Just as Team Pelfrey’s Jack Aitken predicted following the first two rounds of the Cooper Tires Winterfest at NOLA Motorsports Park last week, the outcome of the pre-season mini-series went all the way down to the wire. The first of three scheduled races at Barber Motorsports Park was cancelled yesterday due to inclement winter weather, but today’s action could hardly have been hotter. In the end, the title was decided in favor of Aitken by virtue of the fact he posted the fastest lap of the race in this afternoon’s double-points, 17-lap finale. It was enough to ensure a one-point margin over Malaysian Weiron Tan, who gained the consolation of winning this afternoon’s final encounter for Andretti Autosport.
The two series rookies shared the front row of the grid for this morning’s Round Four after the grid was set by championship points following yesterday’s qualifying wash-out.
An incident on the first lap involving Nicolas Latifi (M1 Racing), who had started fourth, led to the first seven laps being run behind the Mazda Pace Car, after which Aitken laid out his intentions by jumping clear of Tan at the start. The top two positions remained unchanged for the remainder of the 15-lap race, although fastest lap was traded back and forth between Florian Latorre, Tan and Aitken before Will Owen (Juncos Racing) trumped them all on the final lap with a best of 1:22.3749, which assured him of the pole for this afternoon’s final race.
Latorre, winner of last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and a MAZDASPEED scholarship to graduate into Pro Mazda this year, claimed his best result so far with third, followed by Raoul Owens (JDC MotorSports) and Dalton Kellett in a second Andretti Autosport entry, then a trio of Juncos cars with Frenchman Timothe Buret narrowly ahead of Canadian Garett Grist and Mexican Jose Gutierrez.
Aitken held an 11-point advantage over Tan prior to this afternoon’s fifth and final race but had plenty of work to do after lining up fourth on the grid behind Owen, Tan and Latorre.
The first attempt at a start was waved off after Tan jumped a little too soon. The next attempt was cleaner, and it was Tan who grabbed the advantage at Turn One, despite Aitken briefly making it three-wide in the braking zone. The Englishman quickly made his way past Owen into second, while Owen’s day came to an abrupt halt later on the opening lap when he was involved in an incident at Turn Nine.
Thereafter it was all about Tan and Aitken. Tan led all the way to the end, despite a couple of full-course cautions, while the outcome of the Winterfest crown swayed back and forth between the pair depending on who claimed the bonus points for fastest lap. Tan set the standard initially, only for Aitken to wrest away the advantage on Lap 3.
Gutierrez then got in on the action before Tan, and then Aitken again, reclaimed the crucial bonus points. Gutierrez again upset Aitken’s plans on Lap 8, whereupon Aitken, who was chasing Tan for all he was worth, edged the young Mexican by three tenths of a second on Lap 10. That was to prove the difference.
Tan triumphed in a green/white-checkered dash to the finish line, but Aitken’s fastest lap was enough to ensure a 167-166 margin in the final standings.
Kellett guaranteed Andretti Autosport the Team Championship with a fine run to third place in the final race ahead of rookie Tristan DeGrand, who showed impressive speed on his debut with M1 Racing and profited from several incidents to rise from eighth to fourth over the course of the final three laps.
The regular season Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will commence on the streets of St. Petersburg, in conjunction with the Verizon IndyCar Series and the entire Mazda Road to Indy contingent on March 28/29.
Jack Aitken (Team Pelfrey): “I did the final (regular-season) round at Sonoma last year and since we had such a good experience, we decided to come over again. I was really surprised by the pace of the front runners, it was really impressive. The car is difficult to drive, it’s really a challenge, so we came back for Winterfest. I didn’t know where we’d stack up but I knew it would be quite tough and that’s the reason I’m here. It’s really the perfect preparation for my (European) season in Renaults, being pushed so hard by Weiron and the other guys. The whole experience has been really good. The quality is so good in this field, I’m tempted to come back for some more this summer!”
Weiron Tan (Andretti Autosport): “Jack did well, he kept the pressure on me. I was trying to find the time, but since he had the fastest lap time, that gave him the championship. It’s disappointing. We got the victory but we lost the war, so it’s good and bad. But this is a good start for us, since the real championship starts now. But looking back on the penalty [from NOLA], I have regrets for doing that – if it had been a fair fight, I think we could have won. I learned from that, it’s a big mistake and it cost me the one point I needed. It’s all about learning and that’s why we’re doing this. We’re all here to learn, to grow up, and it’s all part of learning how not to make the same mistakes next time. But after these race weekends, we know we have good pace going into the full season. I think we should be pretty confident. We have to keep working hard and I have to stop making stupid mistakes!”