Forty drivers representing all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires were in action this weekend during the two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Test held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Over 5,300 laps were turned around the 2.439-mile road course in the seventh annual outing as teams and drivers focused on 2018 preparations.
The highly anticipated debut of the brand-new PM-18 – with the first container of 15 chassis sold out and additional cars and conversion kits on the way – took place to rave reviews. The test marked the first time that all three series – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – were on track together with state-of-the-art chassis across the board to showcase the revitalization of the ladder system.
Unofficially, the Pro Mazda track record at the Speedway set in 2016 by Patricio “Pato” O’Ward of 1:22.8800 (105.941 mph) was shattered by almost three seconds by the PM-18.
“The new Pro Mazda is exactly what this series needs,” said Jonny Baker, general manager of Team Pelfrey, winner of the 2017 Pro Mazda Team Championship. “It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s aggressive. It’s very exciting. Drivers are all saying the same things about it and really enjoying the car. We are going up to three seconds quicker than we were in the old car and I think it is really going to be a drivers’ series next year. Drivers were all getting out of the car after the first run here smiling, excited and saying how much fun they had and that’s exactly what you want. Big, big tick for me; a really cool car.”
Jamin Paces Indy Lights while Novices Impress
Nico Jamin, driving for reigning Team Champions Belardi Auto Racing in the #5 entry, notched the fastest time overall to earn initial pre-season bragging rights. The 2015 USF2000 champion held the top spot in three of the eight sessions with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta finishing second quickest.
The test saw the top three finishers in the 2017 Pro Mazda championship claim their series prize of an Indy Lights test with champion Victor Franzoni and third-place finisher Carlos Cunha driving with championship-winning Juncos Racing and series runner-up Anthony Martin with Andretti Autosport.
“This is awesome,” said Franzoni after his opening run. “It was my first time in the car and I finished second to Nico by just three-tenths. He has already done a full season so I’m really happy. The car is unbelievably fast. It is a huge difference from the [older] Pro Mazda to Indy Lights but it’s fun. I have a lot to learn and I’m excited.”
“It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly,” said Martin. “There’s a lot of things that go into it and it’s a huge step up from Pro Mazda, so it’s definitely going to be a nice challenge for me.”
Several other drivers were also testing the Indy Lights waters including TJ Fischer with Team Pelfrey and Rinus VeeKay with Belardi Auto Racing.
VeeKay, who finished a close second in this year’s USF2000 championship, continued to impress by topping the charts in two sessions.
“The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Rounding out the top-five overall were Franzoni, Pato O’Ward and VeeKay.
Askew, Cunha Pace Pro Mazda While Drivers Applaud PM-18
Reigning USF2000 champion Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports) and Cunha (Juncos Racing) set the early pace in Pro Mazda with Askew topping the charts and Cunha finishing a scant .0635 seconds in arrears. All 11 entries were unofficially quicker than the current track record.
“It feels like home except I am going five seconds quicker (than in the USF2000 car),” said Askew of taking his next step up the ladder following an extremely impressive first full season of car racing in the Tatuus USF-17. “It’s the same seat, the same cockpit but the engine is obviously tuned up a lot more so I am having an absolute blast. This is the fastest car I have ever driven in my life. It is a great experience, especially to do it here at Indianapolis where we have had a lot of success this year, too.”
“It’s amazing,” noted Cunha in comparing the old Pro Mazda chassis to the PM-18. “The new car is so fast. I think we are still so far from the real time we are going to do like in qualifying but the car is really fast and much, much better. I think it closed the gap to Indy Lights now. The Chris Griffis test is so good because you can test with other teams and see where you are.”
“It is awesome,” added Kris Wright driving for Team Pelfrey. “The new car is so much fun to drive. It is exactly like the USF car but it is more of everything – more power, more tire, more wing. From USF2000, it is a great step up.”
In addition to Askew, five other drivers from the USF2000 ranks were testing the next step of the Mazda Road to Indy including Robert Megennis (Juncos Racing), Calvin Ming (Pabst Racing), David Malukas (BN Racing), Kaylen Frederick (Team Pelfrey) and Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport) as well as newcomer Leonard Hoogenboom (BN Racing).
Megennis ended up with the third-quickest lap overall followed by Frederick and Malukas.
“This was the first official test in the new Pro Mazda car and I just loved every second of it,” added Megennis. “It is a super-fun car. It is really fast and the perfect transition up from USF2000. It’s the same chassis and still on the Cooper tires with the Mazda engine, so it’s all similar. You know what’s going on when you jump in but bigger tires, more aero, more power – you really learn how to drive a car with aero, you learn how to drive a car with a decent amount of horsepower. I’m loving it and hope to put something together to run the whole year.”
“Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic racecar and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, Gutierrez Pace 18-Car Field
Darren Keane of Newman Wachs Racing and rookie Andres Gutierrez, driving for current Team Champion Pabst Racing, set the bar in USF2000. Gutierrez reigned on Day One and Keane on Day Two to set the post-season benchmark with Keane holding the top spot at the end of the outing. Hot on their heals were Callan O’Keefe (BN Racing), Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) and Rasmus Lindh (Team BENIK).
“Today was a really good day,” said Keane. “I am happy to be coming out of the weekend with the fastest lap. It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be. I am really looking forward to the series next year. I had such a great time last season. This is the best single-seater series that I have ever driven in and I think it is the best in the world with the ladder system and how everything works.”
“The test went very well,” added Gutierrez. “We have been going in a positive direction. This is my first time testing for Pabst and it has been an amazing experience. I have learned a lot this weekend and feel I can be capable of winning the championship next year if I can continue this way. Racing here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time was an amazing feeling. I would like to thank everyone from the Mazda Road to Indy for letting us test at this fantastic track.”
Thirteen new faces made up the 18-car entry list with quite a few turning heads including McElrea, Lindh, Jake Craig (Newman Wachs Racing) and Jacob Loomis (Team Pelfrey).
“It has been really awesome,” said McElrea, who has shone driving F1600 cars both in his native New Zealand and his adopted home in Australia. “It is my first time driving wings and slicks and being here at this track so it is a pretty big learning experience. I am racing with Pabst and it is awesome being with such a great team that have given me such a good car to learn in. It’s looking pretty good and it is great to be part of the Mazda Road to Indy. I want to go to IndyCar so obviously you start here.”
The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires will kick off its 2018 season on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., March 9-11.