, Formula Scout said that Colton Herta didn’t need to win the Indy Lights title, but it would do him no harm. That comment turned out to be true, as Herta finished 2018 with an enhanced reputation, despite being beaten to ultimate honours by team-mate Patricio O’Ward.

The biggest grid of the year was achieved in the second race of the St. Petersburg season opener with nine cars, a result of Aaron Telitz failing to start the first race after a hefty crash in the second qualifying session. He still took pole for the first race, and led the standings as a result.

His place at the front of the grid was taken by O’Ward, who romped to a first victory. The Mexican had competed in two rounds in 2017, taking one podium, and was over the moon with victory on his return. Little did he know he would repeat the feat nine times.

O’Ward took the timed pole for the second race, but lost the lead to Herta. He reclaimed it with a strong pass at Turn 4, the first of many through the season, but missed his braking point at the same corner later in the race and found himself stuck down the escape road for a considerable amount of time.

Herta had ended his race in the tyre barriers not long before, leaving two-time Indy Lights runner-up Santiago Urrutia to inherit victory and the championship lead. Fifth and second for Shelby Blackstock, his best result in 52 races, put him third in the standings, but he and Team Pelfrey team-mate Neil Alberico failed to turn up to any of the remaining races.

The first road course event took place at Barber, and it became clear that the title would be an intra-team battle between O’Ward and Herta. The opening race was a microism of the first half of the season season, with O’Ward being the stronger driver in battle to take the lead from poleman Herta on the opening lap. Both worked through their tyres too quickly, with O’Ward being the quicker to do so, and O’Ward spent the latter part of the race holding off his team-mate.

Damp conditions in the second race meant a very different dynamic, where O’Ward regulated the temperatures of his wet tyres to take a five second win from pole over reigning Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni. Herta finished half a minute behind in third, with all other drivers over 70s off the winner. Former Force India tester Alfonso Celis Jr made his only appearance of the season, finishing seventh and eighth for Juncos Racing.

The momentum switched in Herta’s direction during the three race visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where a combination of getting on top of the tyres quicker, and misfortune for O’Ward, meant Herta led the standings after the first seven races. O’Ward edged him in qualifying on the Indianapolis road course, and then a Franzoni tap meant the pair dropped to fourth and fifth at the start of race one.

Herta was the fastest man on track, and although he found difficulty in getting past his team-mate, it took him no time to clear the three remaining drivers to take the lead. O’Ward remained in fourth to the chequered flag.

In race two Herta found himself in fifth at the start again, and after some scrappy battles he moved back up to third, behind leaders Urrutia and O’Ward. After a lock-up allowed Herta into second, he had to find his way past a uber-defensive Urrutia for the second time in two races. After several grassy moments they eventually collided, but Herta was free of blame and he went on to victory.? O’Ward couldn’t capitalise on Urrutia’s demise due to a puncture, leaving Telitz and Franzoni to complete the podium.

Andretti’s Dalton Kellett took the first pole of his car racing career in the Freedom 100, and remained a factor in the race in a thrilling four-car battle. There were 20 lead changes in the 40 lap race, which was decided by a Herta move on Urrutia down the inside of Turn 1 on the final lap.

O’Ward followed Herta through, but got caught in his dirty air, compromising him and leaving him?0.0281s short of victory. Kellett, Urrutia and Ryan Norman were covered by a further 0.03022s. Davey Hamilton Jr finished seventh for Pelfrey, but took fastest lap in his only start of the season.

Herta continued his winning streak at Road America, in which he and O’Ward rose through the field before O’Ward’s tyres dropped off and Herta was left unopposed in the lead. Franzoni took pole and finished third, but made up for it in the second race with an emotional first win, dedicated to close friend and old team-mate Jeff Green who had died the week previous.

A misjudged move by Urrutia on poleman O’Ward handed Franzoni the lead, who then preserved his tyres up front as others squabbled behind. Herta and O’Ward fought an intense battle for second, but once again O’Ward tyres dropped off and he feel to fourth behind Telitz.

The second half of the season belonged to O’Ward, starting with a lights-to-flag win over Herta at the Iowa oval. At Toronto he then reclaimed the championship lead, as Herta suffered a disastrous weekend. A crash in qualifying, shortly after taking pole for race one, fractured his left thumb and made gripping the steering wheel around the bumpy Canadian street circuit a difficulty.

He started race one poorly, and ended up being rear-ended by Urrutia. Somehow his car was undamaged enough to set lap record pace, but the injury took its toll and after taking too much kerb at Turn 5 his race ended in the barriers. This didn’t make life for O’Ward easier, as rain struck during the removal of Herta’s car. A crash for Franzoni, leading him to start and park race two, meant O’Ward took the chequered flag under yellows. Urrutia and Norman completed the podium.

Urrutia took his second win of the season in race two ahead of O’Ward, and with Herta also starting-and-parking, it meant the lead gap grew further. Herta had the opportunity to fight back at Mid-Ohio, but O’Ward was now on top of his tyre struggles and they finished one-two in championship order in both races.

Having taken six poles in his 2017 rookie season, Herta only took three this year, with his last coming at Gateway. He didn’t convert it into victory though, losing the lead to team-mate Norman with five of the 75 laps to go. O’Ward finished a distant third, but enough to be confident of the title going into the Portland season finale.

With the title at stake, O’Ward and Herta put on probably their most exciting battle in the Portland opener, in which O’Ward started from pole. He’d lost the lead by lap five though, and was gapped by Herta. The Mexican fought back, and reclaimed first place with a scintillating lunge into the tight Turn 1. Contact was made, to the frustration of Herta, and the title went in O’Ward’s favour. Franzoni beat Urrutia to third, consigning Urrutia to his worst Indy Lights season.

The eight-car grid, bolstered by Juncos signing Heamin Choi, went hell for leather in the final race of the season and the Mazda era of the Road to Indy, with O’Ward winning a race that started with the field nearly going seven wide into Turn 1. It didn’t work out, with Norman being eliminated and Kellett losing three laps to repairs. Herta and Franzoni had to make a trip to the pits but remained on the lead lap.

The race out front was between Urrutia, O’Ward and Telitz, with typically aggressive defending from Urrutia keeping him in the lead. A brilliant dummy move put O’Ward ahead eventually, and a Urrutia mistake meant Telitz took second, his best result of 2018. Herta narrowly missed out on the podium in fourth, but like O’Ward has a full-time IndyCar drive to look forward to for next year.

Championship Standings
1 Patricio O’Ward?Andretti Autosport?491pts (9 wins, 9 poles, 4 fastest laps)
2 Colton Herta?Andretti Steinbrenner Racing?447pts (4 wins, 3 poles, 7 fastest laps)
3 Santiago Urrutia?Belardi Auto Racing 395pts (2 wins, 1 pole)
4 Ryan Norman?Andretti Autosport 345pts (1 win, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap)
5 Victor Franzoni?Juncos Racing?341pts (1 win, 1 pole, 3 fastest laps)

Pro Mazda

Rinus Veekay

The biggest story of Pro Mazda this year was the new Taatus PM-18 car, which shares the same platform as USF2000’s car. This benefited those making the step up, who locked out the top five places in the standings.

Dutchman Rinus VeeKay took the title, taking three double wins for Juncos Racing and another win at Gateway. Although he controlled the St. Petersburg season opener, it did not look like the championship would be his in the first half of the season as Canadian Parker Thompson took the initiative.

The Exclusive Autosport driver took his first win in the Barber opener, holding off Euroformula Open champion Harrison Scott, who had moved to America along with Italy’s RP Motorsport. The positions were reversed in the second race, which took place in changing conditions. VeeKay finished fifth and fourth.

Scott made it two in a row at IMS, with reigning USF2000 champion Oliver Askew taking his first podium in second and 2017 title rival VeeKay returning to it in third. Thompson had an engine failure prior to qualifying, but quick repair work meant he could qualify, and he rose from 11th on the grid to finish fifth.

A crash he had no fault in ruined VeeKay’s chances in the second IMS race, in which Scott also suffered, retiring from the lead due to mechanical issues. Thompson picked up the pieces, coming through from sixth to win. He?won again at Lucas Oil Raceway, heading Juncos’s second-year driver Carlos Cunha. The Brazilian moved into second in the standings as a result, with fourth place for VeeKay putting him 37 points back.

The title contenders took a back seat at Road America, with Thompson extending the lead further, as BN Racing dominated with David Malukas and Lamborghini factory driver Toby Sowery. Malukas won both races, his and the team’s first in car racing, with Sowery just behind.

VeeKay got his title challenge back on track at Toronto. In race one he took just his fourth appearance on the podium in 10 races, but from then on he was never off it. The first of his two Toronto wins was overshadowed by a monumental crash for Scott, who was forced to miss the next round at Mid-Ohio. Retirement for Thompson in the Toronto opener wasn’t too costly as he still got the points for eighth place, but that was also where he finished two laps down in the second race, seeing his championship lead shrink to seven points as VeeKay took a dominant win.

At Mid-Ohio the domination continued with two more wins, and the points lead, as Thompson struggled to an anonymous fifth and sixth. Considering their respective pace at LOR, Thompson was expected to bounce back at the Gateway oval, but a failure to set a qualifying time meant he started from the back and could only recover to sixth, as VeeKay took win number seven. Scott took pole on his return and finished third, but would be absent again for the season finale.

With pole for both races, VeeKay only had to start one of them at Portland to win the title, and he did so with second to Askew in the penultimate encounter. The Cape Motorsports had struggled at the start of the year for overall race pace, and finally took a win to add to his three poles. Thompson finished third, and had an even worse final race when a first lap puncture meant he could finish no better than fifth.

Malukas was the winner, and presumably the last ever under the championship’s current name, with VeeKay holding off Askew for second.

Drivers that missed out on victory but nevertheless impressed were Robert Megennis, whose six podium appearances was only bettered by team-mate VeeKay. Cunha also stood on the podium several times before leaving after Mid-Ohio, and Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb showed good pace throughout the season, although only saw the podium once.

Championship Standings
1 Rinus VeeKay?Juncos Racing?412pts (7 wins, 6 poles, 3 fastest laps)
2 Parker Thompson Exclusive Autosport 345pts (3 wins, 3 poles, 5 fastest laps)
3 Oliver Askew?Cape Motorsports?303pts (1 win, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps)
4 David Malukas?BN Racing 293pts (3 wins, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps)
5?Robert Megennis?Juncos Racing?269pts (1 fastest lap)

USF2000

There was only one driver who beat Kyle Kirkwood in a race this season, and as he only completed half a season, it meant the location of the title was never in doubt.

Kirkwood followed his 2017 United States Formula 4 crown with a record-equalling USF2000 season, winning 12 times.

DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra actually took the first pole of the season, but lost the lead immediately to Kirkwood, and also lost a place to British F4 champion Jamie Caroline before the latter crashed out. Alex Baron, a former winner in Indy Lights, dominated the second race at St. Petersburg, having retired from the first.

The pair shared the wins again at IMS. In each race they finished second to each other, and left split by 13 points at the top of the standings. Baron’s title challenge extinguished itself in the series’ only oval race at LOR, as the Frenchman crashed out and Kirkwood took a second win in a row.

Swan-RJB Motorsports driver Baron finished seventh twice next time out at Road America, with Kirkwood taking his first weekend lockout and extending his lead to 94 points. Such was the strength of the opposition, the next best driver had an average finishing position of 9.86 at this point. The driver in question was Pabst Racing’s second year driver Kaylen Frederick, who ended the year down in sixth.

At Toronto it was Kirkwood who was once again in control, and now with no Baron to worry about. Successor as US F4 champion Dakota Dickerson and Igor Fraga finished second to him in the two races, with Frederick rising up to second in the standings, 131 points behind the leader. He’d improved his average finishing position to 8.88, but Kirkwood’s was at an incredible 1.55.

A triple-header at Mid-Ohio followed, and Kirkwood clinched the title in the first race. Pabst had a mixed race, with Frederick and team-mate Rasmus Lindh colliding on the first lap, but team-mates Lucas Kohl and Calvin Ming taking second and third. The Pabst quartet spent the rest of the season squabbling over second as Kirkwood continued his winning run, which extended into Formula 3 Americas.

Kohl won the battle in the second Mid-Ohio race, with fastest laps meaning DEForce’s James Raven beat Lindh to second in the final race. Ming completed the feat in the Portland opener, with Lindh doing the job again in the season closer, which also marked Kirkwood equalling J.R. Hildebrand’s 12 victory season record.

Lindh’s three poles, three fastest laps and five podiums helped him to second in the standings ahead of team-mate Kohl. An average finishing position of 7.57 was a far distance from Kirkwood, who improved his to a scarcely believable 1.36. The combined tally of Lindh and Kohl results only surpassed Kirkwood by 13 points.

Fraga took fourth in the standings for Exclusive Autosport, only two points behind Kohl, and seven ahead of Ming. South African Julian Van der Watt led Pelfrey’s line-up in seventh, and took his first podium in the final race of the year. Kory Enders (DEForce) finished eighth, ahead of 2017 MRTI Scholarschip winner Keith Donegan (ArmsUp Motorsports and BN Racing) and Colin Kaminsky (DEForce), who ended a race in the top five only once.

Championship Standings
1 Kyle Kirkwood?Cape Motorsports 440pts (12 wins, 5 poles, 6 fastest laps)
2 Rasmus Lindh?Pabst Racing Services?238pts (3 poles, 3 fastest laps)
3 Lucas Kohl Pabst Racing Services?215pts
4 Igor Fraga?Exclusive Autosport?213pts
5 Calvin Ming Pabst Racing Services 206pts

Further reading
Who to watch: 2018 Mazda Road to Indy
How Scott and Caroline broke into the American spotlight
In Conversation: Michelle Kish, Mazda Road to Indy COO
How Franzoni overcame tragedy to become Indy Lights? latest winner
Patricio O?Ward: The next Indy 500 & Le Mans winner?