The Mazda Road to Indy begins on the streets of St. Petersburg

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This weekend marks the beginning of not just the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, but also the seasons for the three series that comprise the Mazda Road to Indy: the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. The entire Mazda Road to Indy and the Verizon Indy Car Series open their season on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Practice sessions are happening today, but qualifying and the first races take place on Saturday. This will be an interesting season for the driver development program as new faces join the familiar ones in USF2000 and Pro Mazda, and we see new teams and a brand new car and engine for the Indy Lights series.

We had an opportunity to speak with Jason Penix, Director of the Mazda Road to Indy program, about the upcoming season, the growth in all three series, and the new equipment for Indy Lights. One think that he was not able to mention at the time of our interview was the new Road2Indy mobile app. While all three of the series have timing and scoring on their respective websites, the new Road2Indy conveniently ties all of the timing and scoring as well as the audio commentary from Rob Howden in one convenient spot. At least, that’s the promise. I’ll have a full review of the app after I see how it does during race weekend.

USF2000

I have no real pick or favs in USF2000. Winterfest was a bit of a brawl between several teams and drivers, but I’ll give you a short list of people to watch. I think the top six to watch this weekend will be the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing duo of Nico Jamin, your 2015 Winterfest Champion, and Aaron Telitz, the two Aussies from John Cummiskey Racing, Jordan Lloyd and Anthony Martin, Afterburner Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni, and Pabst Racing’s Jake Eidson. Of those six, I think your two favorites by a nose cone are Nico Jamin and Jake Eidson as they were the most consistent drivers over the five Winterfest races. They each found the podium in four of the five races. Scoring more total points than Eidson thanks to winning Race 2 at NOLA and Race 1 at Barber, Victor Franzoni is my third favorite and right on the gearbox of Nico and Jake. The problem with Victor at Winterfest was one of consistency. He finished on the podium in Race 2 at Barber, but was 6th in Race 3 at NOLA and dead last in the first race. Consistency and mechanical reliability will be his major hurtles. Lloyd, Martin, and Telitz, will be right there with the first three, and will be challenging for podiums throughout the year.

Schedule
Friday:

  • 0800 — Practice 1
  • 1400 — Practice 2

Saturday:

  • 0800 — Qualifying
  • 1015 — Race 1

Sunday:

  • 0855 — Race 2

Pro Mazda

Who can chase down Andretti Autosports’ Weiron Tan? Jack Aitken, who drove for Team Pelfrey, was the only one to pose a challenge to the mercurial Malaysian during Winterfest. The rest of the field was adrift of Weiron and Jack by multiple seconds most races. Certainly, there are some great teams in the series that have a lot of experience and proven success. Tan’s first competition will be from his own teammate, Dalton Kellett, who was Best-of-the-Rest in February.

There are a cadre of other teams and drivers, though, that will be gunning for that top spot. Chief among them is the Pro Mazda stalwart team of Juncos Racing, bringing four strong drivers to bear on the 2015 Pro Mazda Championship. Garett Grist and Will Owen were the more consistent of the quartet during Winterfest, but Jose Gutierrez and Timothy Buret showed that they had great speed, even if they were a bit inconsistent. Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing has what is probably the strongest two challengers in Neil Alberico, who did not partake in Winterfest this year, and Florian Latorre, the 2014 USF2000 Champion. Neil is blazing fast, but has been inconsistent in previous seasons. If he can smooth things out, we will pestering Tan all season long.

Schedule
Friday:

  • 0845 — Practice 1
  • 1445 — Practice 2

Saturday:

  • 0845 — Qualifying
  • 1330 — Race 1

Sunday:

  • 0950 — Race 2

Indy Lights

With the new Dallara IL-15 chassis and Mazda MZR-R 2.0L turbo-charged powerplant, the story of the Indy Lights series this year will be the fragility of track records. The previous chassis was designed during a time in which the Indy Lights series competed exclusively on ovals. The new car, which hits the track in competition for the first time this weekend, has shown to be significantly quicker and more capable than the previous one. The current track record belongs to James Hinchcliffe who turned a 1:06.3497 during qualifying back in 2010. On a dry track and favorable wind conditions, we could easily see that time fall.

The new equipment has attracted significant interest from many who had not seen Indy Lights series as a potentially viable option for them in the past, while other teams have struggled with the up-front costs of completely replacing their entire inventory of cars and spare parts. Most notable among those who have come to play with the new car is Carlin Racing, a household name in European formula car racing. Carlin brings Ed Jones and former Formula 1 driver Max Chilton, and the two have been at or near the front in nearly every testing session so far.

Coming over from sportscar racing is 8Star Motorsport, fielding a single-entry with driver Scott Hargrove. The team has been very successful with their Prototype Challenge program in IMSA, and have demonstrated in testing that they’re up to the task of dailing in this new Indy Light car. Hargrove has been in the Mazda Road to Indy program for a while and raced in Pro Mazda last year with Cape Motorsports, finishing second in the championship to Spencer Pigot. Pigot also moves to Indy Lights this year along with his 2014 teammate Kyle Kaiser as Juncos Racing returns to Indy Lights after a bit of a hiatus.

Long-time favorites in the series such as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Belardi Auto Racing, and Andretti Autosport have been right there. Matthew Brabham returns with Andretti Autosport, and Jack Harvey, who showed great improvement as the 2014 season progressed, returns with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Shelby Blackstock makes his move up from Pro Mazda to the Indy Lights series with Andretti, and has posted some good testing times.

In the end, I think Carlin Racing’s Ed Jones and Max Chilton will be the ones everyone has to chase down. Behind them, there’s really no clear best contender as all the teams and drivers are working furiously to sort out the new machinery. The two practice sessions today will be critical to a good qualifying effort, more so than ever.

Schedule
Friday:

  • 0930 — Practice 1
  • 1530 — Practice 2

Saturday:

  • 0930 — Qualifying
  • 1425 — Race 1

Sunday:

  • 1245 — Race 2

All times are Eastern Daylight Time

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