Although Indy Lights is the closest to IndyCar in speed, it is likely that it will be one of the lower tiers of the Mazda Road to Indy that gets closest in media attention this year.
A measly 10-car entry for the Indy Lights season opener at St. Petersburg has brought up serious questions about the championship that has not attracted a 20-car entry since 2009.
Admittedly Pro Mazda looks unlikely to hit 20 cars for this year, but it is the quality of its field that has got people talking. As with USF2000, there are many unknowns but as if often the case a star driver will likely emerge.
Watkins Glen disappears from this year’s calendar, what with the lack of an IndyCar race there, with a return to Portland International Raceway taking its place as the season finale for all three of the MRTI championships.
The Freedom 90 and Freedom 75 races at Lucas Oil Raceway for Pro Mazda and USF2000 also make a return, having sat out last year, although there are calls from within MRTI organisational body Anderson Promotions to bring the lower categories to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval eventually.
Colton Herta doesn’t need to win the 2018 Indy Lights title, but it would do him no harm. The 17-year-old was rapid in his his first season back in America last year, after two successful ones in Europe, winning two races and leading the Indy Lights championship in the first half of the season.
A mechanical issue at Indianapolis marked the beginning of the end of his title challenge, and after taking three podiums in the first four races, the Andretti Steinbrenner racing driver only took four more in the remaining 12.
Herta now has experience on all the tracks, bar Portland, which makes its return this year, and has integrated himself into the Andretti line-up to the point where he was one of its chosen drivers for the Formula E rookie test in Marrakesh in January.
He’s also the son of IndyCar team owner Bryan Herta, who won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon, and who currently fields a joint car with Andretti. Marco Andretti occupies the seat for this year, but the under-performing American has only won twice in 203 starts, and it may be time in 2019 for another son-of-an-IndyCar icon to make their mark.
Santiago Urrutia has confirmed he’ll be returning with Belardi Auto Racing for a third attempt at the title, but there is a high risk of him finishing runner-up for the third time. Although he has the pace, experience and motivation to take the title, he doesn’t have the career momentum that Herta is riding at the moment.
The Uruguayan is remarkably still only 21 years old, and has finished second in both of his campaigns in Indy Lights. He arguably should’ve won in 2016, and was let down by a weak beginning to the season in 2017 as he tried to gel with Belardi.
Now fully immersed in the team, all Urrutia has to do is find the necessary sponsorship that will carry him to an IndyCar seat. Winning the title on the way would help.
Belardi team-mate Aaron Telitz, five years Urrutia’s senior, may not be a name immediately earmarked for the title, but definitely has the potential to cause an upset.
The 2016 Pro Mazda champion bookended last season with victories, but only visited the podium twice inbetween, and could’ve been challenging team-mate Urrutia for second in the standings had he finished in the top 10 more frequently.
He was faster than Urrutia in the pre-season Homestead test, until the Uruguayan’s last-minute lap, and has the stability for the first time in his car-racing career of staying with the same for more than a year. He worked well with Urrutia last year to secure Belardi the team title, which they will be expected to repeat again, so it’s a case of whether the American can add a drivers’ championship.
It’s difficult to say just how well the three drivers signed to the main Andretti team (as opposed to the Andretti Steinbrenner banner that Herta races under) will do this season, but they certainly have the potential to get race wins, and possibly compete for the title.
Leading the line-up is?Patricio O’Ward. The Mexican contested the opening two events last year with Team Pelfrey, but did not have the budget to continue and switched to IMSA where he won the Prototype Challenge title.
His record on the MRTI ladder is just as strong, with seven wins in his two seasons in Pro Mazda. He lost out on the 2016 title to Telitz, and had he won it, he would’ve contested the full Indy Lights season last year.
His four race stint in 2017 with long-time partner Pelfrey did include a podium and a front row start prior to his fastest time being taken away for crashing, and he undoubtedly would’ve won a race had he remained in the category.
O’Ward was third fastest in the pre-season Homestead test, and although he did not start working with Andretti until the winter, his immediate success in a prototype car suggests he should find no issue in moving to a new environment.
Ryan Norman?and?Dalton Kellett?remain in the other two cars off the back of their 11th and 12th placed finishes in the standings last year. Kellett took podiums on two of three ovals the championship visited, and should be considered one of the favourites for Freedom 100 victory this year.
Juncos Racing’s all-Latin American line-up of Alfonso Celis Jr, Nicolas Dapero and Victor Franzoni has a variety of experience and success, but there is little to say that this year’s combination will match the success achieved last year with Kyle Kaiser.
Franzoni is undoubtedly talented, as shown by his astonishingly good Pro Mazda title-winning season, but there are others with just as much talent, and more experience. The Brazilian has the ability to throw up some surprises, and equalling fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist’s achievements from his single season in Indy Lights last year would be a good target to set.
There are still question marks about Celis, despite the Mexican being a former Formula 1 test driver and leader of the World Series Formula V8 3.5 standings.
He has only won one race during his time in single-seaters, admittedly a FV8 3.5 one at Spa-Francorchamps, and occasionally looked out of his depth when driving Force India’s F1 cars.
Moving to Indy Lights seems to have inspired the Mexican, but expect nothing more than a few opportunistic podiums.
Dapero, like Celis, has never really set the world alight, but improved a lot during his first season in Indy Lights last year, and should be on for more top five finishes after getting his first at Gateway late last season. Only Franzoni is on the entry list for St. Petersburg, with a second car that has not yet been attributed to a driver.
Team Pelfrey has announced two drivers for St. Petersburg, with one,?Neil Alberico, yet to sign for the rest of the season.
Alberico showed great promise in the lower two tiers, finishing second in both, but has failed to match that potential in his two seasons in Indy Lights with Carlin. A change of scenery may do the job, and help the 25-year-old add to his two podiums from last year.
Shelby Blackstock?occupies the other car, and will be racing the whole year. He’s been similarly unsuccessful in Indy Lights so far though.
There are three mega exciting drivers in Pro Mazda this year, and all three are championship rookies.
In the Cape Motorsports camp is Oliver Askew, the reigning USF2000 champion. On the opposite side is old rival Rinus VeeKay, who lines up with Juncos Racing.
Then there’s the underdog. A potentially misleading term for a team and driver that have broken records in Europe, but there is a huge unknown surrounding the Harrison Scott and RP Motorsport package.
Askew has been the beneficiary of an MRTI scholarship for the last two years, having won the inaugural MRTI Shootout in 2016 prior to last year’s USF2000 triumph.
He’s picked top Pro Mazda team Cape, who he drove for in USF2000, for his graduation to the next tier, and his level of comfort will be boosted even further by the fact that the new Pro Mazda car is based on the Tatuus USF-17 that he has spent a year racing in.
VeeKay also has this advantage, but he has switched from Pabst Racing Services to Juncos Racing, meaning he’ll have to get used to a new method of working, what with the differences between how teams operate.
Juncos ran Franzoni to the title in 2017 though, so it may not be a disadvantage after all.
Both Askew and VeeKay?struggled during testing at Homestead, and it was actually Scott who set the best time out of the trio.
The Englishman has never raced in America, but is the reigning Euroformula Open champion, as is RP Motorsport, and the partnership has everything in place to succeed in Pro Mazda this year.
Having dominated EF Open, Scott was then selected as a finalist for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, a testament to his ability on the track, while RP announced its expansion into America early enough that it could get some substantial planning and research done in the off-season.
RP will be starting on the back foot experience-wise, but Carlin has already proved what’s possible from crossing the Atlantic, and did so with an EF Open champion in Ed Jones.
Other drivers to look out for include Juncos’s second star signing?Carlos Cunha, who topped the Homestead test and finished third behind the dominant Franzoni and Anthony Martin in the standings last year, and?Nikita Lastochkin, two places behind Cunha in the championship and now team-mate to Askew at Cape.
Their switch in teams will likely dictate where they finish in the standings, and remarkably neither have won a race on the MRTI ladder before.
The only other returnee is?Sting Ray Robb (Team Pelfrey), who finished sixth last year but rarely threatened the podium.
Joining Askew and VeeKay as exciting USF2000 graduates are?Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport),?Robert Megennis (Juncos) and?David Malukas?(BN Racing).
It’s difficult to pick out who will win the 2018 USF2000 title, with no returning race-winners, although it does look like there will be 20 cars on the grid in St. Petersburg.
Kaylen Frederick?[pictured above] leads the charge for the returnees, having finished fourth last year with Team Pelfrey. He’s driving for Pabst this year, and is aiming for nothing less than the title.
Unfortunately for him, the two other top drivers left from the 2017 grid, 2016-17 NACAM Formula 4 champion?Calvin Ming?[pictured below] and?Lucas Kohl,?have remained at the team, and will have a head start on Frederick operationally speaking.
It was none of these drivers who topped the opening Homestead test though, with reigning US F4 champion?Kyle Kirkwood setting the pace for Cape Motorsports.
The 19-year-old is already experienced in single-seaters, and seems to have adapted immediately to the USF-17. He’s also assisted by the fact that he’s already established a successful partnership with Cape, having won the US F4 title with the team.
MRTI Shootout winner?Keith Donegan?was in the lower half of the order at Homestead, but for a relatively inexperienced racer new to America, it wasn’t enough to immediately rule out the Irishman from being a threat at the front this year.
Kory Enders?(DEForce Racing),?Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), and?Colin Kaminsky?(DEForce)?are some of many returnees who may impress, but there’s nothing to suggest that any of the quartet will be title challengers.
The late signing of British F4 champion?Jamie Caroline?to BN Racing has meant there is another likely frontrunner, although the 18-year-old’s task of going to St. Petersburg without any experience of the car, let alone the tracks, means he will be on the back foot, and will find it difficult to put a title challenge together.
The MRTI Shootout will take place for a third time this season, and there are already several drivers who have positioned themselves as candidates for a future as a Mazda driver.
Last year’s Australian Formula Ford runner-up?Cameron Shields is favourite for this year’s title, having dovetailed last year’s commitments with a successful campaign in the Australian F4 championship, while his New Zealand equivalent has already booked his place in the Shootout, on the basis of winning the 2017-18 NZ FFord title. Callum Hedge is only 14-years-old, but his predecessor Liam Lawson, who is close to a Van Amersfoort Racing ADAC F4 drive, was just 15 when he contested the Shootout last year, and was the fastest of all the drivers there.
There are several places up for grabs for British championships and trophies, but the age restriction on Shootout places means that the best drivers may not be heading to America. While?FF1600 legend?Joey Foster is odds-on to win the BRSCC National championship (British FF1600 in all but name) in his first full season in the championship, it will be one of his younger rivals that will take the MRTI ticket, such as?Josh Smith?or?Ross Martin.
Reigning champion?Niall Murray isn’t returning to Northern Irish FF1600 as a driver, but he will be coaching?Matt Round-Garrido, who is favourite to succeed him as champion. Jordan Gronkowski?has set himself up nicely to take the Scottish title after Martin and team-mate?Sebastian Melrose?switched to the National championship, but watch for youngster?James Clarke?to take the MRTI ticket.
Konrad Czaczyk, current holder of the Canada-based Formula Tour 1600 title, looks unlikely to have the budget to race this year, meaning 2017 rival?Jacob Astren starts as favourite.?The regional Toyo Tires F1600 championship has lost its 2017 champion?Ben Hirst?to British F3, and?Danby Crowder, the most likely 2018 champion, is far too old for the Shootout, so it remains to be seen who could claim that ticket.
The NACAM F4 championship has recently made headlines due to the achievements of Alexandra Mohnhaupt, and the Mexican may well become the first female Shootout contestant.
South African F1600 is one of the new for 2018 feeder championships, although 2017 champion?Julian van der Watt?has already secured a USF2000 drive with Team Pelfrey for this season.?Stuwie White?finished in the runner-up spot last year, and recently lost out to Caio Collet in the Winfield Trophy. The 16-year-old also finished eighth in French F4 in 2017, and is one of the most exciting prospects on the African continent right now. An early favourite for Shootout victory.
Other feeder series include the American categories Formula Car Challenge, F2000 Championship Series,?F1600 Championship Series and the SSCA National Championship Runoffs (Formula Enterprise class) as well as Brazil’s Seletiva de Kart Petrobras karting event, the Mexico-based Formula Panam, and India’s MRF F1600, which is already underway.