01.09.2017 – The flipping of the calendar to 2017 has re-fired the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, as testing has resumed in Florida. Belardi Auto Racing restarted their efforts at Homestead on Wednesday and Palm Beach on Friday, putting two drivers through the paces in both wet and dry conditions. The remaining Indy Lights teams will be back on-track later this month, all focused on being ready to run for race wins at the season opener in St. Petersburg on March 10-12. As it stands, we are looking at a total of five teams for the 2017 season and the fact that I’m predicting 14 cars for the first round is a pretty positive note, considering the shuttering of series stalwart Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Andretti Autosport has already confirmed four drivers, and I project that both Belardi and Carlin will have at least three cars under the tent. Juncos Racing has already announced two season-long drivers and Team Pelfrey currently sits at one confirmed seat. These quick calculations put us at 13 drivers, with a 14th entry being a potential from any of the four teams that do not yet have four cars (Andretti).
I’ve had my feelers out all week, and this is my most current Insider projection for the 2017 Indy Lights program:
ANDRETTI AUTOSPORTS (4 cars)
The Andretti Autosport program has taken a leap forward to a full four-car stable for the 2017 season and will hit the track with three series rookies and a MRTI veteran / Lights sophomore. All four drivers have been confirmed and testing has been positive. I expect Nico Jamin to lead the way early, although Colton Herta’s eventual pace is an unknown at this point, although he comes in with a winning pedigree in the EuroFormula Open series in 2016. Kellett will aim to improve on his consistency and I expect Norman to be impressive in his debut, although seat time will be the key and we can expect improvement throughout the season.
Dalton Kellett (confirmed): The Canadian will return to Andretti Autosports for his second season of Indy Lights competition, having run both USF2000 and Pro Mazda during his development.
Nico Jamin (confirmed): The 2015 USF2000 champion and 2016 Pro Mazda series third place overall finisher has been impressive in testing.
Ryan Norman (confirmed): The 2016 Atlantic Championship title winner has been confirmed to run a full season in 2017.
Colton Herta (confirmed): The second-generation driver was announced as part of a partnership between Andretti Autosport and the Steinbrenner family.
BELARDI AUTO RACING (3-4 cars)
The Brownsburg, Indiana based team was the strongest in the paddock over the second half of the 2016 Indy Lights season, once Zach Veach found his footing during his return to the series after a year’s layoff. Belardi Auto Racing won six races with Veach and Felix Rosenqvist last year, and they have put themselves into a position to run for their second series title, having assembled a strong trio of drivers. Last year’s series runner-up Santiago Urrutia was confirmed with the team just before the end of the year, and he must be considered the outright favorite for the title. Shelby Blackstock is also confirmed for his third Indy Light season, and I expect that Mazda scholarship driver Aaron Telitz, who has tested on multiple occasions with the team, will also be officially announced sometime over the next few weeks.
Santiago Urrutia (confirmed): Last year’s runner-up in the Indy Lights battle was confirmed with Belardi between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Santi is the immediate contender for the title.
Shelby Blackstock (confirmed): Blackstock will enter his seventh season of MRTI competition, having spent the first six years in USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights with Andretti Autosports. The new surroundings will likely fuel growth in the 24-year-old.
Aaron Telitz (expected): The reigning Pro Mazda champion has tested with the team and joined them at Homestead on Wednesday and at Palm Beach today. I expect that he will sign with the team, bringing the Mazda Soul Red colors to Belardi for the first time.
Zach Veach (potential): With IndyCar seats all but gone, Veach is on the outside looking in, so I have to believe that there will be a chance for him to end up back in a Belardi car this this, which would make things very interesting.
CARLIN (3-4 cars)
Since joining the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program in 2015, Carlin has been a power team. They won in their debut weekends at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, scoring victories with Ed Jones and, eventually, Max Chilton on the oval at Iowa. Last year, they scored four victories and Jones was eventually able to win the title thanks to some inter-squad cooperation. While we all expect a full line-up from the team, being able to draw from operations in a handful of different series around the world, not much is confirmed at this time.
Garth Rickards (confirmed): The USF2000 graduate has been working diligently to make the jump to Indy Lights with Carlin this year and officially announced his program today.
Neil Alberico (probable): The American driver has been testing with Carlin and will likely rejoin the squad for his second season in Indy Lights.
Zach Claman De Melo (tested): While I was told that ZCD would be moving to GP2 in 2017, I’ve been fed information that he may indeed be returning to Indy Lights with Carlin this season.
Felix Serralles (rumored): I have not been able to confirm Serralles’ plan for 2017, but I have heard from those who believe a return to Indy Lights with Carlin is an option for the talented Puerto Rican.
JUNCOS RACING (2-3 cars)
The 2015 Indy Lights championship winning team is excited for the new year, having moving into their new shop in Speedway, Indiana in December. They’ll hit the track with a third-year driver in Kyle Kaiser, who brings maturity, poise and experience to the program. Juncos will graduate Nico Dapero from Pro Mazda up to Indy Lights this year. Two cars have been confirmed, although there is a potential to run a third car.
Kyle Kaiser (confirmed): The American confirmed his return to both Indy Lights and Juncos Racing at the PRI Show in December, announcing what he termed ‘the world kept secret in the paddock’. Kaiser is a race-winner and has shown impressive growth through his entire MRTI career. I expect him to be in the hunt for wins and the title this year.
Nico Dapero (confirmed): The Argentine made his MRTI debut in 2015, running with Juncos in Pro Mazda. Nico was a raw rookie to start the season, but he quickly caught up to his teammates and eventually scored podium finishes at Lucas Oil Raceway and Road America to reset the car before winning in the Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway. This is a big jump for the 17-year-old, but if he has a long-term approach to his development in the 450-hp IL-15, he’ll do fine.
TEAM PELFREY (1-2 cars):
Over the last two years, Team Pelfrey has shown that they have the ability to win Indy Lights races, winning in 2015 with Sean Rayhall. The team will enjoy some continuity this year as Columbian Juan Piedrahita is back for his second season with the Gary Neal-led squad. They ran a pair of cars last year, putting Canadians Scott Hargrove and Garett Grist in the seat of the #3 throughout the year. I have been able to confirm that they indeed wish to run a second car, although no indication was given if they are in talks with any drivers.
Juan Piedrahita (expected): Although it has not been officially announced, I’m told the Columbian is confirmed for the full year with Team Pelfrey.
Garett Grist (expected): The Canadian remains unsigned as of press time, although most expect him to find his way back to the series for 2017. I have confirmed that Garett and his management continue to focus on the Indy Lights series as their target, and they are getting closer to having everything in place.
Andre Negrao (potential): Negrao tested with Juncos at IMS in October, and had initially told me that he was intent on returning to the Indy Light series for his sophomore season. I communicated with Andre today, and it appears that his participation this season is fully dependent on his ability to find new sponsors. Considering his mid-to-late season push last year, it would be a shame to lose a driver who I would have considering a championship contender.
Jake Parsons (unlikely): The Aussie was focused on jumping from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights in 2017, but while he continues to work on assembling the necessary backing, Jake let me know that its likely that he’ll be racing in Asia this year.
Richard Gonda (tested): Andretti tested the Slovakian at the Chris Griffis test at IMS in October. He has not yet signed with a team, but we will be keeping our eye on him.