10.12.2017 – It’s been just over a month since the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires crowned its 2017 series champions, and despite the fact that they call this the ‘off-season’, the 2018 season is already well underway. The MRTI Chris Griffis Memorial Test will be held on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in just over a week (October 21-22) and we’ll get our first look at some of the potential team line-ups for next year. I’ve spent some time connecting with my sources to get a feel for who’s running with who, so here’s my Insider look at what we’re likely to see when the entry lists are made available for the test. We’ll start with a peak at the Indy Lights paddock.
2018 Indy Lights Team Champions Belardi Auto Racing will likely run a pair of drivers in Indy, as owner Brian Belardi looks to assemble a squad that can back up the title. I’m told that Indy Lights race winner Nico Jamin is set to test with the team during both days of the test. Jamin was seventh in the final championship standings for Andretti Autosport, hindered by a rough second half of the season that was split by another impressive win at Mid-Ohio. I’m also told that impressive USF2000 driver Rinus VeeKay will test a Belardi Dallara IL-15 at Indy on both days, which begs the question as to whether the 16-year-old in aiming to follow RC Enerson in his jump straight from USF2000 to Indy Lights. I know that VeeKay is testing the new Pro Mazda car with at least three teams, so the Indy Lights outing at Indy may be just an early sampling of the formula. Belardi has stated that he will run three cars in 2018, but has not ruled out the idea of increasing to four entries, should the right driver show interest in the seat.
Team Pelfrey most certainly over-achieved in Indy Lights last year, running the only single car effort in the paddock with Columbian veteran Juan Piedrahita. The single stream of data put them behind the eight-ball, and I expect that with two drivers in 2018, they could challenge for race wins. I have confirmed that they will run two drivers at the Chris Griffis test, which bodes well for 2018. Pato O’Ward will return the seat of a trademark yellow and black Palfrey Dallara IL-15, and he’ll be joined by Pro Mazda driver TJ Fischer, who is looking to make a calculated move to Lights after running the last two seasons with the Pelfrey squad.
My sources tell me that Juncos Racing will take the opportunity to run their Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni at Indianapolis, and I’m also hearing that Brazilian Carlos Cunha will also be wheeling one of their Indy Lights cars at the test. Juncos scored their second Indy Lights championship in three years this past season thanks to the performances of Kyle Kaiser, and should this new duo become their 2018 line-up, it would resemble their 2015 title-winning squad where they fielded new Dallaras for series rookies and Pro Mazda graduates Spencer Pigot and Kaiser. Cunha was very impressive in the second half of his freshmen Pro Mazda run, running off a string of five straight podium finishes behind Franzoni and Anthony Martin, capped by a strong second in the rain in the Watkins Glen finale. I’m hearing that Cuhna may also be testing Juncos’ new PM-18, so like Rinus VeeKay, this may just be a chance for him to get a feel for the Lights car before running a full season of Pro Mazda in 2018.
I haven’t been able to dig up much on Andretti Autosport, although I’m told that they will be running Pro Mazda runner-up Anthony Martin at the Indy test. Martin has been stellar during his three years in the MRTI, finish as the USF2000 Rookie of the Year with John Cummiskey Racing in 2015 before winning the title with Cape Motorsports in 2016. This past year, he was masterful all season in his fight with Victor Franzoni for the Pro Mazda title. The Aussie is most certainly a hot commodity within the Indy Lights paddock. In addition, Ryan Norman will return to the Andretti camp for the Chris Griffis test as well, although I’m told that his position on the team has not yet been finalized for the 2018 campaign.
Carlin is the my lone zero, my goose egg on Insider info, when it comes to driver predictions for the test. I’m not hearing any information regarding the 2016 championship-winning squad, which scored four victories in 2017. I’ve had discussions with fellow media members about the potential that the Carlin Lights program could shrink to from four cars to 2-3 cars to accommodate for the addition of a Verizon IndyCar Series effort at their Delmar Beach, Florida shop, but that’s about it. I’ll keep digging, but I want to get this segment out to fire up the excitement. With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule having just hit the streets, I know that we’ll be seeing the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires calendar very soon.
Next up, my Insider look at the drivers who will hit the track at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test in the new Tatuus PM-18.