RACER web editor Tony DiZinno sizes up the stars of the Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda and USF2000 series in 2012.
This past weekend, the Star Mazda finale at Road Atlanta wrapped up the year for the Mazda Road to Indy ladder series – more than a month after the Firestone Indy Lights and USF2000 titles ended at Auto Club Speedway and Virginia International Raceway, respectively.
That gap gave proper time to evaluate the top 10 drivers throughout the three championships this season. Sure, Tristan Vautier, Jack Hawksworth and Matthew Brabham won the titles – but which of their feats was most impressive?
The 2012 stats were one element of the evaluation, but I also took the competition levels in the field (of these, I'd rank Star Mazda the highest, ahead of USF2000 and then Indy Lights), and driver experience levels within their championship into consideration. Drivers who competed in partial seasons weren't eligible.
Several drivers had respectable but not quality enough seasons to merit inclusion. In Indy Lights, Gustavo Yacaman and Carlos Munoz each won twice (LEFT, Yacaman led Munoz at Detroit) but are headed in opposite directions. Yacaman's Baltimore move contacting both Saavedra and Guerrieri off Turn 1 was they type of careless move you'd expect he'd have cleaned up by now, and was lucky to escape an avoidable-contact penalty. There's no point to him running a fifth season of Indy Lights; he likely either moves up to IndyCar or moves over to sports cars for 2013. Munoz was inconsistent but came on stronger toward the end of his rookie year, and he should have an even better sophomore season.
Peter Dempsey doesn't qualify based on not running the full season but matched Karam's excitement level in terms of passing ability in his races. It's not going far off on a limb to suggest he'll be in the top 10 in 2013.
Star Mazda's depth was quantified in the number of additional podium finishers beyond the top four with five others in the top three at some point this season. It was disappointing that 2011 USF2000 champion Petri Suvanto didn't get a win or that Karam's Andretti Autosport teammate Zach Veach wasn't more consistent, though.
USF2000's brightest star beyond the top three was undoubtedly Matthew Di Leo, who made the most of limited resources in his family-run team to finish fourth in the standings.
With those as the “close, but no cigar” crowd, here's who did make the cut…
10 – SCOTT ANDERSON
USF2000, P3, Belardi Auto Racing, two wins, four other podiums
THE GOOD: A distant third to the Cape twins of Matthew Brabham and Spencer Pigot, but a clear third ahead of the rest of the USF2000 field, Anderson's debut season as the MAZDASPEED Scholarship winner jumping up from Skip Barber had moments of brilliance in a mostly consistent year.
The best part, undoubtedly, was breaking up the Cape monopoly in any race. He won twice as part of a five podiums in five-race stretch at Mid-Ohio and Road America. He tested and made his Star Mazda debut with JDC at the Road Atlanta finale.
THE BAD: It was a fairly slow start to the season as he was clearly a step behind the Cape cars, but he improved as the season wore on. No major black marks on his scorecard.
THE FUTURE: Like Gabby Chaves in a Star Mazda/Indy Lights decision, Anderson has a good chance in either USF2000 or Star Mazda for 2013. A likely title favorite if he sticks with USF2000 but the Star Mazda field is deep enough to where a jump there, coupled with any results, would improve his stock considerably for 2014.
9 – GABBY CHAVES
Star Mazda, P2, JDC Motorsports, two wins, two poles, eight other podiums
THE GOOD: Chaves put consistency first, then pace second, when the final results are tabulated in this year's Star Mazda campaign. Stepping into the championship-winning entry at JDC vacated by Vautier, the Colombian-American finished all races in the top 10, the only driver to do so.
It took him until Mazda Raceway to turn his run of podiums into a win, but a near sweep at Monterey (he came up short on a last-lap try at the Corkscrew) was in the cards as one of the rare moments where Hawksworth was beaten in a head-to-head fight. Chaves emerged with the pole on Sunday and turned that into his first win, followed up at Road Atlanta with his second straight.
THE BAD: There were a handful of moments where it seemed Chaves was too aggressive; the start at Baltimore race 1 was one, and he was eager to make passes stick through the Corkscrew. If he can be reined in a bit, he has the natural speed to contend for a title.
THE FUTURE: In a good position for next year. As a rookie in Star Mazda, he'd be a title favorite if he returns there. Alternatively, if he makes the leap into Indy Lights (he tested with Schmidt at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test), he could come close to Vautier's title-winning prowess depending on the competition level. Will be one to watch even closer in either championship.
8 – ESTEBAN GUERRIERI
Indy Lights, P2, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, three wins, zero poles, six other podiums
THE GOOD: Guerrieri more than cleaned up his 2011 mistakes in 2012 – after three accidents in races and two other finishes of 12th or worse, there were exactly zero and zero of both of those categories this year. Consistent and clean, he finished every lap and never finished worse than seventh in any race. His Indianapolis win was a masterstroke, an 18th-to-first drive that culminated with a late pass of Yacaman and Vautier as he knew how to play the draft right.
THE BAD: In cleaning up his mistakes, Guerrieri may have lost his natural pace edge. He suffered a substantial drop-off in the qualifying game, going from six poles in 2011 to none this year, while in the same team that's widely considered best in the series. There's no real way to put a positive spin on that other than to say someone – Vautier, Yacaman, Sebastian Saavedra or even Carlos Munoz later in the year – was just a little bit better on Saturdays.
THE FUTURE: The Argentine was in good position for an IndyCar promotion this year had Rubens Barrichello not become available, and after two years and what should be a respectable budget, he could again enter the fray for 2013. Moving up is his goal but it might not be entirely realistic; a third season in Indy Lights would put him into the dangerous category of an “eternal” Lights driver as he already has 26 starts under his belt.
Once he crosses the 30 career starts threshold, his chances of advancing drop further. Drivers like Yacaman (53 starts), Bobby Wilson (45), Logan Gomez (36), Mike Potekhen (34), Daniel Herrington (33), Stefan Wilson (32) and James Davison/Jonathan Klein (30) have a combined zero IndyCar starts; career Indy Lights starts leader Arie Luyendyk Jr. (66) has but one.
7 – SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA
Indy Lights, P4, AFS/Andretti Autosport, one win, three poles, five other podiums
THE GOOD: Saavedra made the unorthodox but mature decision to step back into Indy Lights after a difficult first season in the big cars with Conquest Racing. By doing so, it improved both his reputation and his standing for 2013. He won only once, but in the races he finished, he advanced from his qualifying position in all but one race (second after pole at Long Beach was the exception).
THE BAD: Undoubtedly he'd been the most consistent driver in the field through Edmonton before things went completely awry the last three races, with a fuel pressure failure in Trois-Rivieres, getting tagged by Yacaman in Baltimore and failing to start after pole in Fontana with gearbox issues. He didn't make an on-track mistake, though; where he lost points was due to the lingering black cloud that seemed to strike him more than the rest, and dropped him down the standings.
THE FUTURE: A step back to a full-time ride in IndyCars, likely in the AFS/Andretti combo, is very much possible. He did well to keep his head in his IndyCar opportunities this year – a last-second qualifying effort to make it into the Indianapolis 500 field on the first day of time trials and a quietly impressive weekend at Sonoma – while not losing focus on the Indy Lights season at hand. Still only 22, Saavedra has put himself in prime position for a second chance.