10.30.2015 – We had a look at the potential 2016 Indy Lights driver line-up last week, and a number of updates have already come down the pipe thanks to the recent announcement that Team Pelfrey had purchased the program of 8Star Motorsports. This news sent ripples through the MRTI community in regards to where a few drivers would end up, but it’s also provided the Florida-based team with the opportunity to boast that they are the only complete ladder system now available. We expect that Team Pelfrey will be front and center in all three series, but for the purposes of this particular focused preview, they will enter the 2016 Pro Mazda campaign as the reigning champion.
It appears that the Pro Mazda paddock will consist of six teams this year, with the expected departure of Andretti Autosport. Championship-winning Team Pelfrey will return to defend their title, their first crown since 2012 when they won with Jack Hawksworth. They fielded three cars last year, but four is a definite possibility in 2016. Juncos Racing ran four cars in 2015 and we expect to see another front-running quartet from the top squad. JDC Motorsports has a championship pedigree as well, and could field as many as four cars, including a limited schedule for an Expert driver, while Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing is expected to bring two or three pilots to the game. M1 Racing and World Speed Motorsports are each working to put two or more cars under their tents for 2016, and both are expected to run Expert drivers in full or limited schedules.
We know of one driver who we’ll see in Pro Mazda, although he has yet to announce the team he’ll run with next year. It will be interesting to see where USF2000 champion Nico Jamin elects to take his scholarship, as there is the obviously opportunity to remain with Cape Motorsports for his third straight season. He’s already tested with Team Pelfrey, will test with Cape next week, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he tried to work in a test with Juncos Racing. Considering his impressive maturity and aggression, he’s surely a hot commodity in the paddock.
With that said, I’m expecting to see 15-20 drivers in the series for St. Pete in March, so here’s what my recent digging has uncovered to begin a look at the potential grids for Pro Mazda:
TEAM PELFREY (2-4 cars)
Of any squad in the MRTI paddock, Team Pelfrey has developed the most expansive program across the ladder system. Yes, they now have teams in USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights, but they also run a leading operation in the Formula 1600 Championship, which graduated three drivers into their USF2000 operation in 2015 (Agren, Rickards and Lastochkin). It remains to be seen if any of these USF rookies will be motivated to jump to Pro Mazda this year after just one year in two-liter competition, but as the team is now testing two of their winning F1600 drivers in their USF2000 cars, the pipeline is certainly full heading into 2016. Santiago Urrutia scored the Pro Mazda championship for Team Pelfrey last year, so he is off to Indy Lights, which will open the door for Pato O’Ward to step forward after a great second-half of the 2015 season that saw him post five top-six finishes over the final four weekends. The third team driver from last season – Raoul Owens – is expected to race sports cars in Europe in 2016. While it appears that the team will bring just one pilot back for a sophomore run, there are several drivers in line to fill the available seats.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Pato O’Ward – expected to remain with Team Pelfrey for his sophomore run, but he was non-committal when I talked with him – as always, young drivers maintain their continuing efforts to find necessary funding – could he go elsewhere?
Nico Jamin – reigning USF2000 champion turned his first laps in a Pro Mazda with Team Pelfrey on Tuesday at Palm Beach – definite potential to sign with the team, although with the Mazdaspeed USF2000 champion scholarship, he’s a hot commodity – could stay with Cape Motorsports as well
Jake Parsons – the Australian Formula Ford veteran was the Formula Masters China vice-champion in 2015, running with Meritas GP, and tested with the team at PBIR this week – I expect him to sign with the team to run Pro Mazda in 2016
Luke Gabin – Australian driver improved throughout rookie USF2000 campaign in 2015 and could end up back at Team Pelfrey’s two-liter effort, or potentially Cape, but he also tested a Pro Mazda with the team this week during their outing at PBIR
Jake Eidson – the USF2000 runner-up was also at the PBIR test with Team Pelfrey, getting his first shot at a Pro Mazda car. The 21-year-old is hard at work to secure the sponsorship back to make the jump to the next rung of the MRTI
Jack Aitken – pure speculation – the Brit won the Cooper Tires Winterfest crown with Team Pelfrey in February, and then went on to win the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup title. I chatted with him briefly last week and he said that a return to the US and the MRTI remains an option for him, although his FRenault title has provided him with many options for 2016
JUNCOS RACING (4 cars)
There wasn’t a Pro Mazda race in 2015 that didn’t see at least one Juncos Racing driver finish in the top-five. The team scored four wins thanks to Garett Grist (3) and Timothe Buret (1), and their trademark green and white cars were always near the pointy end of the grid. The team had a balanced attack of veteran (Grist and Gutierrez) and freshman drivers (Owen and Buret) last year and this will very likely play into their continued strength in 2016. Will Owen has confirmed that he will return to Juncos for next year’s run at the title, as the American continues his run up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. I expect Grist to remain with Juncos, regardless of whether his management is able to advance him to Indy Lights or elects to keep him in Pro Mazda to run for the title. Buret will very likely re-focus his racing on the Formula Masters China program, or potentially a European prototype effort, and at this time, I hear that Gutierrez is looking seriously at an Indy Lights attack. Juncos’ spent this past year testing and developing young Argentinean Nicolas Dapero, and he will run the entire schedule with them in 2016, giving them two confirmed pilots thus far.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Will Owen – confirmed for 2016
Nicolas Dapero – confirmed for 2016 – Brazilian F3 driver tested with Juncos throughout 2015 and will run the full championship next year
Garett Grist – with three race wins in 2015, the Canadian is eyeing a move to Indy Lights, but should the budget not come around for him, he would be a prime contender for the Pro Mazda title next year
Keyvan Andres – we are hearing that Andres will move to Pro Mazda in 2016 after two years in USF2000 and he is looking seriously at joining Juncos UPDATE – I confirmed with Keyvan Andries on November 25 that he is focused on the Formula Renault 2.0 EuroCup and NEC, and some potential F3 events, for 2016. He will not move to Pro Mazda, but he did not rule out a return to Indy Lights in the future.
Weiron Tan – this is more of a wildcard prognostication, but after a strong four-win, six pole position season in Pro Mazda, Tan may be looking for a new team as Andretti Autosport is putting its entire focus on Indy Lights. If Tan does not advance with the team into Indy Lights, he would need to find a new squad and Juncos is certainly a frontrunner for the talented Malaysian
JDC MOTORSPORTS (2-4 cars)
John Church’s operation has guided several racers to championships and top finishes in the Pro Mazda, including title winners Adam Christodolou (2009) and Tristan Vautier (2011). They also finished in the runner-up spot with future IndyCar driver Gabby Chaves in 2012, and third overall with Connor DePhillippi in 2010. However things shake down, JDC will see an all-new line-up for 2016, as their trio of drivers from last year have all made decisions that will take them away from the series. Kyle Connery has elected to take a year off from all competition, while Michael Johnson will remain a JDC MotorSports pilot although he has elected to move to the Continental Tire Sports Car Championship. Parker Nicklin ran a limited schedule, and has not yet confirmed his return to action. Church did let me know that they are in talks to two drivers for Pro Mazda seats, and they will field Expert driver Kevin Davis at three or four races in 2016. Davis won the Expert class on Saturday at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Kevin Davis – confirmed for Expert class in 3-4 events in 2016
CAPE MOTORSPORTS with WAYNE TAYLOR RACING (2 cars)
After launching their Pro Mazda program in 2014 by graduating their USF2000 drivers Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico to the next step of the Mazda Road to Indy, Nicholas and Dominic Cape set about developing their set-ups for the Pro Mazda chassis, Mazda Renesis rotary powerplant and new Cooper tires, scoring three wins en route to second overall in the Team Championship that year. Alberico returned to the series this past season alongside USF2000 grads Florian Latorre and Daniel Burkett, and they bagged another five wins and 17 top-five finishes. Heading into 2016, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing will again run both their USF2000 and Pro Mazda programs, although they have not yet announced any drivers for the upcoming year. In fact, they told me that they don’t expect to have their Pro Mazda team finalized until January. As for last year’s drivers, Alberico is now fully focused on making the jump to Indy Lights, while Burkett will make the transition to sport car racing after successfully testing the waters in an LMPC car at Watkins Glen and Road America last summer. Latorre is not expected to return to the MRTI in 2016, but will instead re-focus his career on sports car racing. In talking with the Capes about their USF2000 and Pro Mazda testing schedule, they were hush-hush in terms of the drivers that they are in contact with, stating that they didn’t wish to negatively affect any of these pilots’ relationship with their existing teams. That said, there are several pilots who have indicated to me personally that they have or will be testing with the team, so we’ll have to work on that knowledge to begin our silly season preview.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Nico Jamin – Cape’s USF2000 champ tested with Team Pelfrey earlier this week, but is scheduled to test with Cape next week with the potential of bringing his Mazdaspeed scholarship back to the squad
Aaron Telitz – as a Cape driver in USF2000, he could continue with the team into Pro Mazda, as did Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico in 2014 – Telitz was initially eyeing a move directly into Indy Lights, but budgets are tough to find, and he may find himself focused on Pro Mazda – Telitz said he has a great test with Juncos already, and will also test with World Speed Motorsports next week and Team Pelfrey in December
M1 RACING (2 cars)
M1 Racing’s Paul Mata has worked hard to establish his M1 Racing squad over the past two years, and with the help of Star Race Car’s Jay Horak, he ran young gun Victor Franzoni in five Pro Mazda weekends this past season. Mata is working hard to get the Brazilian back in the seat for 2016, and he’ll have a pair of Expert drivers running limited schedules with Horak and Carlos Conde. The team also runs an Audi R8 program for Walt Bowlin in the Pirelli World Challenge.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Victor Franzoni – Brazilian was very impressive in mid-season move from USF2000 to Pro Mazda last year – team would love to get him back in the car for 2016
Jay Horak – confirmed to return for undetermined number of Expert class events
Carlos Conde – confirmed for limited schedule in Expert class
Tristan DeGrand – the young American won both the Ontario and Quebec Formula Ford championship in 2014, and ran with M1 at Winterfest last year but took the summer off from competition to focus on assembling the necessary budget – Tristan is a supremely talented young driver and continues to work with M1 to put together a deal for 2016 – he would be a great addition to the series and would be an instant contender for Rookie of the Year
WORLDSPEED MOTORSPORTS (2 cars)
I haven’t been able to get any news out of the World Speed Motorsports camp, although I did have a great discussion with reigning Pro Mazda Expert champion Bobby Eberle, who will be back with WSM in 2016 to defend his title and battle his way up the grid. The Texan may run in the Expert division for drivers 30 years of age and older, but his focus is on the top-10 and he’s developed his skills in leaps and bounds since first sitting in a Skip Barber school car in 2011. Eberle was mixing it up with the tail end of the field at the end of last year, and I expect he’ll be even more competitive in 2016. As far as WSM is concerned, at this time, I only know that Aaron Telitz will be testing with the team next week. The squad is based out of Sonoma Raceway and manages an intensive program at the facility, including promoting a West Coast Pro Formula Mazda series that is a strong feeder for their MRTI team. I would expect that they’ll have at least one of their young guns under the tent at St. Pete in March. The team ran 19-year-old Englishman Alessandro Latif last year, but his return to the Pro Mazda series has not been confirmed.
Potential 2016 Drivers:
Bobby Eberle – two-time Expert Series champion will be back in 2016 and is motivated to continue his rapid development
Alessandro Latif – young UK pilot attacked a steep learning curve in 2015 and closed the gap on the field all year – I haven’t been able to confirm whether he’ll be returning for 2016
Aaron Telitz – the USF2000 grad will test with WSM next week