Fans of IndyCar’s next-generation drivers, we have one heck of a Mazda Road to Indy season on our hands.
Up front, we know Indy Lights has been struggling with low car counts, but that hasn’t stopped an epic battle between Andretti Autosport teammates Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, and Belardi Racing’s Santi Urrutia from breaking out. All three have a serious chance to take Mazda’s $1 million advancement prize to IndyCar.
Herta, looking like the runaway championship favorite after scoring four consecutive victories through Road America, has been overtaken by O’Ward, and Urrutia has also found new momentum with three events left to run.
In the win column, Mexico’s O’Ward is up 5-4 on Herta, and with consecutive trips to Victory Lane at Iowa and Toronto 1, the points lead has tipped in Pato’s favor (331-313). Uruguay’s Urrutia, in his third Lights season, has been somewhat erratic, but also salvaged his year with a third at Iowa, a second on Saturday at Toronto 1, and a win at Toronto 2 on Sunday.
The Andretti team has produced the fastest cars of the year, which makes Urrutia’s Belardi turnaround to inch closer to Herta (313-291) another interesting angle to have emerged.
Add in Herta’s bone-breaking crash in Toronto 1 and being parked by his father for most of Toronto 2, and the second-generation driver must perform when the Mid-Ohio doubleheader gets underway later this month. The swarming trio, never far from each other on track, are primed to keep the fight moving until a winner is crowned in Portland.
Contributing to the fun among the three potential IndyCar stars, these Lights title contenders are nothing alike.
In O’Ward, we have a kid with blinding speed and a ton of personality who isn’t afraid to let his feelings show. There’s a small element of mischief in his character which, as 1990 Indy Lights champion Paul Tracy let the world know last week, is needed in IndyCar.
And then there’s the most obvious aspect of the 19-year-old’s season to date: Who expected O’Ward – a rookie – to go toe to toe with Herta, a sophomore? Or Urrutia, who’s coming off back-to-back second-place finishes in the championship? Even if O’Ward ends up losing out to Herta or Urrutia, his pace and potential as a rookie will stand as the big takeaway from 2018.
Thinking of his on- and off-track package as a whole, if O’Ward reminds me of one current IndyCar driver, it would be Josef Newgarden. And as Team Penske’s reigning champion learned in his formative IndyCar stages, once O’Ward adds in the willingness to race for points instead of always pushing for the win, he’ll be close to complete. O’Ward also has a little bit of PT’s personality, and that could be a blast if he chooses to embrace it.
Herta, like his father, has shown the rare ability at the MRTI level to switch between driving styles. Where most of his rivals only have one gear – maximum attack – the 18-year-old can mold his performances to the needs of the day. In that regard, among IndyCar drivers, he reminds me of Simon Pagenaud – equal parts fast and smart. But like the Frenchman, there are also times where Herta would benefit from tapping into a more primal mode. Provided he can find the same wild glint found in Will Power’s eyes when needed, Hertamania 2.0 will have few holes left in his game.
And when he isn’t playing the WWE ‘babyface,’ Herta has a helping or two of Alexander Rossi’s ‘heel’ in his composition; you just might end up with a tire donut on your sidepod or on the grass if you aren’t careful.
In Urrutia, we have Indy Lights’ most enigmatic driver. Eight total wins on road courses, street courses and ovals since 2016 have demonstrated the 21-year-old’s diverse skills, and on the strength of his efforts, it looked like moving up to IndyCar could have happened at the end of 2016, and again after 2017. The sheer power of Andretti’s program has derailed Urrutia’s easy path to the title in his junior year, and along the way, he’s made some questionable moves behind the wheel – the kind of things that aren’t expected in a third Indy Lights go-round.
Give Urrutia a fast car, and he’s a monster. Apply heavy pressure, and cracks have been evident. But we’re still talking about someone who’s 21 and racing in the MRTI, so lingering shortcomings aren’t exactly unexpected. I can’t think of a current IndyCar driver that fits him properly, so I’d have to go with Alex Tagliani, whose career was fueled by emotion and fluctuated heavily between highs and lows. Like the old Crowded House song: we have ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ with Santi. It’s hard to predict who’s going to show up, but each persona is pure fireworks.
If, in his ongoing maturation, Urrutia can find greater inner stability, there’s also no question he can impress in an IndyCar.
O’Ward, Herta, and Urrutia. One or more is headed to IndyCar, and if we’re lucky, all three will find homes and bring their version of pyrotechnics to the series.
Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni, who won Road America 2 for Juncos Racing, is a longshot for the Lights title, but if he can return to the series next year, the Brazilian is another young talent who has the markings of a quality IndyCar driver.
Finally, the kids on the march toward Indy Lights have also been making plenty of noise in 2018. Canada’s Parker Thompson and Holland’s Rinus VeeKay have been on a tear this season in Pro Mazda, and with just seven points separating them after VeeKay’s pair of wins in Toronto, the intensity is rising as Mid-Ohio, Gateway, and Portland beckon. The only surprise in Pro Mazda this year is found with 2017 USF2000 champion Oliver Askew, who continues to chase his first win.
And in the series Askew departed, his former Team USA Scholarship teammate Kyle Kirkwood has destroyed a deep field of USF2000 contenders. The American has taken seven wins from nine rounds, including six straight, and will win the championship unless the Lord intervenes.
In Lights, don’t let the car counts fool you. Tracy ran away with his title 28 years ago as one of nine full-time Indy Lights entries. Newgarden’s 2011 Lights championship came against a field of seven others who contested every round. What mattered for them was the quality of opposition being faced, and with O’Ward, Herta, and Urrutia, young steel is sharpening young steel.
More cars would definitely help improve the health of the Indy Lights series, but I have no doubts about the caliber of drivers preparing for the graduation ceremony in September.