To say that things are heating up in the Mazda Road to Indy world would be an understatement. We’re down to less than six weeks from the first race of the season, and there are seats still to be filled and official testing has now begun. The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off the 2016 season this morning with an official two-day test, and 11 drivers hit the track spread out over five teams. The times from the initial morning session were impressive, with the entire group coming in within a second. Team Pelfrey was the only squad of the expected operations not to field cars for the test, and in speaking with Team Principal Nigel Tuckey at the Autosport show in England, they’ve had loads of interest but simply nothing in place as of yet. I fully expect to see them on the grid in St. Petersburg. From the research I’ve done, I am predicting 16 cars in the paddock to start the year.
Monday’s official announcement of Neil Alberico’s addition to the Carlin Indy Lights line-up was a popular one in the community, continuing the rise of this young American driver up the Mazda Road to Indy ranks. The Californian broke into the series with JDC Motorsports in the USF2000 series in 2012, and then joined Cape Motorsports in the series in 2013. Alberico ran with Cape in Pro Mazda in 2014 and 2015 as well, and has amassed a total of 10 MRTI wins on the first two rungs of the ladder. He’ll join Indy Lights sophomores Ed Jones and Felix Serralles at Carlin to form a venerable trio in 2016.
I had a chance to speak with Ethan Ringel’s father Glenn about their plans for the future. Ringel was on a steep learning curve as an SPM Indy Lights rookie last year, but impressed in showing pole-setting pace at Indianapolis. Rain hampered two of the official tests during the season, which slowed his development by robbing him of some much necessary track time, but overall he had a solid freshman season despite significantly less experience than his competitors. Looking at 2016, Ethan will likely re-focus his energies on potential business opportunities, and as a world-ranked online gamer, he is poised to develop a lucrative career in that arena as well. Ringel has not ruled out additional racing in 2016, including the Atlantic Championship, and he also has designs on a potential Indianapolis 500 effort in 2017.
The Pro Mazda program has been pretty silent as of late, but there have been some interesting news bits coming my way. Juncos Racing is the only team that has confirmed its line-up, and I fully expect that Team Pelfrey will be the next to announce their drivers. In fact, they announced this morning that they will announce a driver via YouTube on Friday. I had fully expected that Pato O’Ward would be the first to confirm his return to the championship-winning team, but it appears that he is continuing the search to find the necessary budget. After a great off-season test, I predict that we’ll see USF2000 frontrunner Aaron Telitz with Pelfrey, so he may be the first driver to be announced. There is another driver who I have been told is ready to confirm as well, but I promised to keep that one private, however hard that is. Californian Cabot Bigham had also tested with the team and hinted at joining the operation, but I’m being told that he’ll test the GRC Lites waters in 2016 instead.
The entire MRTI is evolving and the move by Andretti Autosport out of the Pro Mazda level may now be complete, as I heard from a source that Andretti has sold its final Pro Mazda car to Cape Motorsports, along with a spare tub, which would expand their fleet to four. With new Pro Mazda cars coming in 2018, these cars were likely deeply discounted, and I’m very interested in hearing Cape’s plans to fill the seats. We expect USF2000 champion Nico Jamin to use his Mazda scholarship to remain with Cape, but I have not heard who will be under the tent with him in the second and third seats, or the fourth, if the Andretti car purchase is indeed factual.
Word continues to filter into my office in regards to confirmations and updates on USF2000 teams as well. Here’s some of the news I’m gathering together:
John Cummiskey Racing has been quiet over the last couple of months, preferring to keep their driver negotiations out of the spotlight. As I reported from the Autosport show earlier in the month, series sophomore Ayla Agren appears positioned to start the season with JCR, although we’ve also learned that the talented Norwegian driver is still working to obtain the remainder of the necessary budget. I’m also told that Cummiskey is in final discussions with a young South American driver to fit into the second seat, and that a third car is also in the works. After a strong debut season with a single car (Anthony Martin), taking fourth in points, JCR certainly proved itself as a top-tier team in the USF2000 program. Martin cannot be ruled out for a return to the squad, although we reported earlier that he is keen to graduate to Pro Mazda and may be in the midst of being courted by Cape Motorsports.
Speaking of Cape, as stated in their press release announcing Nikita Lastochkin in their second car, alongside Parker Thompson, the squad plans to run a third entry in 2016. The names of top returning drivers are drying up fast, with pilots being confirmed elsewhere, so I’ll admit that I don’t even have a solid prediction for the drive. Out of the remaining drivers in the top-10 in points, it’s safe to say that Martin and Luke Gabin remain the final pieces of the puzzle, although an easier pick would be to have Gabin stay at Team Pelfrey, if a seat remains. I had also thought about Jordan Lloyd, but my insider info on his plans will be unveiled in the next paragraph. Martin and Gabin would be the logical options for Cape’s third drive, but they’ve been known to shock the paddock with a relatively unknown driver before.
I posted to my Insider Facebook page last week that Jordan Lloyd would be back in the USF2000 Championship in 2016 fresh off his title-winning performances in the Australian F4 series, leveraging his scholarship prize to dive back in the MRTI. The Aussie impressed at Cooper Tires Winterfest last February with John Cummiskey Racing, but only had the budget to begin the season. My initial thoughts were that he may return to JCR or could be nabbed by Cape (as detailed above), but my secret network of spies is hinting that he may pop up in a third car at Pabst Racing with Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo. And to comment on your immediate thoughts…yes, this would make the season even more interesting. The quality of the drivers in USF2000 is reaching epic levels.
I’m hoping that we’ll see a few driver confirmations roll out through the PR channels over the next 7-10 days, and then I’ll be back with a team-driver list for all three series. I have a couple of editorial pieces in the works that I’m hoping to publish in early February as well, and I hope you’ll enjoy my look behind the scenes of the Mazda Road to Indy. As always, input is appreciated. Please take the time to comment in the space offered below.