An international field prepares for an intense season with the pre-season Cooper Tires Winterfest.
Two youngsters who have honed their skills in Europe in recent years staged a fine battle for the first three Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races of the 2015 Cooper Tires Winterfest, with Briton Jack Aitken (Team Pelfrey) narrowly holding off Andretti Autosport’s Weiron Tan in two of three races at NOLA Motorsports Park.
Aitken, 19, from London, England, returned to the Pro Mazda ranks following an impressive debut performance in last year’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway, where he finished fourth. His focus this year will be on a return to the Formula Renault Eurocup, but he used the opportunity to gain some racing mileage during the Winterfest to excellent effect.
Tan, who won the final two rounds of last year’s German Formula 3 championship, will race full-time in Pro Mazda this year and was equally anxious to make his mark early in the first race. Tan completed the opening lap a full 1.5 seconds adrift of Aitken due to a mini fracas at the first corner, then immediately put his head down and charged onto the leader’s tail. He tried to overtake on several occasions, but each time Aitken was up to the challenge. The Englishman finally crossed the finishing line a scant 0.3387s ahead of his rival.
In the second race, Aitken started on pole for Team Pelfrey, only to be outfumbled at the start when Andretti Autosport’s Tan made a clear jump as the green flag waved. Aitken tumbled down the order as several other cars got together on the Start/Finish straightaway, with Garett Grist (Juncos Racing) making stout contact with the pit wall and Daniel Burkett (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) and Carlos Conde (M1 Autosport) also becoming involved.
After several laps behind the Mazda pace car, Tan left the field far behind as he stretched away on every lap to win by 6.9243s over an inspired Canadian Nicolas Latifi. Latifi started seventh, emerged in fourth after the early skirmish, then overtook the Juncos Racing pair of Jose Gutierrez and Will Owen at the restart. Owen remained glued to Latifi’s tail but had to settle for third ahead of a recovering Aitken.
The starting order was reversed for Race 3, with Tan on pole and Aitken on the outside of the front row for the usual rolling start. The pair raced side by side to Turn 1, where Aitken used every ounce of bravery – and every inch of the race track – to grab the lead around the outside line. Despite intense pressure, Aitken maintained his narrow advantage throughout the 20-lap race, even gaining another bonus point for the fastest race lap just three laps from the end.
Aitken and Tan are tied in points as the Winterfest continues later this week at Barber Motorsports Park, where the Pro Mazda competitors will have three more races before a champion is determined.