IndyCar Mid-Ohio Preview

The NTT IndyCar Series returns this weekend for its fourth doubleheader with the Honda Indy 200 at Lexington’s Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The undulating twists and turns of the thirteen-corner, 2.2-mile road course has seen the circuit become one of the favourite locations on the calendar for drivers and fans alike.

What’s more, with just five races remaining, it’s up to the few remaining title challengers to step up this weekend if they wish to keep the championship alive.

Scott Dixon heads into this weekend on 416 points, a 96-point advantage over Josef Newgarden, with Patricio O’Ward and Takuma Sato realistically the remaining two contenders, albeit around 150 points behind.

Scott Dixon (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

Looking Back to 2019 Mid-Ohio and beyond.

The 2019 running was won by current championship leader Dixon in spectacular fashion. The New Zealander had rookie Felix Rosenqvist charging in the closing laps. In the final pass through turn two they had wheel contact. Both cars bobbled, but the drivers kept them straight, which led to a thrilling run to the chequered flag as Dixon drove with tires that had lost their effectiveness.

The margin of victory was 0.0934 seconds, the closest IndyCar finish at Mid-Ohio and third closest on a road course in IndyCar history.

Dixon and Chip Ganassi have proved a dominant force at Mid-Ohio in recent years. ‘Mr Mid-Ohio’ has a staggering six wins at the Sports Car Course, likewise Ganassi have won there 11 times, giving them a vast amount of confidence heading into the weekend.

Other drivers who have enjoyed success at the circuit have been Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud with a win apiece. Alongside them, look out for likes of O’Ward, Jack Harvey, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay who have all had relative success at the track in the junior categories.

Pato O’Ward (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

What should I look out for this weekend?

Dixon is the bookies favourite to win the IndyCar championship due to his commanding lead. However, the focus on this race will continue to be on his realistic championship rivals to see whether they can make a dent in that points deficit. Out of those only Newgarden has won here before, and he may be the most obvious challenge to the Kiwi.

O’Ward will be coming into the weekend following some magnificent but bittersweet performances having narrowly missed out on a handful of wins this season. The Mexican has been a consistent qualifier and regularly puts himself in the frame to challenge for the win. It’s often been strategic calls that have stripped those opportunities away. He’ll be looking to rectify that here to claim his maiden IndyCar win.

Sato, perhaps coming down from his second Indy 500 win, was in the fight arguably in both races last time out at Gateway. He’s somehow found a run of form that’s put him in his highest championship spot in his career. Although challenging Dixon in the standings is a tough order, to compete well against the likes of two-time champion Newgarden and up-and-coming superstar O’Ward will be all the incentive Sato needs to prove that experience sometimes trumps youth.

Another driver with something to prove this weekend will be Andretti’s Rossi. His crushing performance in the 2018 running race saw him and the team take a dominant victory from pole with an incredible tyre strategy. Rossi has demonstrated that he has the speed and his team have the strategies to come out on top in Mid-Ohio and he’ll be determined to do so again to try and draw himself closer to the top five in the championship, after a season plagued by bad luck.

Rinus VeeKay (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

In terms of the battle for the coveted ‘Rookie of the Year’ title, VeeKay currently leads that fight, 13th in the standings on 181 points. His closest rivals are Alex Palou on 160 and Askew on 155. All three drivers have enjoyed a mixed bag of success and rotten luck, showing promising qualifying and race pace. VeeKay certainly has the momentum coming into the weekend and will be looking to replicate the win he had at the circuit during his time in the Pro Mazda Championship.

Just a mention about Colton Herta. What a season he’s been having. I wrote about his incredible qualifying performances during my preview for Gateway and touted him as someone to watch out for. He then went on to finish in fourth and sixth across both races of the doubleheader putting him in fifth place in the championship on 250 points. In only his sophomore year in IndyCar he’s certainly proved that he’s a superstar in the making, and now has the consistency to mount a title challenge in the future. I wouldn’t put it past Herta to do something similarly impressive this weekend to try and break into the top four.

Dale Coyne Racing‘s Santino Ferrucci is also on an impressive run of form. A fellow sophomore and a young American ‘hot-shot’, he is easily, like-for-like Colton Herta’s closest rival. After an amazing fourth at the Indy 500, followed by a top ten finish last time out at Gateway, Ferrucci is making somewhat of a name for himself. It wasn’t too long ago that he enjoyed a run of three top ten finishes between IMS and Iowa. He’ll be hoping to draw on his prior experience of racing single-seaters in Europe to try and get a similarly strong result on the Mid-Ohio road course this weekend so that he can impress further.

Finally, keep an eye on Meyer Shank Racing‘s Jack Harvey, aiming to continue what has so far been relatively strong season so far for the British driver. He’s shown glimpses of brilliances with three consecutive top ten finishes (IOWA 1, IOWA 2, INDY) and a strong showing at Gateway before an unfortunate timing with the caution ruined a race where he’d been running in the top 5. He’s currently 14th in the standings, which is by far the highest he has ever been during his time in IndyCar. This weekend he has an opportunity to push for 11th in the standings as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marcus Ericsson, VeeKay and Harvey are all separated by just 3 points.

IndyCar at Mid-Ohio will be shown live on Sky Sports F1 with qualifying set for 7:30pm (GMT) on Saturday followed by the race at around 8:30pm (GMT) on Sunday.

Why Red Bull’s misuse of Super Formula needs to end

A typhoon warning may have left the Suzuka circuit barren, but if thoughts were the metric to go by the minds of Pierre Gasly and Helmut Marko’s were anything but. They were only half-a-point away from the ultimate prize, after all.

Pierre had his own considerations, certainly about how he was staring down a double-barrel gun of success (were he to prevail, he’d be the first overseas champion since Andre Lotterer in 2011, first rookie since Ralf Schumacher in 1996 and first overall for both since the renaming from Formula Nippon in 2013), but Marko’s were likely about just what a blinder they’d played with their decision.

Opting not to fast-track Gasly into a Toro Rosso F1 seat after his 2016 GP2 title win, the time spent putting noses out of joint in Japan’s elite open-wheel series looked every inch a masterstroke. Red Bull and Honda’s relationship began to blossom and their next hopeful’s confidence was sky-high. It offered another nugget to chew on, too: did they need to bother with the de-facto ladder to F1 at all?

Two years on, it’s almost time for the Suzuka finale once again. There’s not been a Red Bull-backed entry in the renamed F2 full-time since Gasly, and yet three of their academy hopefuls have featured in Super Formula just this season. None of them have replicated anything like the silky form of their French predecessor, nor have they been given the chance.

The #15 Team Mugen car, one of two Red Bull-backed seats in the series, began the season in the hands of the controversial Dan Ticktum. Dan had only just graduated from European F3 the season before, and toiled in the Asian Series not long after, yet Red Bull saw the risk of placing their baby cub into the lion pit of sage ex-F1, DTM and WEC drivers as a worthwhile one.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Three races, three struggling endeavours and a solitary point later, allegations of Ticktum’s attitude hitting rock bottom and even acts of assault on a Mugen team member had the Brit packing his bags for the first flight out of both Japan and the Red Bull Junior Programme. It spelled disaster for a man the casino chips were placed on, but as luck would have it the energy drink colossus had snagged a promising IndyCar driver struggling for funds in Patricio O’Ward.

The new poster child of the Junior Programme, the dust was brushed off the seat of the #15 car and Pato was placed firmly inside, in an attempt to acclimatise the 20 year old Mexican into more traditional open-wheel racing alongside a crack of the F2 whip in Austria as a one-off. 

Three races, three growingly impressive efforts and three points later, Pato has now disembarked from the Red Bull train after just four months and four events raced under the Junior Programme’s tutelage. Bereft of expected Super Licence points, the jig was up. The #15 Team Mugen welcomes it’s third Red-Bull backed starlet in Estonian F3 graduate Juri Vips while Pato looks set to make up for lost time back in IndyCar for 2020.

Three. Drivers. Let’s evaluate the season: an F3 graduate, short (admittedly of his own fault) on confidence and recent career racing, was deemed a worthy competitor for Super Formula’s high calibre. Once his old habits and inexperience set ablaze his title chances, Red Bull replaced him with a similarly inexperienced prospect mid-season. Pato’s North American schooling was given all of three events to be repurposed before a short-term fast-tracking broke down, and now another F3 graduate is taking the mantle for the finale.

Aside from Red Bull’s other championship effort, Lucas Auer – an ex-DTM driver deemed unlikely to ever be in their future F1 plans – who sits third in the table, the Junior Programme’s 2019 trip east has been an unmitigated disaster. One driver was thrown into the deep end too soon, and the other was submerged in the waves even sooner, and was deemed little more than a vanity project the moment the plan A for him became an impossibility.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Gasly, like other F1-attached junior drives such as Stoffel Vandoorne, were able to not only survive but succeed in Super Formula because they were at the tail-end of their growth. Two GP2 champions, brimmed with open-wheel experience and virtually ready for the big time, they had the necessary time to grow stronger and wiser before they were unleashed on a series filled with stalwarts in the primes of their careers. F3 and inexperienced Indy graduates aren’t at such a level and either need to be given the time to acclimatise, or not be placed there at all.

Red Bull’s usage of Super Formula as an alternative to F2 has been one marred with underestimation of what it takes to succeed in the series, and drastically short-term ambitions for the drivers they deem fit to place in it. Ticktum’s warning signs were well apparent even before he made the leap, and yet Red Bull didn’t recognise the error they were making. Pato was beginning to adjust to a jarring challenge with aplomb, yet Red Bull have no desire to see his development through, and now Vips stands to be deemed fit for a 2020 Team Mugen seat despite his own premature stage of development.

In a way, it’s a sign of just how far Red Bull’s Junior Programme has fallen; what was once an environment in which talent aplenty flowed through the mains, and World Championships were wringed out of the system, is now a barren wasteland frequently topped up with drivers they’d deemed inadequate years ago or bundled into F1 without prior funding. Current Red Bull Racing duo, Max Verstappen and Alex Albon, are signs of this.

Max never suffered rejection from the programme, but neither can it lay claim to truly nurturing him pre-F1 – he spent all of one week in it before being announced as a 2015 Toro Rosso race driver, and was already a made man by the time they inquired for his services – while Alex spent a solitary season with them in 2012 before being released. 

Toro Rosso now sees two drivers who were both ruled as unneeded at the A-team and sent to bide their time back in Faenza, with Daniil in particular even being dropped from the Red Bull lifeline for over a year in 2017 before, once again, the talent tank ran dry and an ex-employee’s services were required. Recent Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley is another example of such a scenario.

The Super Formula experiment is backfiring for Red Bull, and it’s of their own doing. Shunning a ready-made proving ground in F2 and treating the proud, developed Super Formula as a junior series without consideration for the culture shock it provides to drivers not yet properly developed has and will continue to be a disaster, and for every victim it creates there aren’t enough phone numbers in the exes list to realistically ring as last resorts. It had Pierre teetering on the edge of glory two years ago; it has the Junior Team on the brink of implosion now.

 

[Featured image – Sho Tamura / Red Bull Content Pool]

Meet the 2019 Red Bull Junior Team

While Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have grabbed the headlines this summer, there’s more to the Red Bull driver programme than just their Formula 1 stable. We take a look at each of their upcoming young talents, from karting all the way to the F1 feeder series’.

Juri Vips

Juri Vips celebrating victory at the Red Bull Ring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Juri Vips is perhaps the closest Red Bull junior to Formula One right now. The 19-year-old Estonian joined the programme ahead of last year’s Macau Grand Prix, after becoming an F4 champion in 2017 and finishing fourth in the 2018 European F3 series. He is currently driving for Hitech in FIA F3, and is running second with two victories to his name.

Patricio O’Ward

Patricio OWard racing Super Formula at Motegi (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Red Bull’s newest signing is Patricio O’Ward, winner of the 2017 WeatherTech Sportscar and 2018 Indy Lights championships. O’Ward has had a mixed 2019 so far, racing a part-time IndyCar entry with Carlin after losing his initial Harding Steinbrenner Racing drive due to sponsorship issues. With Red Bull backing he has since made appearances in F2 for MP Motorsport and Super Formula with Team Mugen.

Yuki Tsunoda

Yuki Tsunoda driving for Jenzer at the Hungaroring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

2018 Japanese F4 champion Yuki Tsunoda joined the Red Bull programme through his links with the Honda Formula Dream Project. Red Bull currently has the 19-year-old racing on the F1 support bill in FIA F3 with Jenzer Motorsport. Tsunoda is also driving for Team Motopark in the Euroformula Open series, where he is running fourth in the standings with one win.

Lucas Auer

Lucas Auer on his way to third at SUGO (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

24-year-old Austrian Lucas Auer is another one of Red Bull’s new 2019 signings. Auer has flirted with the pinnacle of motorsport already, having challenged for titles in Formula 3 and DTM and tested Force India’s F1 car in 2017. He has joined O’Ward in Super Formula for this year, and took his first podium of the series at Sportsland SUGO.

Liam Lawson

Liam Lawson in the FIA F3 paddock (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

New Zealander Liam Lawson joined Red Bull this year just a few days after his 17th birthday—and after securing the Toyota Racing Series title over Ferrari junior Marcus Armstrong. Lawson has continued to race Armstrong in FIA F3 this year, driving for MP Motorsport. He is also placed third in Euroformula Open with two victories to his name.

Jack Doohan

Jack Doohan at the Red Bull Ring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Son of MotoGP legend Mick Doohan, Jack Doohan has joined fellow Red Bull juniors Lawson and Tsunoda in this year’s Euroformula Open Championship. He is currently seventh in the standings with two second places and six other points finishes. Doohan has also taken multiple victories driving for Hitech in Asian F3 this year.

Dennis Hauger

Dennis Hauger celebrating victory in ADAC F4 (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

After a successful Formula 4 debut last year, Red Bull has rewarded 16-year-old Dennis Hauger with a dual programme in Italian F4 and ADAC F4 for 2019. Driving for Van Amersfoort Racing in both series’, the Norwegian driver has taken six wins and seven pole positions altogether this year and is currently second in the Italian standings.

Jonny Edgar

Jonny Edgar driving in the Italian F4 Championship (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

15-year-old British driver Jonny Edgar has stepped up to his first season of racing cars this year, driving for Jenzer Motorsport in the Italian F4 Championship. He is currently 13th in the standings after six points finishes, the best of which so far is a fifth place at the Hungaroring. Like Hauger, he is also entered in the ADAC F4 series.

Harry Thompson

Harry Thompson in the 2018 WSK Final Cup (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Having only turned 15 earlier this month, Harry Thompson is the youngest current member of the Red Bull Junior Team. After being named FIA Karting Rookie of the Year in 2018, Thompson is continuing his karting career this year in both European and British championships.

O’Ward’s Rookie IndyCar Season on Hold

Patricio O’Ward has parted ways from Harding Steinbrenner Racing, with whom he was expected to compete in his rookie IndyCar season this year.

The Mexican driver won the 2018 Indy Lights championship, winning nine out of 17 races. O’Ward then made his IndyCar debut in Sonoma last season with Harding Steinbrenner, reaching the Fast Six in qualifying and finishing the race in ninth place. He was understood to have signed a deal to race for the team on a full-time programme in 2019.

Credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

O’Ward’s Indy Lights championship win was accompanied by a scholarship worth $1 million to be put towards an entry in the IndyCar championship.

However, O’Ward announced today that he had parted ways with the team, releasing the following statement:

“The Harding Steinbrenner Racing team supported my decision to seek a new opportunity by releasing me from my contract and allowing me the opportunity to find a new team before the start of the 2019 season. Now, I am fully focused on finding the right opportunity and how I will use my scholarship from Indy Lights for 2019.”

With the first race of the IndyCar season on March 10, time is running out for O’Ward to secure a new seat, and it is unclear whether he will be able to find a full-time or part-time deal.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing are now expected to contest the season with only one entry, the #88 car, to be driven by 2018 Indy Lights runner-up Colton Herta.

(Featured image credit: Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Mazda Road to Indy: Patricio O’Ward

Patricio O’Ward, along with title rival Colton Herta, is one of the closest drivers in the whole Mazda Road to Indy programme to IndyCar with a 2018 seat firmly in the Indy Lights rookie’s sights. The Mexican is part of the Andretti family and currently leads Indy Lights, despite being one of only two rookies in the full-time field.

Emily Inganni – How is this season of Indy Lights going for you so far? Is it what you expected it to be?

Patricio O’Ward – The season has gone great so far. Honestly it is close to what I expected it to be… I knew I would have a great race car and it was just a matter of me putting everything together on the race track. And I knew I could win!

EI – As a rookie, what have you had to learn entering Indy Lights and how hard has it been to match the more experienced drivers?

PW – Almost every driver on the grid has at least double or triple the experience I have with that Indy Lights car, so I’ve been playing a little catch up and trying to learn as much as I can, especially in the ovals. But I think I got the hang of it pretty well! It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been something I have enjoyed learning and something I have enjoyed studying.

EI – With a declining number of drivers and teams, do you think Indy Lights has a problem or do you expect the numbers to go back up in years to come?

PW – I hope numbers go back up. The issue is that the championship is way too expensive.  That is the issue. If prices go down, then that’s the golden key to have more cars!

EI – As a whole, do you think the Mazda Road to Indy programme is successful at getting young drivers higher up the motorsport ladder? Are there any improvements that you would like to see in the future?

PW – Road to Indy is awesome. It gives drivers, especially the champions of each category, a chance to move up to the next one. The only thing I would change is the amount of $ it costs to do each class… especially Pro Mazda and Indy Lights.

EI – Many Indy Lights drivers have made it to IndyCar before with Kaiser and Leist going up for this current season. Do you see yourself following that path?

PW – I do. I’ll hopefully be in IndyCar next year and I am more than ready for the challenge.

EI – What is the support like in a big team like Andretti? Do you get much support from the IndyCar drivers or not?

PW – I don’t see the IndyCar drivers much, but the help is always there if I need it. I just haven’t really asked around much, but the team have given me an awesome welcoming to the team and any question I have, they answer!

EI – To finish, what advice would you have for young drivers starting out in the Mazda Road to Indy or lower categories?

PW – My advice is drive the heck out of that race car every time you get in it. You never know when is the last time you will be driving it so every lap, give it all you’ve got. People will notice, and you will get a chance sooner or later with the big boys if you have got the skills.

Thanks to Patricio for answering my questions, hopefully we’ll be seeing him in IndyCar very soon! That concludes our Mazda Road to Indy series, another huge thank you to all the drivers for taking part, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the interviews!