10.05.16 – We may be less than a month past the Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires drivers, managers and teams are already extremely hard at work, focusing on locking in plans for 2017. I want to jump right back into ‘projection’ mode, as we’re also just over five months from the start of the new season and just days from the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at IMS this weekend. The names are going to start falling into place over the next few weeks, and I’m excited to see which current drivers elect to return to the Indy Lights series, which drivers move up to the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy from within the system, and who is drawn from Europe to re-focus on the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Let’s start by having a quick look at the top five drivers from the 2016 season and what I know or forecast about their plans:
Ed Jones – Champion – Jones will take the Mazda scholarship he earned from winning the Indy Lights championship and will attempt to top up the support package to run a full season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The scholarship will give him two races plus the Indianapolis 500. Ed has tested on two occasions with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, that team that worked with Dan Andersen and Mazda to run 2015 Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot this year, so they are likely the initial target. However, rumors continue to circulate that Carlin may be acquiring the equipment of KVSH Racing, which could open the door for Jones to remain with the team he has run with for the last two years in Indy Lights.
Santiago Urrutia (2nd Place): Like many who follow motorsports on Twitter, I picked up on a retweet from the Indy Lights PR staff of a Uruguayan TV station has interviewed Sanit. The tweet translated into Urrutia confirming that he’d be coming back to the US for a second season of Indy Lights. While I can understand Santi’s desire to move to IndyCar, having almost won the Indy Lights title, I think a return for a second season would be a wise move for him to continue to develop his skills and feedback. I would also expect him to remain with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, as they were among the strongest teams in the paddock in the second half of the year, but he could also be entertaining other offers.
Kyle Kaiser (3rd Place): I’d personally love to see Kyle return for a third season in the Indy Lights program, but I understand that the draw to IndyCar is strong and very real. Kyle is unlike others in terms of his MRTI experience. He did not run USF2000, but entered the ladder in 2013 directly into Pro Mazda. He ran a year with World Speed Motorsports before moving to Juncos Racing in 2014. Kyle’s jump from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights was likely one year early, but once Pigot took the ’14 Pro Mazda championship with Kaiser as his teammate; the dual graduation was made easier. The 2015 season was a steep learning curve for Kaiser, but he grew through several on-track incidents that honed him into the driver who won two races this year and became a legitimate title contender. One more year in Lights would cap his MRTI experience nicely.
Zach Veach (4th Place): You can be sure that Zach Veach will dedicate the next five months to putting together an IndyCar deal, and there are certainly opportunities out there. After a strong race-winning season that was capped with a huge push in the second half of the season, I was thrilled to read that Veach has stated that he would return to Lights if necessary. After a year away from the car in 2015, you could see how the seat time allowed him to return to form throughout the season. If he were to come back for the 2017 Indy Lights season with Belardi, you’d have to consider him one of the prime title contenders, if not the outright leader.
Dean Stoneman (5th Place): If there was a driver who came in and made an immediate impact in 2016, it was Stoneman. It took a few races for the Brit to get up to speed, but once he did, he scored wins on both the road course and the 2.5-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My Freedom 100 interview with Dean in victory lane at Indy was one of my most emotional of the year, as I know we were both holding back tears. I communicated with Dean on Tuesday and he confirmed that he is now focused on IndyCar, but that understands the mountainous hurdles that face him in finding the necessary backing. He will not return to Indy Lights in 2017.
Now, here is the result of my research, speaking with my sources and many drivers themselves:
Potential Team / Driver Line-ups:
ANDRETTI AUTOSPORTS (2-3 cars)
Dalton Kellett (confirmed): I have confirmed that the Canadian will return to Andretti Autosports for his second season of Indy Lights competition
Nico Jamin (testing): The 2014 USF2000 champion and third place finisher in the 2016 Pro Mazda series will test with the team at IMS this weekend
Richard Gonda (testing): Andretti will test the Slovakian this weekend at IMS. The 22-year-old ran three GP3 races this year with Jenzer Motorsports this year and won the Euro F3 Cup Championship class in 2013
Ryan Norman (testing): The initial plans were to have the 2016 Atlantic Championship title winner testing with the team at Indy this weekend, but he will instead be on track in Sebring for a two-day test next week. Ryan’s focus is to do a full season in 2017
BELARDI AUTO RACING (2-3 cars)
Aaron Telitz (rumored): The reigning Pro Mazda champion will test with the team this weekend at the CGMT – he will also test with SPM
Nico Jamin (rumored): Nico was aiming for Indy Lights after winning the USF2000 title, no doubt motivated after seeing the success of RC Enerson after he jumped straight from the two-liter series, but Mazda scholarship set him up for Pro Mazda. Sources tell me that Jamin was very close to signing with Belardi for his rookie season of Indy Lights, however, I’ve also learned that he will be testing with Andretti Autosport at IMS this weekend
Zach Veach (potential): It’s common knowledge that after his three-win season, Veach is focused on earning an IndyCar seat for 2017. That said, he’s also stated that a return to the MRTI program would be the target in an IndyCar seat did not pan out. He will be in attendance at the IMS on the Sunday, but will not be driving
CARLIN (2-3 cars)
Felix Serralles (potential): I have not been able to confirm Serralles’ plan for 2017
Neil Alberico (probable): The American driver will be testing with Carlin this weekend at IMS and will likely rejoin the squad for his second season in Indy Lights
Zach Claman De Melo (testing): I have confirmed that the Canadian will be testing with Carlin at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test
Weiron Tan (rumored): There have been several reports that Tan, who raced in F3 with Carlin this summer after beginning the season with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, would return to the MRTI with Carlin in Indy Lights in 2017. I communicated with Weiron on Tuesday and he confirmed that, at this time, he would NOT be running Indy Lights next year
JUNCOS RACING (2-3 cars)
Zach Claman De Melo (potential): While I posted to my Twitter feed (@MRTI_Insider) the fact that I’d learned that ZCD will test with Carlin this coming weekend, but he is most definitely still a potential driver for Juncos Racing
Jake Parsons (potential): The Aussie had a solid year with Juncos in Pro Mazda and has stated officially that he would like to move to Indy Lights in 2017. If this move were to come to fruition, I would expect that he would remain with Juncos Racing. However, finding the necessary budget will be key, and Jake told me that he is also entertaining opportunities for sports car racing in Asia
Kyle Kaiser (expected): I spoke with Kyle and he will run both days of the IMS test with Juncos Racing. He did not confirm that he was returning to the team for 2017, as he has also been approached by other squads and is weighing his options
Andre Negrao (potential): Negrao will be testing with Juncos this weekend at IMS, and is keeping his options open, as he is intent on returning to the Indy Light series for his sophomore season
SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS (2-4 cars)
Santiago Urrutia (expected): The 2016 series runner-up has stated to his home country media that he intends to return to the Indy Lights in 2017 – I expect him to return to SPM
Andre Negrao (potential): The Brazilian will test this weekend with Juncos Racing this weekend, but remains in talks with SPM about a 2017 drive
Shelby Blackstock (rumored): Sources have hinted that Blackstock will move to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for 2017 to run the entire Indy Lights schedule, in addition to a potential Indy 500 effort in SPM’s third Dallara
Aaron Telitz (rumored): The reigning Pro Mazda champion will test with the team this weekend at the CGMT – he will also test with Belardi
TEAM PELFREY (2 cars):
Juan Piedrahita (potential): I’ve learned that the Columbia may be set to return to the series with Pelfrey in 2017, and is planning significant off-season testing to prepare for the challenge
Garett Grist: The former USF2000 and Pro Mazda race winner is expected to return to Indy Lights in 2017, having made his debut this year. The Canadian will be testing later this month and is talking to several teams about seat opportunities. Garett’s team is working diligently to complete their budget and the plan is to run a full campaign in 2017.
Gianmarco Riamondo: The Canadian has a solid resume of European single-seater experience in F3 and GP2, and is back in North America with a sole focus on putting together a program to run Indy Lights in 2017. He has not run formula cars in the US since Formula BMW USA in 2009.
Sean Rayhall: Rayhall’s return to the Indy Lights series at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca certainly raised a few eyebrows and I spoke with more than one team owner about the thought of Sean running a full season in 2017. He is regarded very highly in the paddock.