STAR MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY GOODYEAR
Since Connor De Phillippi will still be in Star Mazda for a third consecutive year, and with a former championship-winning team, that makes him the head-and-shoulders favorite for the title.
The American will be part of four drivers with Juncos Racing, joined by Chilean veteran Martin Scuncio (LEFT) and two Venezuelans, Bruno Palli and Diego Ferreira, who enter as part of the “Team Viso Venezuela” initiative founded by IndyCar Series driver E.J. Viso.
De Phillippi, who drove last year for Team Pelfrey, will have to take down that squad's three yellow cars. The trio of USF2000 champion Petri Suvanto, who moves up, Englishman Jack Hawksworth and veteran Gustavo Menezes should certainly be in contention for race wins from the outset, and likely for the championship depending on how the early results shake out.
There's two other potential stars-in-waiting here, too, both from Andretti Autosport. One of our RACER.com bloggers, Zach Veach, moves up from USF2000 for a full Star Mazda season in 2012, and after scoring a podium in one of his two Star Mazda starts a year ago. Veach and Sage Karam are possible title contenders, Karam (RIGHT) more likely as he won a handful of races a year ago.
JDC Motorsports, the defending champion team with Vautier, should also have its moments with Juan Piedrahita and Gabby Chaves likely to contend. The team also has TrueCar-backed Ashley Freiberg on its roster, and she could pull a surprise result or two over the course of the season now given a full year opportunity.
Canadian driver Stefan Rzadzinski had a nice touch in testing, running car No. 99 in paying homage to the late Canadian racing hero, Greg Moore. There's a handful of others in the field, motorcycle veteran Larry Pegram among them, who might be fringe top-10 contenders but are unlikely to do anything more than that.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA
The USF2000 championship has been the busiest of all the MRTI series over the offseason, with the six-race Winterfest championship and already its first race weekend out of the way at Sebring, although already the two main contenders for the title have emerged from the deep field.
Spencer Pigot, last year's championship runner-up and Winterfest champion, and his fellow 18-year-old teammate at Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, Matthew Brabham, split the season opener at Sebring last weekend. They were the also the only two race winners in the Winterfest events. The road to the title will have to go through them first.
But, saying they'll be the only winners for the full season would be an injustice to the rest of the field. Andretti Autosport has two potential winners in Thomas McGregor and Shelby Blackstock, and Belardi Auto Racing has three in Roman Lagudi, Colin Thompson and Scott Anderson.
Others who could stand out include the third member of the Cape/WTR squad, Trent Hindman, series returnees Matthew DiLeo and Timmy Megenbier, the JDC Motorsports trio of Neil Alberico, Scott Hargrove and Zac Silver, and ArmsUp Motorsports' Luigi Biangardi.
Two more hopefuls are Michael Johnson, the 19-year-old paralyzed driver who drives a specially built car with hand controls for JDC, and Shannon McIntosh, who looks to improve in her second season, now with Pabst Racing Services. These two won't be threatening the leaders too frequently but will be ones to watch as they learn and attempt to punch above their weight.
The series has also taken the step of adding Formula Enterprises and Formula Continental cars to its National class, which has bolstered the overall car count. A number of names to keep an eye on here include Patrick Gallagher, Mark Eaton, Scott Rettich, Henrik Furuseth and Bobby Kelley.