2017 Formula 1600 champion Julian van der Watt has signed with Team Pelfrey for the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. The championship, which launched the careers of many top drivers, is the first step on the INDYCAR sanctioned Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires which provides a clearly defined route to the top tier of open-wheel racing in the United States of America.

After securing the 2017 Formula 1600 championship, van der Watt made the trip over to the USA in October where he impressed Team Pelfrey’s Jonathan Baker during a test at Gingerman Raceway in Michigan. Speaking shortly after the test Baker said, “Julian’s performance with our USF2000 operation last week at Gingerman was nothing short of exceptional. His progression was exactly where it needed to be, with his lap times and consistency evolving to a point where we know he will be a factor in USF2000 next year.”

Making the announcement that van der Watt was going to join Team Pelfrey in 2018 Baker added, “Not only was he fast [at the Gingerman test], but his consistency and work ethic were all on display for us to see. Julian’s decision to move to the Mazda Road to Indy is fantastic news for Team Pelfrey and the series and we are looking forward to seeing how he gets on throughout the 2018 season.”

A delighted van der Watt said, “I am really excited about racing in the 2018 USF2000 Championship, especially with a top team such as Team Pelfrey. We will be working hard throughout the year to ensure we are battling for the top step of the podium.”

Team Pelfrey’s record of 10 championships, 96 race wins and 206 podiums make it one of the most successful junior open-wheel teams in North America.

Van der Watt will make his USF2000 debut at the Grand Prix of St Petersburg on the weekend of 9 to 11 March where the first two rounds of the 2018 championship take place. The series then moves on to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for another double header on the weekend of 10 to 12 May. Round 5, the only event on an oval circuit, takes place at the Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana on 25 May before the series heads to Wisconsin for another double-header at Road America from 22 to 24 June. From 13 to 15 July the series will be in Canada where rounds 8 & 9 take place on the streets of Toronto. The Mid Ohio Sports Car Course is the next stop, a triple-header from 27 to 29 July before the final two rounds take place at Portland International Raceway on the weekend of 21 August to 2 September.

The car that van der Watt will be driving in 2018 was introduced to the series in 2017. The Tatuus USF-17 is a significant advance over the Van Diemen USF2000 chassis used previously. It is a full carbon composite and aluminium honeycomb monocoque chassis meeting current FIA F4 safety standards with additional safety features to meet the specific needs of racing in the United States. These features include full Zylon side intrusion panels and reinforced bulkheads to strengthen the chassis for racing on oval circuits.

The USF-17 is powered by the Mazda MZR 2-liter power plant which produces fractionally over 130kW (175 HP) and maximum torque of 217 Nm (160 Ft. Lbs), utilizing a fly-by-wire throttle system and Cosworth SQ6 engine management system. The Mazda engine is coupled to a six-speed paddle shift gearbox.

Other features of the car are four-way adjustable dampers, specific design aluminium Motegi Racing wheels, LCD steering wheel and ECU, four piston caliper PFC brakes and IndyCar-specific quick jack and roll hoop attachments. The cars run on thirteen-inch slick and rain tires co-branded COOPER/USF2000 manufactured by Cooper Tires.

The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will distribute over $500,000 in prizes and awards in 2018. The series champion will receive a scholarship package from Mazda of $325,000 to advance to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2019, the next step on the Mazda Road to Indy.

The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires

Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Josef Newgarden, Gabby Chaves and Spencer Pigot are all graduates of series comprising the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – one of the most successful driver development programs in the world, providing a unique, scholarship-funded path to reach the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 – and van der Watt will be looking to join them.

Since its launch in 2010, the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system has attracted competitors from around the globe. Drivers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Ireland, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Spain, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and now South Africa have been part of the grids, showcasing their talents at premier venues on a mix of road courses, temporary street circuits and ovals.

From “The World’s Fastest Spring Break Party” in St. Petersburg, Fla., to “one of the most beautiful race tracks in North America” named by Road & Track in Birmingham, Ala., and the famed Brickyard – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – drivers compete on the Verizon IndyCar Series stage in front of large crowds and television cameras as well as team owners, sponsors and media.

Sanctioned by INDYCAR, the Mazda Road to Indy provides drivers, teams and sponsors an opportunity to gain valuable experience on and off the track while following a clear-cut path of progression through three development series: Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

The progession steps

  • Drivers begin on the Mazda Road to Indy in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, a revival of the highly regarded USF2000 series which ran from 1990 through 2006. The goal of the series is to provide a professional, entry-level open-wheel training ground serving as the first step on the ladder to a Verizon IndyCar Series career.
  • From there, drivers move on to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, formerly known as the Star Mazda Championship, which has developed IndyCar Series stars Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and Tristan Vautier, and rising star Conor Daly amongst others including NASCAR veteran Michael McDowell and Ford Ganassi Racing driver Joey Hand.
  • From Pro Mazda, drivers move into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. Indy Lights has long been a vital step for competitors to reach the pinnacle of open-wheel racing in America, boasting over 100 drivers as graduates.

“For so many years, there were too many options in junior formula racing and it was so tough for drivers coming up to make the right decision on where to run,” said James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar Series race winner, 2011 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year and Indy Lights/Pro Mazda graduate.

“Now, not only is there a clearly defined path, but the Mazda Road to Indy has all the best series that lead so well into one another. All the cars are great learning tools to develop for the next step and now you’ll see drivers arriving at each level a lot more prepared. It speaks volumes to INDYCAR’s commitment to the long term health of open-wheel racing in North America that they have created this system.”