Monday, February 29, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Look Into the Lights

It is Leap Day! The quadrennial occasion for you to misdate checks as March 1st. Atlanta was a busy hub for motorsports. Jimmie Johnson tied Dale Earnhardt for seventh in NASCAR Cup Series victories. NASCAR keeps proving it can come up with even more absurd rules. The British reign of dominance in World Superbike continues from one of its old colonies. IndyCar tested in Phoenix. Formula One tested in Barcelona. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Look Into the Lights
IndyCar wasn't the only series on track at Phoenix last week. Indy Lights tested on Thursday and the sophomore season for the IL-15 is shaping up to be what we all hoped the freshman season for the chassis would have been. The grid appears to be ballooning to 16 entries and the quality of drivers appear to be at a level we haven't seen in that series in a long time. Today will go through the tentative 2016 Indy Lights grid and preview each driver. Where else would we start but with the defending championship-winning team.

Juncos Racing
Kyle Kaiser: The California-native returns for his second season in Indy Lights. Last year, Kaiser had a tale of two seasons. While he showed speed comparable to his teammate and eventual champion Spencer Pigot, Kaiser had a trend of running into the back of people. After three last-place finishes in the first six, Kaiser settled down and scored five top tens in the final ten races and finished sixth in the championship. If Kaiser can keep up on his consistency from the end of last year, he could win a race or two in 2016.

Zachary Claman DeMelo: The Canadian will be the youngest driver on the grid. DeMelo is 17 years old and won't turn 18 until April 20th. DeMelo comes to Indy Lights after a handful of races in a handful of Formula Renault 2.0 series in 2015 as he drove for Fortec Motorsports. There isn't much to go on for DeMelo. He has won three Canadian National Karting Championships but this is a big step forward. I don't see DeMelo being a championship contender.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
RC Enerson: The Floridian returns for his second season in Indy Lights. Last year, Enerson won at Mid-Ohio and scored five podiums in sixteen starts. Outside of 13th in the second St. Petersburg race because of an engine failure, Enerson finished every race inside the top ten. Enerson was the fastest in the Phoenix test and one of two drivers to run a sub-22 second lap. He is with the right team and I expect the soon to be 19-year-old (his birthday is March 6th) to be a championship threat.

André Negrão: He has not been confirmed for the 2016 season but the Brazilian did test for SPM at Phoenix and turned some heads. Negrão was third fastest at the Phoenix test. The Brazilian has raced in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 but didn't stand out in either series. He scored two points and 111 points in 52 FR3.5 starts and finished in the top ten of the championship once. In GP2, Negrão's best finish was fifth on two occasions (both at Monza). He finished in the points nine times in 41 GP2 starts. I think Negrão could hold his own in 2016 but not be a championship contender.

Santiago Urrutia: The defending Pro Mazda champion will graduate to Indy Lights and drive for SPM. He was second fastest at Phoenix. The 19-year-old Uruguayan won the Pro Mazda title after a year in GP3 and not scoring any points. Historically, Pro Mazda champions do well in Indy Lights. The five Pro Mazda champions prior to Urrutia won in Indy Lights the following year and two of those driver went on to win the Indy Lights title (Tristan Vautier and Pigot). I expect Urrutia to be in it until the end.

Heamin Choi: The Korean driver made his Indy Lights debut at Laguna Seca last autumn and he tested at Phoenix. While the 32-year-old driver hasn't done anything of substance in his career, he was tenth fastest at the Phoenix test. Just remember that Ethan Ringel won pole position for the Freedom 100 driving for SPM and Ringel finished 11th in the championship when only 11 drivers ran more than three-quarters of the races in Indy Lights.

Félix Serrallés: The Puerto Rican driver moves to Carlin from Belardi Auto Racing. He won at Milwaukee last year and had another podium at Long Beach but Serrallés had five finishes outside the top ten, which is quite impressive when you consider most races only featured a dozen drivers. He was also the only driver to be disqualified from a race in 2015 after failing post-race inspection at Toronto 1. Serrallés showed blips of speed in 2015 and was fourth fastest at the Phoenix test but his inability to avoid contact cost him last year and that has followed him from his days in Europe. He is with a championship caliber team but I don't see him being able to put together the results to make a title run.

Ed Jones: The Emirati driver won his first three Indy Lights starts but would fail to get back to the top step of the podium in the final 13 races. Jones would keep himself in the championship discussion throughout the season but a disastrous round at Mid-Ohio where he finished ninth in both races. He struggled last year on the ovals and a tire failure at Indianapolis didn't help. An improvement at the ovals could be the difference between winning the title or finishing third or fourth in the championship. Jones is definitely a championship contender in 2016 and expect him to win multiple races.

Neil Alberico: Runner-up in the 2015 Pro Mazda Championship, Alberico gets promoted to Indy Lights and joins a stout team. The Californian won four races in 2015 but dreadful weekends on the IMS road course and Toronto kept him from taking the fight to Urrutia. Alberico has run four seasons in the Road to Indy system (two in U.S. F2000 and two in Pro Mazda) and he had finished runner-up in the championship in each of his second seasons in those series. He knows the tracks and I think he will be able to carry that speed up to the next level but he might have to wait until his sophomore year in Indy Lights to make an assault on the championship.

Belardi Auto Racing
Zach Veach: The Ohioan returns are missing out on the 2015 season. The lone race Veach ran in 2015 was in the Prototype Challenge class at the IMSA Laguna Seca race. He finished fourth in class. Veach finished third in the 2014 championship behind Gabby Chaves and Jack Harvey after winning three races and scoring nine podiums driving for Andretti Autosport. While Veach was a championship contender the last time he ran in Indy Lights, I think the 2016 grid is a lot deeper than the last time Veach raced. He might get a victory but I see him finishing in the back half of the championship.

Felix Rosenqvist: This is the man to watch out for. If this were the year 1998, Rosenqvist would be on Chip Ganassi's radar for an IndyCar seat. The Swede is coming off winning the European Formula Three championship. He was stuck in the series for four years due to inability to find the funding to take him up the ladder. In F3, Rosenqvist beat some current Formula One drivers. In 2012, he finished ahead of Pascal Wehrlein and Carlos Sainz, Jr. in the championship. In 2013, he topped Williams F1 development driver Alex Lynn. Last year, he took the title and beat Antonio Giovinazzi, who will be moving to GP2, Ferrari Driver Academy's Charles Leclerc and son of a Canadian billionaire and Williams F1 test driver Lance Stroll. And if you go back a little further, Rosenqvist finished fifth in the 2011 Formula 3 Euro Series ahead of Audi wunderkind Laurens Vanthoor and Daniel Abt and current IndyCar driver Carlos Muñoz. No Swede has ever won in Indy Lights and I expect that to change in 2016. Rosenqvist could take the title.

Andretti Autosport
Dean Stoneman: This is a story six years in the making. At 20 years old, Stoneman won the Formula Two championship in 2010. He would test for Andretti Autosport's Indy Lights team the winter after winning that title. However, testicular cancer put Stoneman's racing ambitions on hold for three years. He would return to competition in 2013 where he won five races in Porsche Carrera Cup UK and finished second on his debut weekend in GP3. The following year he would win five GP3 races on route to runner-up in the championship. Last year, Stoneman finished sixth in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship. Stoneman will be Andretti's thoroughbred and he will be battling for the title all season long.

Dalton Kellett: The Canadian is a Road to Indy veteran and will now take the next step to Indy Lights. While Kellett has never won a race in 58 starts across U.S. F2000 and Pro Mazda, he has been a driver who has consistently brought the car home with all four wheels intact and has 27 top tens finishes. He made his Indy Lights debut in 2013 at Baltimore, where he had an accident after one lap. I think Kellett will continue to be consistent and that could get him a top five every now and then but he won't light the world on fire. I expect him to finish just on the outside of the top ten in the championship.

Shelby Blackstock: Another Road to Indy veteran, Blackstock will be entering his second year in Indy Lights. He struggled in 2015 but scored a podium at Mid-Ohio and a fourth in the monsoon conditions that hit Toronto 1. Blackstock finished every race in 2015, the only driver to accomplish that and completed the second most laps behind only Ed Jones. I think Blackstock will finish ahead of Kellett in the championship but because of the depth of the grid he will fall down a few pegs in the championships standings.

Team Pelfrey
Juan Piedrahita: The Colombian moves from Belardi Auto Racing to Team Pelfrey in 2016. Team Pelfrey bought the assets of 8Star Motorsports, which won two races in 2015 with Sean Rayhall, in the offseason. Piedrahita is another Road to Indy veteran. He has made 80 starts across the three feeders series but he has never won a race. He has ten podiums in his career and that includes a third last year at Milwaukee in Indy Lights. This is set to be Piedrahita's third season in Indy Lights and with a third different team. I don't expect anything different from Piedrahita in 2016. He will have some good runs but for the most part be on the periphery.

Scott Hargrove: The 2013 U.S. F2000 champion is only signed on for St. Petersburg but hopefully this Canadian hopeful sticks around for the entire season. Hargrove lost the 2014 Pro Mazda title by ten points to Spencer Pigot after a wild Sonoma finale that saw Hargrove, Pigot, Hargrove's then-teammate Neil Alberico and Pigot's then-teammate Kyle Kaiser all making contact with one another only to have a mechanical failure end Hargrove's championship run. Hargrove made his Indy Lights debut last year with 8Star and after a fourth and sixth in his debut weekend at St. Petersburg, Hargrove was replaced by Rayhall. He would run three Pro Mazda races at the IMS road course in May and won seven of eight IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge Canada races with his one non-victory being a second place finish. Hargrove is the Canadian star IndyCar needs and they can't let him go to sports cars. He, Pigot, Kaiser and Alberico all had a wonderful rivalry brewing and those types of grassroots feuds are something that can only help IndyCar. Hargrove has plenty of talent to compete for the title but with his role at Team Pelfrey unknown beyond St. Petersburg, we can only hope he gets a shot to show what he has got.

McCormack Racing
Davey Hamilton, Jr.: The son of two-time IndyCar championship runner-up Davey Hamilton is scheduled to run the full Indy Lights season for McCormack Racing. Hamilton, Jr. won the King of the Wing Western Sprint Car Series championship last year. He and the team tested at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in California over the winter but were not at the Phoenix test. It's not that Hamilton, Jr. will never be successful on road/street courses but I don't think he will be successful this season or even next year. He could be really competitive on the ovals but I think most of 2016 will be lengthy test session for the second-generation driver. He turns 19 years old on March 15th.

It's Leap Day
Last year, I suggested IndyCar run a race on Leap Day and make it a quadrennial event for the series to make it stand out. Read about it here.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jimmie Johnson but did you know...

Jonathan Rea began his World Superbike title defense by sweeping the season opening round from Phillip Island. Nicky Hayden finished ninth and fourth in his first WSBK weekend since being a wild card entry at the Laguna Seca round in 2002.

Rookie Swiss rider Randy Krummenacher won on his World Supersport debut at Phillip Island. American P.J. Jacobsen finished fifth.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Atlanta. John Hunter Nemecheck won in Trucks.

Ryan Dungey won the Supercross race from Atlanta.

Coming Up This Weekend
Pirelli World Challenge season opens from Circuit of the Americas.
V8 Supercars opens its season on the streets of Adelaide.
AMA Supercross heads to Daytona.
NASCAR will be in Las Vegas.
World Rally will be in Mexico.