SPEEDWAY, Ind. – A dramatic overnight temperature change brought significantly cooler conditions as the first green flag fell to commence the eighth annual Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Open Test Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Yet the action on-track was as hot as ever with almost three dozen drivers representing no fewer than 15 different nations vying for early bragging rights in preparation for the 2019 Road to Indy season.
All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – experienced three 45-minute sessions on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn track Grand Prix road course, with unofficial lap records posted in each series.
Mirroring this year’s Indy Lights season, the competition was supremely tight among nine drivers – an intriguing mix of veterans and rookies – at the test. At the end of the day on fresh Cooper tires, the top four all posted times within .2 of a second of each other, well inside both the existing race lap record of 1:15.7230, set in 2016 by Felix Rosenqvist, and comfortably faster than Patricio O’Ward’s pole-winning time of 1:15.4255 in May this year.
In the end it was on-form Ryan Norman of Andretti Autosport atop the time charts with a best of 1:14.9283, an average speed of 117.184 mph, despite missing virtually the entire first session due to a mechanical issue. Norman has already marked himself as one of the championship favorites for next year after gaining his first Indy Lights win last month at Gateway Motorsports Park and following up with his first pole just three weeks ago at Portland Int’l Raceway.
Oliver Askew ended the day second fastest, also for Andretti Autosport, at 1:15.0060. Askew was one of three drivers who earned this weekend’s opportunity by finishing in the top three positions of the Pro Mazda championship. Askew, who finished third in the title-chase after winning the USF2000 crown in 2017, scored his first Pro Mazda win earlier this month at Portland.
Askew narrowly edged both Brazilian Victor Franzoni, at 1:15.0306, and recently crowned Pro Mazda champion Rinus VeeKay, at 1:15.1075.
Fellow Pro Mazda graduate Robert Megennis was fifth fastest for Andretti Autosport, ahead of Team Pelfrey’s Parker Thompson.
Three different drivers set the fastest lap times during each of today’s three 45-minute test sessions in Pro Mazda, with Florida teenager Darren Keane emerging on top at the end of the day. Keane’s lap of 1:19.2971 (110.728 mph) for RP Motorsport Racing was fractionally quicker than the record of 1:19.3319 set during qualifying earlier this year by Askew.
Keane, who contested the majority of this season in USF2000, only concluded his deal to join the Italian-run team mere days before the test. He also impressed during a hectic day by posting the second fastest time in USF2000.
Danial Frost was fastest in the day’s first session for defending champion team Juncos Racing. Frost, who contested a partial season of USF2000 this year, improved in every session, ending the day in second place, just over a tenth of a second slower than Keane’s benchmark.
After finishing second in this year’s USF2000 championship, Rasmus Lindh was quickest of all in the second session aboard another Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 with a time of 1:19.4338, good enough for third overall.
Fellow USF2000 grad Julian Van der Watt also was within two-tenths of Keane with a best lap of 1:19.4905 for BN Racing.
Versatile Australian Cameron Shields rounded out the top five for Juncos Racing, fractionally faster than teenaged Colombian Mathias Soler-Obel aboard a second RP Motorsport entry.
IndyCar driver Jack Harvey made a cameo appearance, helping to shakedown a car for Pabst Racing, which is seeking to add a two-car squad to its roster in addition to chasing a third straight USF2000 Team Championship.
One year ago, California-born, New Zealand-raised, Australian-based teenager Hunter McElrea turned plenty of heads at the Chris Griffis Open Test by posting the fourth fastest time in his first taste of a USF2000 car with Pabst Racing.
Saturday, McElrea, who has continued to gain experience in Australia and currently leads his national Formula Ford Championship with just two rounds remaining, continued to impress by returning to Indianapolis and dipping below Oliver Askew’s 2017 USF2000 track record with a day-topping time of 1:24.5411, an average speed of 103.860 mph.
McElrea lost very little time in reacquainting himself with the demands of a slicks-and-wings Tatuus-Mazda, which requires a different style of driving to the Formula Ford Mygale car with which he has become so familiar this year. He ended the first session this morning a scant .0618 of a second shy of the fastest time set by series veteran Keane, driving the same Cape Motorsports car with which Kyle Kirkwood dominated this year’s championship.
McElrea then found almost a half-second to jump to the top of the charts in the second session before making another incremental improvement in the final outing of the day.
Keane also circulated underneath the lap record established last year by Askew. He ended the day less than a tenth of a second away from McElrea’s best. James Raven ended the day third fastest for DEForce Racing, followed by two-time 2018 USF2000 race winner Alex Baron who enjoyed an extremely promising first day for the brand-new and locally based Legacy Autosport team.
Andre Castro also impressed for Legacy Autosport on his return to racing after an 18-month absence, posting the fifth fastest time of the day.
Local Indianapolis driver Zach Holden, driving for another brand-new USF2000 team, Jay Howard Driver Development, ended the day sixth fastest, while Yuven Sundaramoorthy (Pabst Racing) and fellow F1600 Championship Series front-runner Tyler O’Connor (Cape Motorsports), who was making his debut in a slicks-and-wings car, also circulated within a second of the fastest time of the day.