Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Thompson, Exclusive Autosport on the rise in Pro Mazda

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Other drivers may be dominating their championships or garnering more headlines for their driving flare, but few have had a more impressive start to their season than Parker Thompson in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Thompson is the only Pro Mazda driver without a bad finish to his name – his worst finish in 2018 is fifth (on two occasions) and he has five podiums already in the first seven races, highlighted by three wins. Everyone else has at least one finish of 10th or worse.

His most recent triumph, at Lucas Oil Raceway in the Cooper Tires Freedom 90, may be his most impressive, as he sprinted away from the pole and led all 90 laps, taking a thoroughly authoritative win.

Parker Thompson was unstoppable in the Freedom 90 at Lucas Oil Raceway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

It was a display of pure dominance, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Thompson had to fight hard with lapped traffic at the end, which allowed Juncos Racing teammates Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis, running second and third, to close in.

Thompson explained that the lapped cars produced a unique challenge, in that he had to play it somewhat safe, but had to balance that with the knowledge that his rivals were fast approaching, as he detailed to NBC Sports.

“It seems like lapped cars are always going to fight the leader harder than when they fight second or third place. So as you approach lapped cars, they don’t want to go a lap down, because if a caution comes out, they have chance to get their spot back. At the same time, it always seems like they fight the leader harder than they’re going to fight second or third, because once they’re lapped, it doesn’t really matter anymore. So, it was really about feeling it out,” Thompson said of handling lapped traffic.

But, he navigated the traffic flawlessly to take the victory that night, his first win on an oval, and one that was a bit of redemption. In 2016, while competing in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, Thompson led at Lucas Oil Raceway, but ultimately lost out to then teammate Anthony Martin (both ran with Cape Motorsports that year) because of traffic.

Thompson explained that getting such redemption was a nice personal hurdle to overcome.

“I think you saw a more aggressive Parker Thompson than you normally would in lapped traffic, and we got the job done. In terms of a mental hurdle, it was pretty huge not only to get my first (oval) win, but to also bury the hatchet and get some redemption from the 2016 championship when I lost out at Lucas Oil,” said the native of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

The win is the second in a row for Thompson, and the third of the 2018 season, and it all comes with a team that is very new to the Mazda Road to Indy.

Exclusive Autosport, which like Thompson is based in Canada, has a slew of F1600 championships in Canada, but only joined the MRTI last year, running in USF2000 with Thompson as one of their drivers.

The combination moved up to Pro Mazda together for 2018, and fields a team car for Antonio Serravalle, while continuing a USF2000 effort with Manual Cabrera, Igor Fraga, and Jayson Clunie.

Despite their relative inexperience in the MRTI, the team has quickly become a regular frontrunner, and Thompson asserts their history in Canadian F1600 as a strong foundation on which they’ve been able to build.

“It’s a very interesting question: How does a team adapt (to a new series)? I think overall there’s a winning formula, and I think Exclusive Autosport knows the winning formula. They’ve exemplified that in F1600, they’ve dominated Canadian F1600 for the last decade really.”

Further, Thompson highlighted exemplary efforts from the team’s crew members, all of whom have completed their jobs impeccably so far and are driven by a common goal: winning.

“I don’t think there’s a group of guys in the paddock that want to win races more than that group of guys, and then myself included. And when you put five or six guys that want to win more than anyone else together, we find a way to win and I think that’s what you really see this year.”

Their 2018 success is made all the more impressive considering the program came together somewhat late. While Thompson’s Pro Mazda effort were confirmed back in February, he explained that dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of their budget took all the way up until the start of the season.

“It took all the way up to St. Pete, and it’s still taking time,” Thompson quipped. “There’s expenses in racing that come up that are unforeseen, so I’m constantly working behind the scenes to still try and raise money so that we can compete for the championship. It takes a lot of money to compete at the top level. You look at all the expenses, and tires, and just unexpected costs. But, at the same time, we’ve got a pretty solid program, and I’m just happy to be where I’m at with Exclusive Autosport.”

Fortunately, everything looks good for them to run a full season without issue. In this area, Thompson added that team owner Michael Duncalfe has been an enormous resource to help bring more money into their budget, and Thompson feels he’s gone above and beyond what you typically see from a team owner.

“I’m very proud to work with Michael, he’s treated me extremely well as a race car driver and he treats all of the Exclusive Autosport drivers well,” Thompson revealed. “He works with us and even sometimes when the money gets tight, he’s always there to help out. And he’s been able to find sponsors to help me out this year. You don’t find too many team owners in the paddock helping drivers find money to race.”

Thompson’s driving success is also down to how he and the team have meshed with the new Tatuus PM-18 Pro Mazda chassis. Based on the USF-17 in USF2000 – the two share the same base chassis – the PM-18 has more sophisticated aero, a more powerful engine, and other modifications.

It is a big step up from the USF-17, but one that Thompson says fits him very well.

“With more downforce and more horsepower, you’re trying to get into the corners harder and you’re getting on the throttle sooner and more aggressive, with more power. So, I think that has really played to my advantage,” he detailed. “In USF2000, you really have to be polite to the car. You had to roll the speed, you had to drive it smooth in a certain way. In Pro Mazda, you can really get aggressive. And I think that suits my driving style that much more.”

As it stands, Thompson heads to next weekend’s double-header at Road America with a 40-point lead over Carlos Cunha. And while Thompson admitted that his primary focus is on winning races, he is acutely aware of his championship standing and isn’t going to take any undue chances.

“Obviously, I don’t want to crash the car, so I’m not going to take unnecessary risks that are just going to end up costing myself and my sponsors more money. But I’m definitely going to take risks that have the reward of a race win, and if I think that I can get a race win, I’m definitely going to take it.”

Further, Thompson may ultimately need the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship the Pro Mazda champion gets if he is to keep his career going and move on to the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

While it’s possible a team could have the budget to sign him without the need for extra funding, the Canadian driver does not have a limitless budget, and the $790,000+ scholarship prize borders on a necessity.

“As it stands right now, the only way I will be racing Indy Lights next year is if I win the Pro Mazda championship, so that is 100% my goal,” he revealed. “And to be completely honest, I’m in a very similar situation as I was last year in that I don’t know my plans for next year (at the moment). I don’t want to think about finishing second, because that’s not an option for me at this point.”

Thompson had a pair of fifth place efforts last year at Road America, while competing in USF2000, and will look to improve upon them in Pro Mazda next weekend.

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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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