SEELMAN: A Tainted Championship

Jacob Seelman IndyCar, Jacob Seelman Blog, Mazda Road to Indy, Staff Columns 0 Comments

Carlin's Ed Jones captured the Indy Lights championship in Sunday’s season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. (Indy Lights photo)

Carlin’s Ed Jones captured the Indy Lights championship under controversial circumstances during Sunday’s season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. (Indy Lights photo)

MONTEREY, Calif. — Sunday’s Soul Red Finale for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca didn’t just leave a bad taste in my mouth, it left a downright foul taste in it.

Coming into the weekend, six drivers — Santiago Urrutia, Ed Jones, Dean Stoneman, Felix Serralles, Kyle Kaiser and Zach Veach — had a mathematical shot at the championship, which carries with it a $1 million advancement scholarship and a guarantee of three Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2017, including the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

But by the closing stages of the final race on Sunday, despite Veach’s best efforts by running away from the pack with both race wins, it was clear that the title fight was down to two men: Urrutia and Jones.

The Race Finish

Entering the final lap, Urrutia was running second behind Veach, while Jones was mired in fifth after a horrid start that saw him drop back from the pole position. At that point, had the championship ended, Urrutia would have taken the crown and its spoils in a tiebreaker on wins over Jones (four to two).

However, Jones had an ace in the hole that has since been the talking point of the entire Mazda Road to Indy community — his Carlin teammate Serralles was running just ahead of him in fourth.

The position carried with it a two point differential that Jones needed if he was going to leapfrog Urrutia and capture the title, and the maneuver that followed put me in a tailspin and left Urrutia dumbfounded and understandably frustrated on the final podium.

Entering turn three, in what RACER.com later called a display of “team orders,” Serralles slowed and allowed Jones passage — ultimately turning a 361-all tie into a two-point victory for the Dubai-based Englishman and the most bitter of defeats for the Uruguayan and reigning Pro Mazda champion.

The Aftermath

Jones did not even recognize the move on the podium, except to say that “I have no recognition of team orders” and “whatever happened on the last lap happened to Felix.”

“I don’t know what happened there,” Jones stressed again. “I was racing my own race, and I came out in fourth and got the championship.”

In contrast, Urrutia was visibly distressed and frustrated on the podium — fighting back tears while his supporters booed Jones, according to renowned IndyCar and open wheel writer Marshall Pruett.

Can you blame him, though?

After coming so close to a title, only to have it ripped from your fingertips in the final moments due to a move beyond your control … I would be upset, too.

To Santi’s credit, he was as composed and professional as he could be after the race, but his emotion was clear in responding to the way the final lap went down.

“It is what it is,” he said of finishing second. “It’s always difficult in this (series). It was good to get to the last race with a chance to win the championship, especially in my rookie year. I will try it again one day.”

I have a lot of problems with this entire situation, but I can boil my feelings down to the following statement before I dig into why I feel the way I do:

Team orders have no place in deciding a championship.

Period.

My Reasoning

A season title is meant to be about racing, about who is the best and most consistent over a pre-determined number of races and whose performance is at the highest level among the field of competitors.

It is not, never has been and never should be about a team trying to manipulate the final result in order to accomplish an end game, especially at the last race and on a day when their contending driver didn’t have the car to hold the spot he needed to hold to secure the title rightfully.

When you get to that point or cross that line, that is the point when the sport is no longer racing, and I have an inherent problem with that.

I’ve heard conflicting information from multiple people about whether or not there was ever an order given over the radio for Felix Serralles to yield his position on that last lap and allow his teammate passage to secure the championship.

At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter whether the order was given or it wasn’t.

The outside view and the overall appearance sullies the entire situation anyways, regardless of whether or not it was intended to.

What If?

For Ed Jones, this championship is now always going to have an asterisk by it. This season will always be remembered, not for the two races Jones won or the consistency he did show, but for the fact that he was gifted the spoils of victory in being able to have a spot (and two championship points) on the last lap that he didn’t have the speed to take in his own right during the prior 37 laps around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

That stigma is going to follow him up the ladder now to the Verizon IndyCar Series, as well.

Oh yes, let’s not forget that little piece of the puzzle.

Keep in mind, Jones’ title comes with a million dollar check and the guarantee of three races minimum in next season’s IndyCar championship schedule, including the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

Had he not been gifted his position on the last lap, those prizes would have gone to Santi Urrutia and we would have likely seen the talented (and well-deserving) Uruguayan in a third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry next year for those three races as Urrutia tested his mettle against the best of the best.

Instead, Jones will now get that chance … and in light of the circumstances surrounding the championship finale, the question has to be raised: Does he actually deserve it?

Let me be clear. I’m not belittling the things that Jones did accomplish this season. You don’t just walk into the Indy Lights championship, even as a second-year driver, and win two races and contend all year for the championship. That does take a level of talent that Jones no doubt possesses.

But to win the title the way he did, it doesn’t feel right for me for the Dubai Englishman to be the one reaping the spoils.

I’ll reiterate what I said earlier. A championship is meant to be about racing prowess, and not manipulation.

This had every odor of being the latter.

Whether it was discussed before the race, talked about during the race or was a snap decision made in the moment on the final lap by driver or team owner, team orders are team orders, in my mind.

Santi was in position to prove a point, to win a title and prove he belonged at the upper levels of the sport, despite it being his rookie season in the division.

By race’s end, he had that point taken out of his hands and made for him, and that’s quite simply not okay with me.

The Future

Urrutia’s words after the race were worrisome to me: “I will try it again one day.”

There has been talk from several insiders that I have spoken to who said that Santi needed to win this championship to be able to continue racing in the States beyond this year. While the reasoning for that potentiality hasn’t been expounded on as of yet, the potential impact and overall feeling is clear.

Obviously, I hope — as should everyone else — that these rumors are nothing more than that, because Urrutia is a bright talent and I feel he has a ton left to prove, both in the ladder system and before long in the Verizon IndyCar Series itself.

But if this is how Urrutia’s open wheel racing career in the U.S. ends — with a championship I argue he rightfully should have won — it’s an absolute travesty and I, for one, will be devastated for the young standout.

And as for Ed Jones, he now gets a chance to go on to next year’s Verizon IndyCar Series and run three races next year with the best drivers in American open wheel racing, including a shot at duplicating Alexander Rossi’s improbable feat of winning ‘The Greatest Spectacle In Racing’ as a rookie.

But as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t belong in that field. Not until he proves that his gimmicky championship was based more on talent than it was that ill-fated last-lap maneuver between he and his Carlin teammate.

If Ed goes out and wins the 500, or runs in the top five in one of his starts next year, then maybe I’ll start to believe he belongs in an Indy car by virtue of race craft and talent.

But until he performs, and starts to shake off that stigma that’s now going to haunt him, my opinion will remain as it has stood since the Soul Red Finale ended Sunday evening.

The only reason Ed Jones is moving onto the top rung of the open wheel ladder is thanks to the truest (albeit the simplest) form of team orders, a thing I never thought I’d actually see surface in professional American auto racing and something I’m ashamed we’re even having to talk about going into this offseason.

Those team orders ultimately make that trophy he hoisted shine a little differently as well.

At the end of the day, it makes Jones’ title a tainted championship.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a crying shame.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

 

About the Writer

jacobseelmanJacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.

Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.

The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.

Email Jacob at: editor@racechaseronline.com

Follow on Twitter: @Speed77Radio or @JacobSeelman77

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