MRTI: Aitken, Jamin emerge as last-minute Cooper Tires Winterfest champions

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The ambient temperatures in Birmingham, Ala. were cold for the final rounds (30s Fahrenheit) of the 2015 Cooper Tires Winterfest for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, but the calculator temperatures were much higher in terms of figuring out the miniseries champions following two dramatic conclusions.

Both series were set for three races at Barber Motorsports Park to match the three at NOLA Motorsports Park last week. But on Wednesday, heavy rain forced the cancellation of the first of three Barber races. That meant the final race would count as double points to make up the difference.

In the end, Jack Aitken edged Weiron Tan by the slimmest of margins for the Pro Mazda Winterfest title, while Nico Jamin scored a last-minute, surprise USF2000 Winterfest title after presumptive favorite Jake Eidson ran into problems in the final race.

PRO MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES (Results)

Aitken beat Tan to the win in Thursday’s first of two races on the day, emerging ahead following a prolonged yellow flag period for an accident involving Nicolas Latifi. That gave Aitken an 11-point edge on Tan heading into the final race of the championship, now Round 5, for double points.

Tan took the win, but Aitken in second captured the crucial bonus points to edge ahead in the final tally. Tan was also hamstrung by a five-point penalty issued to him after the NOLA rounds, issued for unsportsmanlike conduct when he left a podium ceremony after NOLA Round 3.

Nonetheless, the English driver for Team Pelfrey and the Malaysian rookie for Andretti Autosport had staged a memorable duel over the last couple weeks.

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Photo: Pro Mazda

“I didn’t know where we’d stack up but I knew it would be quite tough and that’s the reason I’m here,” said Aitken, who will focus on the Formula Renault Eurocup for his full 2015 program.

“It’s really the perfect preparation for my (European) season in Renaults, being pushed so hard by Weiron and the other guys. The whole experience has been really good. The quality is so good in this field, I’m tempted to come back for some more this summer!”

Tan was reflective and took a lot of learning from the winter racing experience, before he heads into the full season – one which he must now be considered a title contender.

“Jack did well, he kept the pressure on me,” Tan said. “I was trying to find the time, but since he had the fastest lap time, that gave him the championship. It’s disappointing. We got the victory but we lost the war, so it’s good and bad. But this is a good start for us, since the real championship starts now.

“But looking back on the penalty [from NOLA], I have regrets for doing that – if it had been a fair fight, I think we could have won. I learned from that, it’s a big mistake and it cost me the one point I needed. It’s all about learning and that’s why we’re doing this. We’re all here to learn, to grow up, and it’s all part of learning how not to make the same mistakes next time.

“But after these race weekends, we know we have good pace going into the full season. I think we should be pretty confident. We have to keep working hard and I have to stop making stupid mistakes!”

COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA (Results)

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Photo: USF2000

Pabst Racing’s Eidson had the edge heading into Barber on the strength of two wins from three races at NOLA, and a 26-point lead. But drama in the final event cost Eidson the title, and allowed both Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) and Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) a shot.

Franzoni beat Eidson to the win in Thursday’s Round 4, and Eidson needed only a seventh-place finish in Round 5 to take the title. He didn’t get it as his car ground to a halt with unspecified mechanical issues on the first lap.

That opened the door for the other two, and when Franzoni made a mistake at the final corner, Jamin had both the lead and the title in his grasp. He held onto it with the win.

Jamin is the third driver from Cape in the last four years to win the Winterfest title (Spencer Pigot 2012, Neil Alberico 2013) but neither won the actual season title.

“Everyone at Cape Motorsports worked so hard all week, and I’m so happy to get the last win of Winterfest and the championship,” Jamin said. “I didn’t trust it when the team told me! I’m super-stoked for the beginning of the championship.”