The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda is pretty much a two-driver battle heading to this weekend’s Soul Red Finale doubleheader at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.
Anthony Martin leads Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Parker Thompson by 21 points, as Cape looks to field the series champion for a sixth straight year. ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni is in third place, 53 points out of the lead, with a maximum of 66 points on the table in the two races.
At stake for the champion is the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires scholarship to advance in 2017 to the second rung of the developmental ladder, the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires. Nico Jamin, the 2015 USF2000 champ, earned $381,000 toward his Pro Mazda ride this year.
Martin (shown at right), in his second USF2000 season, has been on an absolute tear since scoring his first career win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May. He has gone on to win seven of the last 10 races, along with six pole positions.
A decisive sweep of the July tripleheader weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course pushed the 21-year-old Australian into the championship lead. Martin’s bid was aided when a flat tire in the first Mid-Ohio race dropped Thompson to a 17th-place finish.
Heading to the tricky 2.238-mile road course at Laguna Seca, Martin feels that the championship is still far from over and that qualifying will be the key element of the weekend.
“We have to be up front in qualifying and try to get the lead because it’s a very hard place to pass,” he said. “I know Parker is going to be fighting very hard with me for the championship lead that he just lost and is going to be fighting just as hard as me. It’s a long way to go.”
Thompson, the 18-year-old from Red Deer, Alberta, also in his second USF2000 season, has four wins and three poles this season. Thompson is not discouraged heading into the season finale, despite what he called the “fluke” tire issue at Mid-Ohio.
“I need to keep positive,” Thompson said. “I need to keep that in the back of my head that (the flat tire) wasn’t my fault; it was out of my control. I just need to go into Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with my fists swinging.”
While the battle between the teammates has been intense, Thompson (shown at left) said it has only made them better drivers.
“At the end of the day, you are going into the same hauler with each other,” said Thompson. “You’re looking over the same data as he is. A lot of times we are the fastest guys on the track, so we are always overlaying our data to see who’s quicker.
“It changes the dynamic a little bit because you always know where your competitor is at 100 percent of the time.”
Martin agreed that the teammate dynamic works well in the Cape meeting room.
“Me and Parker work really well with data and we work together to get each other to the front because, at the end of the day, we are a team,” he said. “When it comes to on-track stuff, he’s just another competitor.”
Franzoni is a longshot for the championship, but the 20-year-old Brazilian is pleased with his performance, considering his deal with ArmsUp Motorsports didn’t finalize until two weeks before the start of the season.
Franzoni is the only driver to finish every lap of the season. He scored a win at Toronto and has nine podium finishes.
“I knew I had to finish the races because, if I crashed, I’d be out of the championship,” he said. “I had to be consistent and I have been. ArmsUp has given me a good car all year so I just need to focus on not crashing and making the opportunities work.”
Since his chances of winning the championship are slim, Franzoni believes that takes the pressure off him this weekend.
“I really think it’s easier for me than for Anthony and Parker because I just have to go from ‘easy guy’ to ‘crazy guy,’ while they still have to think a little bit more,” he said. “I don’t have to think; I just need to go.”
The Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is the climactic weekend for all three Mazda Road to Indy series. All sessions are set to stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Practice sessions take place Friday, beginning with Pro Mazda at 11:45 a.m. ET and running through the conclusion of Indy Lights practice at 7:55 p.m. Qualifying for all three series runs from 11:35 a.m. to 1:35 p.m. ET Saturday, with the first race for each later that afternoon (Pro Mazda 5:05 p.m., Indy Lights 6 p.m., USF2000 7:05 p.m.). Pro Mazda’s second race will be at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, followed by USF2000 at 2:20 p.m., Indy Lights at 4:10 p.m. and the third Pro Mazda race concluding action at 5:35 p.m.