The Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire series will take to the streets (and runways) of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. for the 15th and 16th time this weekend. It’s the fifth straight and seventh overall year that the series contests their first race of the year on the shore of Tampa Bay.
Previous race winning drivers and teams at the Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire events in St. Petersburg, Fla.
|2017 Race #2
|2017 Race #1
|2016 Race #2
|2016 Race #1
|2015 Race #2
|2015 Race #1
|2014 Race #2
|2014 Race #1
|2013 Race #2
|2013 Race #1
|2012 Race #2
|2012 Race #1
Race weekend basics:
- The official name of the pair of races is: Pro Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products
- Saturday’s Race 1 is scheduled for 25 laps or 40 minutes
- Sunday’s Race 2 – is scheduled for 30 laps or 40 minutes
- Each entry is permitted to use three sets of new Cooper Tire slicks, and can also carry over one set that has to be used in
- the first practice session of the event
- Each entry is permitted to use three sets of new Cooper Tire rains.
- Driver points are distributed as follows: 30 – 25 – 22 – 19 – 17 – 15 -14 – 13 – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – an additional one point will be awarded to the pole sitter, and to the driver who leads the most laps
A few things we’ll be watching this weekend.
- The first one, and the biggest is the engine situation. This worrisome issue is something that we’ll hopefully not have to get into more detail on as the weekend progresses, but let’s just say that the 275HP Mazda developed MZR-PM18A have been expiring at an alarming rate. The series hopes that it has found the problem, and any engines that have failed due to that problem (crank-shaft) will be replaced at no cost to the teams. The series has a plan in place to replace the offending parts during the break in the action after St. Petersburg, but the engines will be running with a much reduced maximum RPM this weekend.
- The second thing that we’ll be watching is how the set-ups and driving styles translate from the drivers with USF-17 experience vs. the drivers with experience with the previous Pro Mazda car.
- The last thing that we’ll be watching is who finishes up front. The lowest that a Pro Mazda champion has finished in races held in St. Petersburg is fourth, and the eventual champion has won races in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Will 2018 be the next year that happens?
Breaking down the teams and drivers:
Team Pelfrey has won four of the last eight Pro Mazda Championships and will have the opportunity to make it five of ten with a talented line-up that includes sophomore Sting Ray Robb, with rookies Andres Gutierrez and Rafa Martins. TSO expects to see the trio of drivers all competing for race wins early and often.
The 16-year old Robb, who is managed by Pieter Rossi (IndyCar driver Alex’s father), finished his rookie Pro Mazda season in 6th place, with a best finish of fourth (on three occasions). The Idaho native, was impressive in testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago, ending the two-day affair with the second quickest lap. If Team Pelfrey has the new PM-18 sorted, expect Robb to lead the charge for the black and yellow liveried squad.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere at St. Pete – you see kids hanging on the fences, people walking around eating hot dogs and having fun,” explained Robb, “It’s cool to be running right on the streets of the city, and all the drivers look forward to it. We were P2 in Spring Training at Homestead last week, and that’s a good start. The same techniques apply whether you’re on a road course or a street course, and I have more time in this car before the start of the season than I did last year, so that’s a big help.”
Guttierez, from Monterey, Mexico, made three USF2000 starts in 2017, finishing sixth in the season finale at Watkins Glen International. Guttierez had a busy 2017, contesting five FIA Formula 4 Nacam Championship races (with two wins and five podiums) and six IMSA Prototype Challenge races (winning twice and finishing on the podium in all six races).
The third member of the trio is 19-year-old Rafa Martins. The Brazilian, who was a world class karter, is returning to racing this season after taking a year off to get his funding sorted. Martins spent the two years before that racing in the British F4 series, standing on the top step of the podium five times and scoring a total of nine podiums. Martins told TSO Ladder that everything about the PM18 is new and very different from what he has raced in the past, but he does have Tony Kanaan to lean on for advice this year.
“He (Kanaan) started helping me this year,” said Martins to TSO Ladder. “He’s going to mentor me this year. I really appreciate that. It’s very good to have been behind me helping me. I’m very happy to be working with him.
Last year, Victor Franzoni fought a fierce battle against Anthony Martin, but was able to bring home Juncos Racing’s second Pro Mazda driver’s championship. The Speedway, Ind. based team signed three outstanding drivers in an attempt to defend the title.
The driver with the most experience that will be piloting the familiar green, white and orange liveried Juncos Racing cars is Robert Megennis. The New Yorker, who has was recently accepted into Butler University, spent the previous two seasons in USF2000 with Team Pelfrey. The 17 year-old won the first race of the season in St. Petersburg last year, and a total of nine top-fives. Megennis told TSO Ladder that the progression from the USF17 to the PM18 is natural. It also shouldn’t hurt that just had the opportunity to develop a new car last season.
Rinus VeeKay, the 2017 USF2000 vice-champion, makes a move up to Pro Mazda, after also testing Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires machinery at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last October. The 17-year-old, who is mature for his years, won three races, had 12 podiums in 14 races, and impressively never finished lower than he started in an impressive first season in cars. However, the Dutch driver had some engine troubles during testing and might start the season behind some of his competitors that completed more test miles.
“My goals for the upcoming season are winning the championship and maximizing my potential physically and mentally,” said VeeKay. “These past weekends have certainly been disappointing. Not being able to gain experience or data has been difficult but I’ve been training harder than ever before with my trainer, Raun Grobben.
“I’m ready for St. Pete. It’s been on my mind for the entire offseason, and I hope we don’t experience the same engine problems down in Florida. Our team has worked incredibly hard, and I’m coming into this weekend ready for battle.”
Last, but not least is Carlos Cunha. The sophomore Pro Mazda pilot has made a smooth transition from the venerable Star chassis / Mazda Renesis combination to the PM-18, leading the recent two days of testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Cunha, Meginnis, and VeeKay will all be drivers to watch in 2018 and should be able to push each other.
At least, that’s what Cunha told TSO Ladder, saying: “Of course. VeeKay and Megennis are both good drivers. It’s always really difficult to always be ahead of him, but I’m trying to my best all the time. It’s really good when you have someone that can push you to the front. It’s amazing.”
The third returning team, Cape Motorsports, who has won seven straight USF2000 driver’s championships is still looking for their first in Pro Mazda. The St. Petersburg, Fla. based team, who joined the series in 2014, have had a driver finish second in the championship three times, and third during the remaining season.
Leading the charge will be Oliver Askew, who is gunning for his third straight Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship had seven race wins, eight poles, 13 podiums and set four track records. Not bad for the 21 year-olds first season in cars.
Returning to Cape Motorsports, whom he drove for in USF2000 is Nikia Lastochkin. The Russian driver, who only started racing a few years ago when he took part in a Skip Barber racing school, is coming off his most successful season of racing. The 27-year-old had two podiums, and eight top fives on the way to a fifth-place finish in the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
Joining the three returning teams, are four new teams. BN Racing, DEForce Racing, and Exclusive Autosport are moving up from USF2000, while RP Motorsport and their championship-winning pedigree are moving to the United States from Europe.
The Chicago Ridge, Ill. based BN Racing will enter two PM-18 cars for David Malukas and Kris Wright.
Wright, from Pittsburgh, Pa., contested races in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda during the 2017 season, and also finished second in the IMSA Prototype Challenge Series.
The 16-year-old Malukas split his 2017 between USF2000 and the Formula 4 ADAC (German) series but will concentrate his racing on this side of the Atlantic in 2018. The former stand-out karter has plenty of speed, leading the latest series test at Barber Motorsports Park last weekend, but will need to improve his race craft if he wants to contend for the championship.
After a successful first season of Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires competition in USF2000, the Angleton, Texas-based DEForce Racing will make the jump to Pro Mazda with English driver James Raven.
Over the past decade, Raven has been one the most successful Formula Ford racers in the United Kingdom. Winning 15 races, the 2014 Formula Ford Festival, and finishing third in the most recent Walter Hayes Trophy finale.
Raven has spent most of his career piloting a Ray chassis for Cliff Dempsey Racing. Cliff Dempsey’s son Peter, the former Indy Lights driver, is the engineer for the DEForce Racing squad and told TSO Ladder that on his dad’s recommendation they brought Raven to the United States for a Formula 4 test, and that went so well that the team decided to run him in Pro Mazda instead.
The third team that is making a move up the ladder is Canadian squad Exclusive Autosport, whose Pro Mazda team will be flying the Canadian Flag proudly all season with a Canadian two-some behind the wheel of the pair of PM-18s.
Parker Thompson, who has seven wins, six poles, and 18 podiums in Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires competition, finished the 2017 USF2000 season with the same team in third place. Thompson has been near the top of the timesheets in the last two official series tests at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Barber Motorsports Park, and with veteran, open wheel engineer Tim Lewis leading the team should be in the running for the $790,300 scholarship and a spot in Indy Lights.
Veteran Thompson will have the chance opportunity to mentor, Antonio Serravalle, his 15-year-old Canadian teammate. Serravalle will be on a steep learning curve, but the youngster is the most recent U.S. and Canadian KZ Shifter Kart champion, and anybody that can handle a shifter kart should have no problem adapting to Pro Mazda.
RP Motorsport, who call Milano, Italy home, have won five team and four driver championships in the Euroformula Open Championship (formerly the European F3 Championship) are making a move to the U.S. for the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship. The team, who are entering their 21st year of competition have based their Ameican operations at Newman Wachs Racing shop in Mundelein, Ill.
Harrison Scott, who won 12 of 14 races on the way to a dominant Euroformula Open Championship, will a be a driver to watch this season. It might take the team a few races to get a hold of the PM-18, but when they do, expect the 21-year-old to find the podium.
Joining Scott is his 2017 teammate, Lodovico Laurini.