12.15.2015 – Coming off the assorted announcements from the PRI Show in Indianapolis last weekend, off-season testing continues to heat up as teams put drivers in their cars, looking to fill their remaining seats. The numbers are looking good for 2016, especially with the Indy Lights series where I expect to see between 14-17 cars at St. Petersburg. Pro Mazda is building slowly, while the USF2000 series could top 20 cars if all the new drivers fall into place. Here’s a little look at some of the insider info on the recent announcements and planned testing:
INDY LIGHTS PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
Team Pelfrey will be testing both Euro F3 champ Felix Rosenqvist and 2013 USF2000 title winner Scott Hargrove at Palm Beach this week. Scott will run on Wednesday and Felix will drive on Thursday. Felix told me that interest in the MRTI ladder program is rising in Europe, which is good news.
I’m hearing that Belardi Auto Racing is lining up a couple drivers to test for their second seat. This is my on radar to dig for better insider info – I want names. The team is obviously looking for the right driver to pair with the signed Zach Veach, and Brian Belardi has told me that he’s been in touch with a couple of drivers and would very much like to run 3-4 cars. While I am still comfortable predicting between 14-17 cars this year, I’m of the opinion that if we hit 17, this could be the number that draws the last three from Europe or elsewhere to push to 20. Drivers want to race against, and beat, large fields, and I would not be surprised to see a surge if the number hits 16 or 17.
Most people are now expecting that reigning Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia will sign with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to put his Mazda scholarship to good use alongside the returning RC Enerson, but no one is talking and nothing official has been released. We’re hearing that Scott Anderson is also working away at assembling his backing to return to Indy Lights for a third season after testing the waters with Fan Force United in 2014 before moving to SPM last year. As I mentioned in an early article, Ethan Ringel will test with the team this month, but has not yet signed to run again in 2016.
PRO MAZDA PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
Juncos Racing was the first squad to lock up their driver line-up for the upcoming Pro Mazda season, announcing Garett Grist’s return at the PRI Show to join Will Owen, Nicolas Dapero and Jake Parsons. This will be a stout group with two veterans and two rookies. Grist must be considered a favorite for the title considering the strength, speed and maturity he showed during the second half of the 2015 season. Parsons will be one to watch, coming off a strong season in the Formula Masters China program. He also tested a GP2 car with Meritas GP this week.
Team Pelfrey is also forming up its driver quartet quite nicely. Pato O’Ward is expected to return for his second season with the team and I expect that they are also a prime option for Nico Jamin to use his USF2000 championship prize scholarship. USF2000 third place points man Aaron Telitz was joined by Formula Car Challenge Pro Formula Mazda champion Cabot Bigham at a recent test with the team as well. Both drivers are keen to join the series next year and Telitz told me that the test went very well and he is working hard to assemble the necessary budget.
Contrary to the reports I was given early, I’ve asked around and it appears that Andretti Autosports’ Pro Mazda operation is not completely on hiatus at this time. One plausible turn of events could be the return of Weiron Tan to the Pro Mazda series with his 2015 team. The strength of the US dollar is wreaking havoc on the actual US value of funding of international drivers, which is really making it tough on many pilots. Tan is from Malaysia, and I would suspect that his original desires to run Indy Lights may need to be downgraded for 2016. This is purely speculation and comes from no basis of fact.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 POWERED BY MAZDA
Skip Barber Scholarship winner Dakota Dickerson will be testing with Afterburner Autosport at Buttonwillow on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Californian impressed with the Team USA Scholarship squad at the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy, and then returned to win an SCCA SoPac Championship Formula F event at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway running a Swift DB6 for Huddy Motorsports. Keep your eye on this kid in 2016.
Jay Motorsports will be testing a new driver next week. After ending their season early in 2015, they have regrouped and are excited to get back on the track in 2016. I’ll keep digging to see if I can get a name on the test driver.
We’re all expecting Cape Motorsports to make their first driver announcement very soon. There is a short list of pilots who are likely on the radar for the dynamic sibling duo, and who fit their traditional sophomore experience requirements, including Nikita Lastochkin, Parker Thompson and Luke Gabin.
John Cummiskey has been very tight-lipped about his USF2000 program for 2016, although he told me at the PRI Show that he has a couple of drivers lined up for tests and to fill his seat. If he could get Aussie Anthony Martin back in a car, they would be immediate title contenders, although we’re hearing that Martin is hoping to advance to Pro Mazda next year, should the necessary funding be secured.
Anytime a series can add new teams, it’s a win-win. The 2016 season will see the full-time participation of RJB Motorsports, as the return after a research run at Mid-Ohio last August. The team announced the signing of the much-touted Michai Stephens during the PRI show, and the two-time Team USA Scholarship winner will race alongside Clint McMahon as they both gun for Rookie of the Year honors. The team principals of this effort – Ryan Barth, and Fred and Tom Edwards – are focused on developing a long-term plan that will potentially draw from their F600 Challenge program.