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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI Observations: Indy Lights Indianapolis Race No. 1

Starting from the pole position, Nico Jamin led flag-to-flag despite a late-race charge from Zachary Claman De Melo, en route to scoring the victory in the Mazda Road to Indy Grand Prix Presented by Royal Purple Supporting Lupus Foundation of America.

Here are some observations from the first of two events this weekend.

Right in Contention

Nico Jamin may have started off his season with a pair of finishes outside of the top-five at St. Petersburg, but he’s been doing an amazing job ever since. The Andretti Autosport driver scored his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition in race one at Barber Motorsports Park, before finishing third in the second event.

Now with a second victory, he has put himself second in points, three points behind teammate Colton Herta for the lead.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “We want to do this season, win the championship. A win at Barber and a win here – we have good momentum going on now.”

Hiccup for Herta

In just one event for the series, Colton Herta has watched his points lead go from 16 points ahead of Kyle Kaiser to just three ahead of Nico Jamin. Needless to say, he will want to forget how things went on Friday quickly.

The event started off strong for the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing racer, as he quickly moved up to second on Lap 1 after starting sixth. He ran in the runner-up spot for the first 12 circuits, before falling to fourth. He then continued to fall back, eventually pitting on Lap 17 with a right rear puncture.

The rookie has faced adversity once this season, finishing 10th in the first event at Barber Motorsports Park after contact on Lap 1. He rebounded beautifully there with a victory in round two. With a strong qualifying effort on Saturday morning, he could do the same once again.

Career Best for Claman De Melo

Zachary Claman De Melo has continued to get better with each race under his belt, as noted with a stronger average finish through the second half of last year. He hasn’t started off this season so hot with only one top-five in the first four rounds, but the tune may be changing after his performance on Friday.

The Carlin Racing pilot may not have got off to the strongest start on the green flag, but he worked his way through the field over the course of the 30-lap event, crossing the finish line in second for his best career finish. It’s also worth noting that he was closing the gap to Nico Jamin in the closing stages, only 0.8405 seconds behind at the checkered.

Claman de Melo felt he could have given Jamin a run for the win if he had not got caught behind the lap car of Dalton Kellett for awhile, telling the IndyCar Radio Network, “It’s unfortunately what happened with Kellet in that he blocked me. I could’ve had a shot if he hadn’t blocked me there.”

If he continues to run like this, though, it will be one blocked chance left in the rearview.

Poor Piedrahita

Not every driver who was on the entry docket started the event on Friday, as Juan Piedrahita was forced to watch from the sidelines.

Earlier that day in qualifying, he ran into gearbox issues which then led to an accident, with the team unable to make repairs in time for the event. It was reported that Team Pelfrey would possibly have a second car ready for him for Saturday’s event.

In four races this season, the driver of the No. 2 Mazda-powered entry has posted only one top-10 finish.

Third Straight Podium

After posting a pair of runner-ups at Barber Motorsports Park, Kyle Kaiser continued the momentum into Indianapolis with a third-place finish. Like Zachary Claman de Melo, he felt that he had something to challenge Nico Jamin.

“I thought we had a good start,” Kaiser said post-race. “We finished ahead of the points leader, which was my goal for this race. I made a mistake there as I thought we were catching the leader.”

Now entering the sixth round on the schedule, he currently sits third in points, just three markers behind Colton Herta.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI Observations: Indy Lights Barber Race 2

In the 400th Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event, Colton Herta led every lap en route to his second career victory in four starts.

Here are some observations from the event.

Familiar Faces

Throughout the event, Herta remained unchallenged as he held a lead of at least seven seconds over the field. It marked a solid rebound after a 10th in Race 1 this weekend. The success didn’t come surprising, though, as the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing driver posted a win and runner-up to kick off 2017 at St. Petersburg. Now boasting a 16-point lead over Kyle Kaiser, he’ll look to keep it going into Indianapolis next month.

Kaiser and Nico Jamin finished second and third, to give them both two podiums on the weekend. Jamin won yesterday, while Kaiser finished second.

For Kaiser, he has yet to finish outside of the top-six in the first four races this season, following a sixth and fourth to start this season. Early projections had the Juncos Racing driver as part of the championship battle after finishing third in points in 2016. The California native put together an impressive campaign last year, scoring two wins and nine podiums.

Meanwhile, Alberico was hit or miss at St. Petersburg as he posted a second in Round 1, before finishing 15th in the second event. Now with two podiums at Barber, he certainly has made up some of the lost ground. In his rookie campaign last year, the California native finished 10th in points following six top-10s in 18 races.

Urrutia Left Upset

Santiago Urrutia will will want to forget Barber as soon as possible as he finished outside of the top-12 in both rounds this weekend. He was involved in the first lap incident on Saturday, followed by contact with teammate Shelby Blackstock on Lap 4 causing a spin and front wing change.

Urrutia came into this season hopeful to fight for a title but has started off this season poorly as he finished 13th in Round 1, followed by a runner-up in the second event.

With three finishes outside the top-10 in four races, Urrutia will need to start picking up wins and podiums if he wants to contend this year, given they only run 16 events a season.

Telitz Rebounds

Following a 13th-place finish on Saturday, Aaron Telitz rebounded with a solid fifth-place finish in Sunday’s event.

The Belardi Auto Racing began his rookie campaign with a win and a fifth at St. Petersburg. He enters the series after winning last season’s Pro Mazda Championship.

Eliminated Early

Zachary Cleman De Melo and Pato O’Ward saw their races end on Lap 1 as contact from Claman De Melo to O’Ward on Lap 1 sent both drivers off-track, with O’Ward, stuck in the gravel trap for a full course caution. Claman De Melo was able to continue but parked his car on Lap 3 due to damage.

“We were going to the outside of turn two with Alberico and someone behind me – De Melo – accidentally ran into my right side as I don’t think he intended to and bent my front right, and then kind of kept hitting me, so we lost it, we both went out,” O’Ward said. “It’s a shame.”

Claman De Melo said he couldn’t turn the wheel anymore and tried to give him room, but “we just made contact.”

“I started off the weekend behind due to a missed flight through testing,” Claman De Melo said. “We just got better and better, and I was happy with the race pace. I was happy with yesterday’s solid result.”

The Andretti Autosport driver started this season with a seventh, eighth and fifth before this incident.

For O’Ward, he finished top-five in both St. Petersburg races, before placing eighth. While set to run a full IMSA sports car schedule this season, he has yet to announce any additional Indy Lights races for 2017.

“We had a terrible day yesterday, and today is even worse,” O’Ward said. “I don’t know what that’ll do for the next few races. I’ll have to play the next few weeks and see what happens. It’s just a negative weekend all the way around.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI OBSERVATIONS: Rookies are Here to Play, and More

This past weekend, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off their season, with doubleheaders for each of the three divisions on the streets of St. Petersburg. With new faces alongside familiar faces, it was certainly a memorable weekend for some rookies.

Here are some observations from the weekend of action.

 

Rookies are Here to Play

When new talent joins the fray, questions are always asked as to whether they will succeed, or fumble. Thus far, it appears the new talent is going to impress all season.

Fresh off winning the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout, Oliver Askew was able to duck to the inside on a restart in the second Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race and pass Parker Thompson for the lead, never looking back the rest of the way.

Anthony Martin proved that he’s ready for Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires competition after winning the USF2000 Championship last year, sweeping the weekend’s events. He also did it in dominating fashion, as he led flag-to-flag in both races.

Another graduate, 2016 Pro Mazda Champion Aaron Telitz, proved that he was ready for the next jump in his career. He dominated the first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event by leading right from the start of the race. Meanwhile, MRTI newcomer Colton Herta was able to lead flag-to-flag in the second race, despite the massive number of restarts, to become the youngest series winner.

 

The Highs and Lows of Racing

Robert Meginnis entered the season hoping to do well after partaking in the second half of the schedule last year with some success. This weekend was a mix of two worlds, though.

The first race went well as the Team Pelfrey driver started on the pole, and led every single lap in route to his first career USF2000 victory. The second race, though, was a bit of a different story. He started off strong, moving into third on an early race restart, only to make a mistake on Lap 18. He was credited with a 19th place finish.

While both races didn’t go as planned, it appears as though he’s still in high spirits based on the driveability of the series’ new chassis.

“I can’t say enough about the Tatuus USF-17,” he said. “It’s comfortable to drive; it’s consistent throughout the sessions; you can push it harder. It’s fun and exciting to drive, so I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season.”

 

Pelfrey Strangle on Pro Mazda Broken

Last year, Team Pelfrey won all of the races in Pro Mazda, except for a single event. This year, though, they currently stand zero for two.

It isn’t for lack of speed, though, as the group showed they were fast in the first event, with their drivers finishing third through fifth. Using his experience from last year, TJ Fischer led the team in third, followed by rookies Carlos Cunha and Nikita Lastochkin.

The second event didn’t see the threesome all have success, though. Fischer continued to lead the charge, once again posting a third place finish after posting a best finish of fifth last year in his partial schedule. Lastochkin was also able to put in another solid run, finishing fifth, while Cunha finished 12th following mechanical issues.

With the team showing speed already, it’s only a matter of time before the drivers gain enough experience to find their way to victory lane like Telitz and Pato O’Ward did last year.

 

Rough Start for Carlin

After winning the Indy Lights Championship last year with Ed Jones and having multiple drivers up front throughout the season, this year began strongly as Carlin Racing would’ve hoped. Each of their drivers appeared to have a good race and a bad race this past weekend.

Neil Alberico proved the team is still fast and one to watch this season, posting a third place finish in the first race of the weekend, with teammate Zachary Claman De Melo eighth. Meanwhile, the other half of the team didn’t do as well with Garth Rickards 11th and Matteus Leist in 15th following mechanical issues.

On the flip side, Claman De Melo was the only driver for Carlin in the top-10 at the end of the second event, finishing seventh. Leist completed all the laps this time, finishing 11th; Rickards and Alberico found themselves at the bottom of the charts behind Leist after being involved in an incident during the race.

For Carlin, it’s right now a balance as both Rickards and Leist are entering the series for the first time, as Leist comes from an international background while Rickards is making the jump from USF2000 to Indy Lights, versus running Pro Mazda in between. However, the rookies should learn and improve with having the experience of Alberico and Claman De Melo alongside them. There’s also a good possibility Alberico will be in victory lane before the season’s over.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

2016 Indy Lights Series Year in Review: Zachary Claman De Melo

In his rookie year of Indy Lights competition, Zachary Claman De Melo saw himself run mid-pack most of the year en route to finishing ninth in points.

 

Points Finish: 9th

Car No.: 13

Driver Name: Zachary Claman De Melo

Team Name: Juncos Racing

Total Races: 18

Victories: 0

Podiums: 0

Top-Fives: 3

Top-10s: 9

Average Start: 10.8

Average Finish: 9.7

DNFs: 0

 

While De Melo had hoped to start his rookie season on a high, it started the opposite with three finishes outside of the top-10, including a DNF in the second race on the streets of St. Petersburg due to an engine failure. The Montreal, Quebec native looked as though he was going to turn his year around quickly and early, though, as he followed up those finishes with back-to-back top-seven performances.

Unfortunately, the positive swing didn’t last – and that became the theme of the year. De Melo would have a couple strong performances, followed by a couple not so hot performances. While people will remember the pair of top-fives at Road America, they’ll also remember both races in Toronto resulting in DNFs and his crash during the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Highlight of 2016 – A couple top-five finishes throughout the season prove there is some potential.

Downfall of 2016 – The inconsistency, and multiple finishes outside of the top-10 don’t prove well for his prospects moving forward.

Road/Street Course Analysis – In 15 races, De Melo posted only three top-five finishes, with a best-finish of fourth. His inconsistency on the season really shined through in these events as some tracks seemed to suit his style really well, and others not so well.

Oval Analysis – While he was able to finish eighth at Iowa Speedway, the other two races resulted in finishes outside of the top-10.

Notes for 2017 – De Melo has yet to announce plans for the 2017 season, but there are still options open. After entering four cars last year, Juncos Racing has thus far only announced two drivers – Kyle Kaiser and Nicolas Dapero. There is a possibility De Melo may be back at Juncos Racing once again, or perhaps moving on to another team.

The problem is while his rookie year wasn’t all that bad, there were other rookies whom shined greater and finished in the top-five in points. When you have drivers like those on the table, along with the upcoming and talent in Pro Mazda, it’s hard to stick with a driver that you may be totally confident in based on his first season.

If he is able to find a ride, being able to improve on tracks where he struggled will be key in moving forward.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.