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MRTI Roundtable: Gateway Edition

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has been nothing short of spectacular this season, with all three ladders – USF2000, Pro Mazda Championship and Indy Lights – showcasing future talent for the Verizon IndyCar Series while also bringing dynamic title battles. This week’s edition features special guest Rob Howden, who joins the cast to discuss the positives and negatives as the end of the 2017 season looms near.

What two drivers should move up in the MRTI other than the series champions?

Rob Howden, Road to Indy Insider and veteran motorsports journalist: The first on my list is Parker Thompson, who is already locked into third in the USF2000 championship. What he’s done over the last three years in USF2000 is tremendous. His overall development as a driver is insane. Look at his personal road. Rookie year with JDC MotorSports in a single-car effort; no one to learn from, no veteran to provide data to overlay. Then he joins the powerhouse Cape Motorsports, wins races and contends for the title against his teammate, coming up just short after a tire puncture at Mid-Ohio changes the complexion of the championship fight.  Now, he’s the lead driver for a brand-new team, helps to build their set-up book, and goes on a winning streak of three races in the last four events.  He deserves the opportunity to show his skills in Pro Mazda, especially after what he’s done this year in USF2000 with Exclusive Autosport.

Secondly, I’ll tab whichever driver does not win the Pro Mazda Championship.  Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni have each delivered in USF2000 and they both have the talent and personalities that could go far in IndyCar. It’s tough, because there is a good chance that the driver who does not win the Pro Mazda title could find themselves at the end of their MRTI journey, due simply to funding limitation. The bottom line is that they are both among the best that the MRTI has produced.

Christopher DeHarde, INDYCAR & Road to Indy Writer for Motorsports Tribune: For driving to move up in the Mazda Road to Indy, they have to be at a point in their careers where they need fresh challenges and two drivers fit that bill, both of them in USF2000. Parker Thompson has been in the championship since 2015 and has shown that with a new team he can certainly challenge the front of the field. Another driver that needs new challenges is Robert Megennis, who won the season-opening race at St. Pete but since has been endured a bit of a roller coaster since. Pro Mazda would suit the New Yorker well.

Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Tribune and freelance contributor to Man, this is a tough one. I could (and for the most part do) agree with both of you on Parker Thompson and the runner-up between Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni in Pro Mazda, but for the sake of this discussion I’ll go a different route.

I’ve got to say that Santi Urrutia is a must to move out of Indy Lights and up to the top level. He’s confirmed that 70 percent of the budget is there to go IndyCar racing next year. Plus, he was at the wrong end of a controversial championship outcome in 2016, bounced back with a new team (although same engineer) to win races and become a title contender again.  It’s time Uruguay’s ‘favorite son’ got his chance.

For the second choice, I’ll go Rinus VeeKay – assuming Askew tight hold on the USF2000 title becomes official at season’s end. I understand VeeKay is new to racing in the United States, let alone a USF2000 car, but too often drivers get stuck when they have the pace. He’s elevated Pabst Racing to a contender, and with the PM-18 next year being an evolved USF2000 machine, I could see him challenging for a title there as well.

What two drivers in each series would benefit the most from another year in their respective championships?

RH: This is such a tremendous question, because the concept goes against the internal motivation of any driver, and their families for that matter.  Drivers are always dreaming of that next level, the next quickest car, the step that is one closer to the Verizon IndyCar Series.  I’ve watched so many drivers graduate too early, losing out on the opportunity to really hone their skills.  I believe you only need to look at the success of drivers like Parker Thompson and Kyle Kaiser to see the value of three years at any level.  It’s my opinion that Parker is the most developed talent at the USF2000 level, and Kyle has matured impressively since his first year in Indy Lights. His consistency this year is what has put him firmly in control of the championship, minus is little relapse in Race 2 at Mid-Ohio.  I see no hurry in rushing out of Indy Lights into IndyCar.  It’s the level where you can truly hone your skills until you’re ready for the big show.

If I were to select two drivers who I think would gain the most for another season in their respective programs, I’d go with Kaylen Frederick in USF2000 and Colton Herta in Indy Lights.

I am a firm believer that drivers not only need to show speed and be able to podium on a regular basis, but that they also need to learn how to win.  In karting, I watch drivers advance to the next level of competition without ever winning. Their parents are motivated by the perceived need to keep up with the other drivers, and not to be ‘left behind’, or to get to cars when they’re 14 or 15.  I think ‘staying behind’ is often a very positive approach. Drivers need to learn how to win, and even dominate.  Kaylen Frederick may very well be the biggest surprise of the entire MRTI season.  He’s been tremendous in his rookie year, with five podiums.  But, he hasn’t won yet.  He just 15 years of age, and I’ve love to see him stay in USF2000 for 2018 and win a bunch of races. You can’t teach winning. It’s needs to be organic, fed by experience and the raw emotion of wanting it every race.

I think Herta is a no-brainer. He’s young, extremely fast, and he can win. He’s also a raw talent and has made some minor mistakes this year that have hurt him.  Personally, I’d like to see him spend two more years in Indy Lights before moving to IndyCar. I don’t think that there’s any hurry for him.  We also know it’s an inevitable step, so why rush it?

CD: Drivers that need to stay in their own championships are drivers that would more than likely be much more in contention for their championship if they were to stay another year. Kaylen Frederick is a prime example, especially considering how well he has done this season. Frederick would only get more entrenched in the 2018 USF2000 championship battle and he would more than likely earn a couple of wins. Another driver that fits this bill would be Aaron Telitz, who came into Indy Lights with guns blazing, winning the first race of the season in St. Petersburg. But since that time he’s been either hot or cold, with five finishes of eighth or worse coupled with seven top-five finishes. Consistency wins championships and Telitz’s yo-yo results won’t get him the championship, yet.

JB: I’ve got to say that Devin Wojcik in USF2000 and Matheus Leist in Indy Lights have the most to benefit from another season in their respective categories. For Wojcik, he’s with the team that finished third last season with Franzoni and has shown decent pace but is still seeking a top five finish. However, I think podiums are just a matter of time – he reminds me a lot of Parker Thompson and is starting his MRTI career in a similar way.

With Leist, it’s easy to look at how quickly he adapted to ovals with his dominating Freedom 100 win and a British F3 title and push him up – especially if Carlin is going IndyCar racing in 2018. I see the talent, but at the moment it’s flashes of talent and not necessarily controlled. I do believe that he and Franzoni are the future for Brazilian drivers in IndyCar once Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan move on. With that said, once he gets more polished, he is going to be tough to beat.

What has been the biggest surprise in the MRTI this season?

RH: Although I shouldn’t be overly surprised due to the new Tatuus USF-17 car, I think the overall strength of the freshmen class in the USF2000 caught me a little off-guard.  After second-year driver Robert Megennis won the opener in St. Pete, after third-year competitor Parker Thompson had already put it on pole for Race 2, I fully expected to see the veterans rise to the occasion and dominate the year. It’s just always been that way.  The sheer pace of rookies Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay, coupled with their calm demeanours, turned everything upside down.  Kaylen Frederick’s ability to match and exceed the pace of his more experienced teammates at Team Pelfrey was also a revelation.  The rookies have been incredibly strong in 2017.

CD: For me the biggest surprise wasn’t that Oliver Askew won in USF2000, it was that he won so much so early in the championship. I expected Askew to win a few races during the 14 race championship but five of the first six races was a way better start than I think Askew even expected, especially considering that this is his first season racing cars.

JB: Honestly, I think it has to be Pro Mazda. The series hosts the oldest, most outdated car and a field that, prior to the season, was worried about hitting a decent car count. Of all the championships, this one is by far and away the one that has me the most excited and a large part of that is due to how even Franzoni and Martin are in equipment, and how much they are pushing each other.  Sure, it doesn’t have the depth like Indy Lights, but the racing has been so tight and intense that the focus really doesn’t go beyond the fight for first.

Both drivers have poured their heart and soul into this title bout, it’s a shame someone has to lose.

What has been the biggest disappointment in the MRTI this season?

RH: Has there really been anything to be disappointed with?  I think the only downside would have been the early departure of a few drivers, like Pato O’Ward from Team Pelfrey in Indy Lights and Dakota Dickerson from Newman Wachs Racing in USF2000.  I hate it when budget shortcomings put the more talented drivers on the sidelines. Pato was a dominant driver in Pro Mazda last season, and we’ve lost him, for now, to sports cars where he’s enjoying tremendous success with wins in many of the iconic events.  Dakota is a young American talent with a higher level of dedication than virtually everyone else in the paddock.  Losing those drivers has been very disappointing to me, personally.

CD: It’s difficult to pick one disappointment because there are two things that truly stand out as being less than stellar. The first is seeing drivers like Dakota Dickerson, Ayla Agren and Luke Gabin unable to continue their seasons in USF2000 because of a lack of funding when all three drivers were in the top ten of the championship.

The other big disappointment has been Team Pelfrey. Granted, they have had some great runs with Frederick and Megennis, but I did not expect a large organization like Pelfrey to have only one win this season and that one being in USF2000. With a dominating season last year in Pro Mazda, it’s amazing to see that they haven’t scored a win yet this season but there are three races left in Pro Mazda for them to do it.

JB: I think you nailed it, Rob. Losing Pato O’Ward, to me, was a huge hit. He mirrored Aaron Telitz last year in the Pro Mazda, but narrowly lost out on the title. In just the few Indy Lights events we saw him run, he looked good and every bit the part. It might look deceiving since Telitz won the season opener, but Team Pelfrey’s Indy Lights equipment is significantly behind their rivals.

I’m hopeful that we can see him return in 2018, but with his sports car success hitting an all-time high it is probably unrealistic.

Who is the best driver not currently in the MRTI that should be next season?

RH: I think that it’s Kyle Kirkwood, although it’s a close one.  Kyle is very much like Oliver Askew.  He’s developed high-level skill, racecraft, maturity and poise at the very top level of North American karting, and he’s already shown what he can do in open wheel single seaters with the Team USA Scholarship program at the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy.  He’s leading the F4 US Championship with seven wins and is primed for the title.  That said, it’s a tight call because Ireland’s Niall Murray is a driver who I think would make a big splash in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. The 22-year-old won both the Festival and the WHT last year, and was a finalist in the Mazda $200,000 Scholarship Shootout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last December. Thankfully, we’ll see him with Newman Wachs Racing for his debut at Watkins Glen on Labor Day weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the podium.

CD: This is difficult because there are a couple of drivers that should go in at USF2000 that are amazing but there are a couple that should go into Indy Lights. For USF2000, Kyle Kirkwood and Niall Murray would be major gains for the championship as they’ve proven themselves racing in other formulae while Indy Lights would gain massive talent if somehow Pato O’Ward and Scott Hargrove were able to gain a full season of funding. Hargrove has shown that he has the talent to get the job done by winning the USF2000 championship in 2013 and was a handful of laps away from winning the Pro Mazda title in 2014 before a gearbox failed on him in the final race of the season.

JB: Does my previous answer of Pato count? Just kidding. For the same reasons stated above, I’ve got to go with Kyle Kirkwood. I would have loved to see him going up against Askew this year. Both friends and longtime competitors that hail from the same town, it would’ve been cool.

Considering the low ceiling that F4 has, I think it’s a no-brainer if he wants to pursue IndyCar that he attacks it through MRTI.

Special thanks to Rob Howden for taking part in this edition of MRTI roundtable. Please check out Road to Indy Insider at Facebook, Twitter and on the web for all the latest within the paddock!

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