3 – SPENCER PIGOT
USF2000, P2, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, eight wins, four poles, three other podiums
THE GOOD: When you've won more than 50 percent of your races (eight of 14), and more than 60 percent counting the offseason Winterfest (five of six) in total in 2012, you've done something right. For that, Pigot was always going to be the top dog in USF2000 as a series returnee and with another year of experience and maturity under his belt – and why I've ranked him ahead of champion Brabham based on some of his wins.
Opportunistic at Sebring's second race, a daring outside move given limited green flag time netted him his first win of the year after a pass on Brabham. Then, he emerged with the win after their amazing side-by-side, several lap dice at Indianapolis in one of the best races of the year. A double win at the season finale at VIR was also stout, but too little, too late after a frustrating midseason.
THE BAD: Indeed, it was a summer swoon that knocked Pigot from what should have been an easy title romp. Credit to Brabham for pushing him as hard as he did but the mistakes were still there and if even one of them had been erased, there'd be a different champion.
There was the contact with Brabham in wet conditions at Mid-Ohio that took them both out, but Road America featured both a blocking penalty and speed limit exceeding that dropped him from fifth to 16th. Then there was his accident in Baltimore race 2 after a win on Saturday, and coupled with Brabham's win the title lead had swung in the other direction.
THE FUTURE: Many possible options exist for Pigot in 2013, who only just turned 19. The logical one is a step up to Star Mazda, where he has already starred this winter in the Griffis test by being fastest in all four sessions. Alternatively, having been invited to Porsche's Young Driver Academy at Barber Motorsports Park earlier this month (ABOVE), a move to sports car racing could beckon. He'll have one go at it later this winter at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in C.J. Wilson Racing's “Young Guns” Mazda MX-5 in December. Watch this space to see what's next for the Floridian.
2 – TRISTAN VAUTIER
Indy Lights, Champion, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, four wins, five poles, three other podiums
THE GOOD: Vautier emerged as one of the top three in Indy Lights from the start at St. Petersburg with a win from pole on debut. He was always consistent and always fast, but his resiliency was particularly noteworthy.
After disappointing weekends in Iowa, Toronto and Edmonton, Vautier stormed to a key win at Trois-Rivieres, followed by a dominant triumph in Baltimore that got him the points lead back from teammate Esteban Guerrieri. His comebacks in those two weekends gave him the comfort needed to merely shade Guerrieri at Fontana in order to secure the title, which he did.
THE BAD: A drive-through penalty for blocking at Iowa was a big mistake, although he did well to recover to fourth by the finish. His first lap accident at Toronto, too, was problematic to his title chances – although neither Guerrieri nor Sebastian Saavedra really capitalized on it.
THE FUTURE: I spoke with Vautier briefly at Road Atlanta, where he confirmed roughly the same as at the Mazda Road to Indy champions lunch held at Mazda HQ in Irvine, Calif., immediately after the season – it's a race to find the additional funding beyond the Mazda title scholarship to make his deserved debut in IndyCar come 2013. Poised, mature and a great personality, Vautier would be a welcome addition alongside countrymen Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud. At this juncture, though, it's hard to see him getting a full-season opportunity given the likely seat availability or not wanting to enter with a less than competitive team.
1 – JACK HAWKSWORTH
Star Mazda, Champion, Team Pelfrey, eight wins, 10 poles, four other podiums
THE GOOD: Hawksworth and Spencer Pigot tied for most wins within the Mazda Road to Indy ladder series this year, but considering Pigot was in his second year of USF2000 and knew the tracks and the car, while Hawksworth was new to both after moving from Europe, the latter's was the more impressive feat.
He served notice of his skill set immediately with a win in his first weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, the second race, followed by another win on the flowing road course at Barber. But it was when the series returned to the streets and road courses in July that Hawksworth pulled away. A Toronto weekend sweep coupled with each of his title rivals running into trouble in at least one race was the beginning of the end of the championship battle.
Lastly, with the title on the line at Mazda Raceway, Hawksworth managed to keep his car in one piece after a last-lap lunge from Chaves at the Corkscrew, and come out ahead in the exchange. That win clinched him the title and was an incredible display of car control.
THE BAD: With as dominant a first season as it was, it's hard to find any faults. But, as you might expect, he didn't come to grip with ovals off the get-go and had his two worst finishes of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway Park (seventh) and his lone retirement at Iowa, after a rare crash.
THE FUTURE: Given De Phillippi and Karam's experience in these cars, and Chaves slotting into the defending champion team at JDC, Hawksworth basically came out of nowhere to not only take the crown but do so in the most authoritative fashion of any Mazda Road to Indy champion. He's made it as a McLaren Autosport BRDC award nominee. He missed the last round of the season at Road Atlanta with the title in the bag, and also didn't participate in the Griffis test, but all signs still point to a jump into Firestone Indy Lights next year with the available Mazda scholarship and some additional support gathered. He's certainly earned the opportunity.