What the 2016 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire field lacks for in quantity, it sure makes up for in quality, with at least eight potential race winners in the field.
2015 champion Santiago Urrutia and runner-up Neil Alberico have both moved up the ladder to Indy Lights, but the third (Garett Grist), fourth (Weiron Tan), sixth (Pato O’Ward) and seventh (Will Owen) place finishers have all returned for another shot at the title. That quartet of veterans will be joined by the trio of Nico Jamin, Jake Eidson, and Aaron Telitz, who took the top three positions in the 2015 USF2000 championship. Also joining the veterans will be three talented newcomers to Mazda Road To Indy, Jake Parsons, Jorge Cevallos and Nicolas Dapero.
TSO fully expects the majority of those drivers to challenge for a victory at some point in 2016, and at the very least, score at least one podium.
This year’s pair of Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the 10th and 11th Pro Mazda races that have been contested on the Streets of St. Petersburg. Previous winners include: current IndyCar drivers Jack Hawksworth and Matthew Brabham, and current Indy Lights driver Neil Alberico, who won both races one year ago.
Current Pro Mazda teams with wins at on the Streets Of St. Petersburg include: Juncos Racing (4 victories), Cape Motorsports with /WTR (2 victories), Andretti Autosport (2 victories), and Team Pelfrey (1 victory).
Does winning the season opening race at St. Petersburg matter? Maybe, a little. Of the four times that Pro Mazda has opened up on the shores of Tampa Bay, a winner during the inaugural weekend has gone on to win the season championship twice.
TSO’s (Steve) predictions:
- Number of different race winners: 5
- Number of drivers with a chance to win the title heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September: 4
- Champion: Garett Grist
- Rookie of the Year: Aaron Telitz
The Palmetto, Florida based Team Pelfrey heads into the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship searching for their first consecutive third overall driver’s championship. Current A.J. Foyt Racing IndyCar driver Jack Hawksworth won the Nigel Tuckey run squad their first championship in 2012, and current Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian Indy Lights pilot Santiago Urrutia is the reigning champion. The teams three announced drivers, Aaron Telitz, Pato O’Ward and Weiron Tan, topped the recent spring-training time sheets at Barber Motorsports Park. Rookie Telitz scored the quickest time, but the trio were all within three-tenths of a second of each other.
Pro Mazda sophomore Weiron Tan (No. 81) should provide the team with their best title hopes. The speedy Formula 3 veteran from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia scored six poles, four wins, and six podiums on the way to a fourth place Pro Mazda Championship finish in 2015. Tan, a 20 year-old, enters the season as one of the two prohibitive favorites, but will need cut down on his mistakes in 2016 if he wants to win the title and a shot at an Indy Lights ride.
Hailing from Monterey, Mexico, sophomore Pato O’Ward (No. 80) is only signed for the first two events at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park. The 16 year-old had an impressive rookie season in Pro Mazda, showing impressive pace and standing on the podium three times. If O’Ward can find the budget to complete the entire season, he should be in contention for wins on a regular basis.
Aaron Telitz (No. 82) will be a Pro Mazda rookie in 2016, but the Birchwood, Wisconsin native will be no stranger to any of the tracks that the series races on. In two seasons of USF2000 action, Telitz, who has an affiliation with Rising Star Racing had two wins, and 17 podiums on the way to fourth (2014) and third (2015) place championship finishes. Telitz, a 24 year-old, led the recent Pro Mazda spring training testing at Barber Motorsports Park, and his driving style seems to suit the higher downforce and horsepower of the Star chassis and Mazda Renesis poweplant. Don’t be surprised to see him contending for podiums and a steady season could see him in contention for the championship when the calendar turns to September.
In recent years, Team Pelfrey’s biggest rival for the Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire championship has been Juncos Racing. The Brownsburg, Indiana squad is led by team owner Ricardo Juncos and Pro Mazda technical director Peter Dempsey. Juncos goes on the hunt for their third Pro Mazda driver’s championship with two veteran (Garett Grist & Will Owen) and two rookie drivers (Nicolas Dapero and Jake Parsons).
Garett “GG” Grist (No. 5), enters into his third Pro Mazda season as one of two favorites (along with Tan) to win the title and Mazda Racing advancement scholarship that goes along with it. Still only 20 years old, Grist begins his fourth Mazda Road To Indy season with a total of seven poles, six wins and 10 podiums in 44 career starts. Hailing from Grimsby, Ontario, Grist was blistering hot in the second half of the 2015 season, standing on the top step of the podium three times and starting on the front row of the final seven races. Grist’s experience, super quick pace, and relationship with engineer Dempsey should translate into a run at the title.
After a mediocre rookie USF2000 campaign, Will Owen (No. 23) was the most improved Mazda Road To Indy driver in 2016. The 20 year-old Texas Christian University Student consistently qualified in the top half of the grid and had three podiums on the way to a seventh place championship finish. The Castle Rock, Colorado resident recently competed in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand and comes to St. Petersburg in race shape. Expect Owen to continue to improve his race pace and to continually hang around the top five all season long.
Somewhat surprisingly, rookie Nicolas Dapero (No. 31) was the quickest of the four Juncos Racing drivers during testing at Barber Motorsports Park last week. As a Juncos Racing development driver, the 17 year old comes into 2016 with a ton of Pro Mazda testing time. Dapero was an outstanding karter in his home country of Argentina, who’s experience in formula cars includes Formula 3 Brazil, Formula Renault 2.0 Argentina and a trip to New Zealand with teammate Owen for the Toyota Racing Series. If testing is any indication, Dapero will have plenty of pace, but will also be prone to making mistakes. If he can limit his mistakes, he should be in contention for some podium finishes.
Melbourne, Australia native Jake Parsons (No. 00), could very well play the Pro Mazda sleeper role that Santiago Urrutia did one year ago. The 21 year-old makes the move to the U.S.A. after an early career in Australia and Asia. Parsons formula car experience includes: a) Formula Ford (where he won the 2015 Bathurst event, setting the track record in the process). b) FIA Formula BMW (AsiaCup) (where he won the 2014 championship), and c) Formula Masters China (where he has four wins and a second place championship finish). In testing, Parsons has been on a very similar pace to experienced teammates Grist and Owen.
Cape Motorsports with /WTR
Dominic and Nicolas Cape have built a powerhouse USF2000 team, and while the Pro Mazda side of the house has yet to win a driver’s championship, the two year old outfit has been “oh, so close”. Drivers Scott Hargrove (2014) and Neil Alberico (2015) both went into their respective Pro Mazda season finales with a chance to win the crown, but both fell just short, coming home in second. The task of bringing home a Pro Mazda championship to the St. Petersburg, Florida team will fall to two 20 year-old rookies, reigning USF2000 champion Nico Jamin and 2015 USF2000 vice champion Jake Eidson.
Nico Jamin (No. 2) won an impressive 12 poles and 10 races on the way to collecting the coveted Mazda Racing advancement scholarship for winning the USF2000 Championship. The Rouen, France native recently had the fifth quickest time in spring training at Barber Motorsports Park. In USF2000, Jamin was the master of maximizing his laps on cold Cooper Tire slicks and once he figures out how to do that with the Pro Mazda rubber, he should have his Soul Red machine contending for podiums from the drop of the green flag.
If Jake Eidson (No. 3) had a nickname, it might very well be “Mr. Podium”. Entering his third full-time Mazda Road To Indy season, Eidson has scored a podium in 65% (22 of 34 races) of his USF2000 contests. His brand of mistake free consistency works very well in a larger field, but with the smaller Pro Mazda field in 2016, the Destin, Florida resident might need to get more aggressive to keep up his stunning podium pace.
2007 (Dane Cameron) and 2011 (Tristan Vautier) championship team JDC Motorsports will return to Pro Mazda competition with a one-car effort in 2016. Jorge Cevallos will wheel the No. 21 for the Savage, Minnesota based squad.
After missing the majority of the 2014 and 2015 racing season after having surgery for Ulcerative colitis Jorge Cevallos (No. 21) will be utilizing the social media hashtag #backontrack to chronicle his inspiring return to racing. Born in Tijuana, Mexico and part of the Escuderia Telmex program, Cevallos’ last full year racing was in 2013, when he finished third in the Protyre Formula Renault UK series, just behind fellow Pro Mazda driver Weiron Tan. It will likely take Cevallos a few rounds to complete shaking the rust off of two years of inactivity and get back into race-shape, but if past success is any indication, he should be competing near the pointy end of the field by the middle of the season.
Returning to the National Class (formerly Expert Class) are rivals Jay Horak (M1 Racing No. 37) and Bobby Eberle (World Speed Motorsports No. 13). Horak (2013) and Eberle (2014 & 2015) have waged an entertaining battle the last three years, and will continue into 2016.
TSO expects that there will be more National Class entries at the natural terrain road-courses such as Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix Circuit, Road America, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
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