As we roll into the second quarter of the Mazda Road to Indy season, we’re now seeing the not-totally unexpected list of casualties in terms of drivers remaining in the series for the long haul. Over the years, many competitors have started the opening races of the year with their teams despite not having a full season of funding in place. When you want to become a professional driver, sometimes you have the roll the dice and hope that you can secure additional backing as the season progresses, leveraging winning performances to attract supporters. In addition, early season crashes can wreak havoc on those short on budget. The simple disappointment of poor results can also alter thoughts on a full season effort, especially when a driver may be relying on winning the Mazda scholarship that goes to each champion.
Racing is by no means inexpensive, especially at this level, and some drivers with their eyes solely on the top prize may also consider rebooting and coming back the following year. I personally think that this is a poor choice, as I’ve stated many times that the Mazda Road to Indy plays right into the hands of two-year programs at each level. The first year, you learn the cars, the tracks and your team. In Year 2, you arrive with a new outlook, a raised level of comfort and understanding, and you aim for the title. That’s the common and often successful formula. But, if money is tight, it’s a slightly different story.
Such is the case this year, as a number of drivers have already elected to suspend their programs or simply leave for other options. I’ve reached out to a few and others have announced their alternate plans.
In USF2000, two drivers who started at St. Petersburg did not make it to the race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis – James Munro and Felipe Ortiz. I’ve communicated with Munro, who ran with Team Pelfrey, and he let me know that while he also ran at Barber for the second weekend of the year, early season incidents put an unexpected dent in his race budget, and when combined with the disappointing start and potential issues with the team, he has elected to end his season. Munro wrecked at the start of Race 1 in St. Pete and finished a lap down in Race 2. He was 11th in the opening race at Barber and was out after contact on the first lap of the second race. These are not the results that were expected by the Toyota Racing Series veteran, who won the 2014 Formula China series and the 2013 New Zealand Formula Ford Championship. When I asked if he had a new plan to enter a different series, potentially back home in New Zealand, he was non-committal.
As an off-season announcement for Afterburner Autosport, it appeared as though Brazilian Felipe Ortiz was set to push himself up the learning curve in USF2000 for the full campaign, having run the Brazilian F3 Lights category in 2015. Ortiz finished a solid 11th in the opening round, but was involved in a wreck in Race 2 that damaged his car significantly. He was scheduled to be in the car at Barber, and his car was there, but he was a no-show for the weekend, and if you’ve been around this sport for any length of time, you know that it’s potentially likely that Ortiz’ crash damage bill was not yet paid. When I communicated with Felipe, he said he would like to return in 2017 and would also look at beginning a testing program with the new USF-17 to prepare for next year.
In Pro Mazda, the bad news out of the paddock has confirmed that Weiron Tan will not be back in a Team Pelfrey car this year. Tan practiced on the Indy road course on Wednesday, but did not continue on Thursday nor did he compete through the weekend. We spoke with several members of the team who believed that it was a budget issue, although Tan was announced as part of Carlin Racing for this weekend’s FIA Formula 3 European Championship at the Red Bull Ring. Tan had a major incident with Jake Parsons at Barber Motorsports Park, rolling his #82 machine, and the damage was considerable. The fact that he was in the car at Indy on Wednesday, but not on Thursday, again leans towards the team requiring payment for the damage that was done in the Barber crash. If Tan had no desire to continue with the team, had lost sponsor support or family support, I would expect that he would not have made the trip to IMS, nor would he have the funding to jump into the middle of an Euro F3 program. There’s no real sense to it.
In the end, the junior formula ladder is tough on both the drivers and the teams. Budgets are tight for many, and the teams are in the weeds just as much as their drivers for the most part. Over the years, I’ve heard so many horrifying stories of drivers walking away from $50,000-plus crash damage bills, and then simply moving to another team or series. It’s something I hate to see happen.
When it comes to any potential conflicts with the drivers I detailed and their respective teams, early exits normally mean that the team is getting left with at least some monetary total still outstanding. I also know that there are always two sides to any story, and the truth normally lies somewhere in the middle. But, if you want to play, you have to pay. In racing, I’ve found that the truth is normally skewed way to the side of the teams. Crash damage is crash damage. A driver can argue, as much as they want, that the team didn’t give them a good car or favored their teammate or didn’t live up to the expectations of the contract. For the most part, that’s opinion. But we all learned as kids, if you break something, you need to replace it. I hope that this isn’t totally the case in these situations, but remember what I said about the skew of a story.
The bottom line is that drivers come and drivers go, but it’s the teams that are the foundation of any series. The two teams detailed here will be back in 2017 running the new USF-17 car in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with new drivers, and I would expect a more in-depth contract that includes a larger pre-paid crash damage deposit. Such is the continuing evolution of modern day motorsports.