The battle for supremacy has been nothing short of spectacular this season in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.
Victor Franzoni leads Anthony Martin in the overall standings by a slim seven-point margin in what has become the most compelling battle among the three ladders of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires. At three wins apiece, the duo has won all six races this far in 2017.
Flying Mazda’s Soul Red colors after winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda title in 2016, Martin noted his own struggles in learning a new car this year as he stepped up to the middle rung of the development ladder sanctioned by INDYCAR. He is motivated to get back to this weekend’s tripleheader round at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a track where he swept two races last season in USF2000.
“I really do love this track, it’s probably one of my favorites on the calendar,” said Martin, driver of the No. 8 Mazda Burgess BLA for Cape Motorsports.
“The fact that I did quite well here last year, and also that Cape in Pro Mazda had a really good car at Mid-Ohio as well, so with all of those factors put together, I’m hoping we’ll have some strong pace there and be able to challenge Victor more.”
The last round at Road America brought out the best in both drivers. Despite starting 15th in the second race of the weekend, Franzoni made his way up to the rear wing of Martin, who started on pole. The pair pushed each other with tight wheel-to-wheel battles and close racing. Franzoni settled for the runner-up spot but wasn’t happy with Martin’s tactics.
For Martin, the fight was the epitome of what this championship represents – a shot at a Mazda scholarship that promotes this year’s Pro Mazda champion to compete next year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, the final step before racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“At the end of the day, there’s $800,000 on the line and I think naturally with driver instinct anyone would do anything they can to keep the opposition behind them,” said Martin.
“It was tough (at Road America) and the racing was really, really intense. We were both pushing the limits, rules-wise and each other. It was extremely hard and I’m not counting that it’s not going to happen (again) because it probably is, but that’s just the nature of the beast.”
Franzoni, who finished third in last year’s USF2000 title campaign, believes the Road America joust was just the beginning. He anticipates it increasing over the final six races – three this weekend at Mid-Ohio, one at Gateway Motorsports Park in August and a doubleheader at Watkins Glen in September.
“I think until the end it’s going to start to get worse every race, because every time we are going to be fighting with each other,” said Franzoni, driver of the No. 23 Mazda for Juncos Racing.
“In Road America, I think he was a little bit dirty with me and I think I was too clean. For (Mid-Ohio), I hope we just start and go, but if we have to fight it out on the track, it will be a really good one and really intense.”
Considering Franzoni didn’t know he would be driving in Pro Mazda until about a week before the season started, the 21-year-old Brazilian is delighted with his season at the midpoint.
“I’m leading the championship, it’s been great,” Franzoni said. “Other than to just be leading this season, it’s been really nice to be with Juncos Racing. I’m learning a lot of things this year and I have three wins already, so it makes it even better, but the main thing is the driver that I am becoming this year.
“I think I’ve improved a lot this season and I still have a lot to learn, but I’m enjoying it. It’s been really good. It’s been great for my life and for everything.”
With a 52-point advantage over third-place TJ Fischer of Team Pelfrey in the standings, Martin isn’t looking over his shoulder, just ahead.
“My eyes have been on the championship,” said the 22-year-old Australian. “Whether it’s Victor or Juncos or the Pelfrey guys that are in front of me, it doesn’t really change the way I look at it. I’m going for the championship and Victor is just in front of me in terms of points. He’s the guy I’m looking at.
“I always like to look forward, the same goes when I’m in a race car – I don’t like to look in my mirrors too much. I always want to focus forward.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’m focused on the championship and I want that in my hands at the end of the year. That’s what I’m chasing.”
Both Pro Mazda and USF2000 received track time today at Mid-Ohio in a test day for the two series. Martin was fastest in the final Pro Mazda session with a lap of 1 minute, 20.0811 seconds (101.507 mph) on the 2.258-mile, 13-turn road course. Franzoni was right behind at 1:20.2284 (101.321 mph).
Parker Thompson paced the final USF2000 session with a lap of 1:21.9598 (99.180 mph). Thompson is coming off a doubleheader sweep in Toronto two weeks ago, but sits third in the championship behind points leader Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay with three races remaining. VeeKay was second fastest today at 1:22.1255, with Askew third at 1:22.3511.
Pro Mazda and USF2000 will each conduct qualifying and the first of their weekend races on Friday.