By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
The 2018 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires kicks off on the streets of St. Petersburg and with the strongest field from top to bottom since 2015, this year promises to be a special one.
Before getting to the teams and drivers, let’s first look at the tracks. Barber Motorsports Park returns to the schedule after a 2017 hiatus and Mid-Ohio only has two races this year instead of three like it had last year. Gone is the single oval race date and instead there are two ovals on this year’s Pro Mazda schedule with Lucas Oil Raceway joining the returning Gateway Motorsports Park round.
The series goes north of the border on the streets of Toronto at Exhibition Place for a doubleheader and the season-ending doubleheader at Watkins Glen International shifted over to Portland International Raceway for the first time in a decade. The season expanded to 16 races while last year it was only 12.
The series is racing a brand new car for 2018, the Tatuus-built PM-18. Testing has not gone all to plan with various mechanical gremlins working themselves out but with any new car there will be bugs that have to be worked out. The car is the same tub as the USF-17 but with some different bodywork, a different engine, roll hoop and different gearbox.
There are 16 cars on the entry list with a few newcomers in both teams and drivers. In fact, 12 of the 16 drivers are rookies with Carlos Cunha (third in the 2017 title), Nikita Lastochkin (fifth in 2017), Sting Ray Robb (sixth in 2017) and Charles Finelli (third in the National Class) the only returning veterans.
Juncos Racing returns with three cars for Cunha, 2017 USF2000 race winner Robert Megennis and 2017 USF2000 runner-up Rinus VeeKay while BN Racing makes their move to Pro Mazda with David Malukas piloting the team’s primary entry with Kris Wright as teammate.
Italy’s RP Motorsport joins the championship to begin their American journey with James Raven and Lodovico Laurini behind the wheel of their entries while Team Pelfrey has Rafael Martins, Andres Gutierrez and Robb in their machines.
Finally, Cape Motorsports is seeking their first Pro Mazda title with 2017 USF2000 champion Oliver Askew moving up with the Florida-based squad. With the domination from last year, Askew would not be a bad pick for the title.
“In certain areas, yeah (the data translates), but not so much because the corner speeds are so much higher,” Askew told Motorsports Tribune.
“The car has a lot more downforce, bigger tires, not that much heavier (than a USF17). The engine itself is lighter because it’s less restricted. It’s just with the bigger tires and more wing, that is what’s weighing the car down a little bit more. Even then, it’s light so the cornering speeds are higher. So there are certain places to compare it to, but not many.”
Time will tell if Askew’s 2017 USF2000 domination will continue to Pro Mazda in 2018.