Pro Mazda season review: Brabham dominates, but stars shine beneath

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 3, 2013 8:47 am

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Leading up to the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, this article was originally scheduled to be a preview of the series finale at Reliant Park — but one of the most unprecedented seasons in Pro Mazda history has necessitated that it become a year-end review.

After one of the most competitive USF2000 seasons in history in 2012, expectations were high that Matthew Brabham and Spencer Pigot would carry their tooth-and-nail battle from USF2000 into the Pro Mazda Championship in 2013.

What transpired, however, was one of the most dominating performances in American open-wheel racing history as Matthew Brabham blitzed the field from start to finish and locked up the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship with two rounds to go.

The season began with a change in promotional leadership at Pro Mazda as Andersen Promotions took over and installed Cooper Tires as the spec tire manufacturer. Although the series was adopted at the 11th hour, Andersen also put a new engine program into play with sports car powerhouse Speedsource in an attempt to lower operating costs for teams and boost car counts.

Changes for the better have definitely occurred, but Andersen still sees room for improvement.

“We’ve had our challenges because we took the series over very late,” Andersen said. “It was essentially dumped on us in December, and it presented us with some problems in solving the two key issues, which we’ve now done. That was the tire and engine budgets but also to get the message out to teams and drivers that budgets will indeed come down and we can thereby sign drivers for less money and build the fields up. That’s been slow coming, and we’ve varied between 12 and 16 cars, which is too short of a field for what we want. The prospects looking ahead look good, but it took a while for the teams to truly believe in what we did. We should see the fields coming back nicely next season, but it’s been a struggle.

” They (the teams) now know that the new engine program we’ve established with Speedsource building motors is fantastic. And instead of putting a motor in every three races, the motors that we sold the teams in March are still in the cars and running strong. Teams can now get a full season out of a motor without a rebuild, and that drastically reduces their operating budgets.”

Andersen also pointed at the change of tire manufacturer, from Goodyear to Cooper Tire, as being a positive one.

“People were throwing tires at the car constantly,” Andersen said, “and Cooper has been a great partner to us and produced a great tire. Teams have made the change and realized a big savings in budgets due to that as well. Unfortunately, teams have to quote a budget at the beginning of the season based on what they know, not what the promoter is telling you. The budgets were upwards of $500,000 a year under the prior regime, and we need to get them under $400,000. The teams were a little reluctant, understandably, to drop their prices because they weren’t sure that our engine program was going to deliver.

“If I had owned the series last season, we would have debuted the engine program soon enough for teams to know in their early days of testing that the motors were good and then establish lower budgets in order to attract some quality drivers who unfortunately went elsewhere to race this year, drivers that might have been in our series. We’re very happy with the results from the operating budgets side, but we’re not yet happy with the results from the entry side.”

Once cars hit the track, it was apparent very early that Matthew Brabham was going to be the man to beat. Diego Ferreira took the opening round at Circuit of the Americas, but Brabham took the win in round two at COTA and then ripped off six more wins in succession before allowing Spencer Pigot and Shelby Blackstock to top the podium at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

Brabham got back on the horse in style at Mid-Ohio, though, taking both wins before traveling to Trois-Rivières and doing the same, sealing the championship battle with two rounds remaining in Houston.

A look at the numbers shows just how dominant Brabham was: he won from the pole eight times as well as from far back in the field at St. Petersburg. Brabham took three victories on natural terrain road courses, six wins on street circuits, and two wins on ovals.

Team USA Scholarship director Jeremy Shaw sees big things in Brabham’s future and related how the experience of racing in Britain this past year helped to mature Matthew as both a racer and a person.

“He’s taken everybody by storm this year, no question,” said Shaw. “He grew up hugely when he went over to Europe last year. The results weren’t sensational, but I think he really learned a lot about himself and what it took to become a racing driver.

“Speaking to his parents this year, they were excited about his involvement in the program because he came back not a reformed character but a very grown-up character. I think he learned how to stand on his own two feet. He’s also learned how important his feedback is to making the car go faster, and he just matured a lot. He took advantage of all those factors this year.  He’s on a good team, and they are very focused. So is he, and he’s put all of the pieces of the puzzle in place.”

Andersen agrees that Brabham has really come on strong this year.

“He’s really emerged as a rare talent in my opinion,” Andersen said. “I watched him all last year in USF2000, and he had a really good battle with his teammate Spencer Pigot. Spencer actually won more races, and Matt won the title mainly due to having a more consistent finishing record. It was a very tight championship, but this year Matthew has hooked up with the car and just emerged as a rare guy. He’s doing some amazing things in the car.”

Brabham concurred that he and his team at Andretti Autosport had been part of fantastic season, but was very humble in describing it.

“It seemed one of my biggest keys to success this year was just getting on top of the new tires,” Brabham said. “We managed to get a really good jump on everybody, and since the first couple of test days at Sebring and Palm Beach we’ve had this advantage. We just managed to keep that throughout the year.”

It’s a foregone conclusion that Brabham will advance to Indy Lights next year, and the expectations are for an even deeper and more talented field there. But Shaw and Andersen both see success in Brabham’s future.

“The higher you move up the ladder, the harder it becomes,” Shaw said. “And if you don’t do as well as you thought you should have done, it becomes harder to raise the money to compete the following season. He’s got a really good head on his shoulders, though, he has a lot of family support, and he’s created his own niche within the team now. They (Andretti Autosport) appreciate what he brought to the team and vice versa, so I don’t see any problem with him moving up to Indy Lights. It won’t be as easy because the depth of competition will be better, but I think he’s equipped to handle the next level.”

“I think he’s going to be a winner in Indy Lights in his first year,” Andersen concluded. “He’s the real deal.”

Unfortunately, any time a racer has a truly great season, it can cover up the efforts of some of the other drivers who are worthy of recognition. Speaking with both Shaw and Andersen, a few names rose to the top of the discussion.

“Diego Ferreira has been impressive,” Andersen said, “winning the season opener at Circuit of the Americas. Diego has been strong everywhere, but he’s been just a tick behind Matt. And Spencer Pigot has shown flashes of the brilliance he had last year. It seems like he’s struggled a bit with his car, but Spencer is always a talent and he’ll do fine.”

Shaw noticed some great signs in Ferreira and Pigot but hoped that they would take the opportunity to gain one more year of seasoning in Pro Mazda.

Ferreira has done two years at this level, and he won a race this season,” Shaw says. “But last year was his first full year in racing of any real substance, and he did fairly well. This year he has done better, and three years in a series is really pushing it, but I still think he would be better off doing one more year in Pro Mazda. That said, I think he can be competitive in Indy Lights if he does move up.

“Spencer is a known talent, and that’s been apparent since the moment he moved up from karting into Skip Barber, and he was ridiculously unlucky not to win last year’s USF2000 championship. This year, the team has been going through some changes. Even though that team won the championship last year, it’s still taken some time to gel this year. And that’s fine because Spencer has learned a hell of a lot this year and worked with a couple of different race engineers, which is always a benefit. If that team can get some continuity next year, then I think it’s very well-placed for Spencer to do what I’m sure he will do, which is win the championship.”

Also drawing high praise from both men was Shelby Blackstock, who is starting to emerge from the shadow of his country music superstar mother Reba McEntire due to fantastic drives in both the Pro Mazda Championship and Grand-Am Continental Tire Series.

“People knock Shelby because he has a celebrity mom,” said Andersen, “but he’s doing a lot better than people give him credit for. He’s had fastest laps, he’s sat on pole, and he won a race up in Mosport. It’s just that when you’re the teammate to Matthew Brabham, it’s hard. If Matthew were not in the field this year, Shelby would be a multiple winner and competing for the championship.”

“Shelby has learned enormously,” Shaw reminded, “and he is getting better and better all the time. Spencer and Shelby should be the ones to beat next year. Shelby has learned a lot from Matthew, but the gulf between them still exists. Matthew has been around racing all his life, even though his parents tried to steer him away from it, but it’s in the genes there with Matthew. There’s an in-built understanding there of what’s required.”

Shaw, for one, hopes that most of the drivers will subscribe to a formula laid by McLaren with Lewis Hamilton when it comes to being groomed for success.

“I always think that drivers are best equipped to move up to the next racing level after doing two years at each level,” Shaw says. “Lewis Hamilton is the model. McLaren, who ran Lewis’s career from karting to Formula One, had a plan for Lewis and his development. The purpose was to win and develop his talent the best you could. The plan, then, was to learn the first year and win the next. And that’s exactly what Lewis did all the way through his career.

“I’ve been involved with the sport for 40 years, and I think that’s the way to approach things. I think Matthew could benefit from another year in Pro Mazda but he’s already won it, so it’s time to move up.  Diego, Shelby, and Spencer would definitely benefit from another year in Pro Mazda, though.”

Andersen sees the rungs of the ladder in a slightly different manner, believing that not all drivers even need all of the steps. Dan shared a piece of advice that he gives to the all drivers he encounters on the Mazda Road to Indy.

“The ladder is kind of a flexible thing,” he says. “It all depends on a driver’s experience and how old they are. We have kids as young as 14 years old in USF2000. They can be raw talents, but they may not be mature kids yet. It’s just a lot of factors. The ladder is there to fit your needs, and if you don’t need every step, that’s okay. If Matt hadn’t won the Mazda scholarship from USF2000 to Pro Mazda, he might have skipped right to Indy Lights this year. I know they discussed whether or not to even take the Pro Mazda step.

“These guys can all become as good as Matt, and I’ve told them that individually. It just all clicked for Matt this year. Drivers plateau, and then they gradually grow and then plateau again. They are like children in school — they all hit their stride at different ages. It just all came together for Matthew this year. It will come together for the others as well, but it just may take another year.

“My advice is always the same: don’t move up until you’re ready to run at least in the top 10 of the field because the cost per mile will kill you.”

It’s doubtful that the 2014 Pro Mazda campaign will mirror this year’s as a strong returning group mixed with coming USF2000 graduates promises to make for a stirring title fight. Matthew Brabham will definitely not repeat as Pro Mazda champion since he will move to Indy Lights, but he has had the good sense to enjoy this amazing year for what it is.

“I’ve just kind of enjoyed the year while it was going on,” Brabham says, “because I’m sure I’m not going to have another year like this again.”

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