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.
6 – CONNOR DE PHILLIPPI
Star Mazda, P4, Juncos Racing, two wins, two poles, eight other podiums
THE GOOD: His season can be summed up in three parts – a great first third through Iowa, a miserable Canadian summer and a very respectable comeback in the final third of the year. In a perfect world, CDP wouldn't have been in Star Mazda this year anyway, but joined his title rival of a year ago Vautier in Indy Lights. Budgets being what they are though, he got a late deal with Juncos Racing together for a third season here.
Fresh off a track record in his only test at Barber, he started strong enough with six top-five finishes in the first six races with authoritative wins at the St. Petersburg opener and Lucas Oil Raceway Park oval (LEFT). Things went south as soon as he went north of the border, which we'll get to in a minute.
What could have been a deflating period ended better with making the most of his car's ability in the last five races – all of which he scored podiums. It was clear Juncos didn't have the pace of Pelfrey, Andretti or even JDC as the year went on and for that, CDP had to work harder to get the results. His best drive? To me it was just this weekend at the Road Atlanta finale, where after an accident in qualifying and a time deletion that dropped him to ninth, he recovered to third within the first 20 minutes, where he finished. And that was in a car where he felt a weight imbalance.
THE BAD: The summer Canadian stretch, best described as “Woe, Canada.” With a 12th place or worse finish in the second race of each doubleheader at Toronto, Edmonton and Trois-Rivieres, De Phillippi struggled for pace on the straights and had to rely on other drivers' mistakes and his own bravery to make up for the performance gap. Sometimes that ended in tears, against the barrier. That six-race stretch killed any title chances.
THE FUTURE: He now stands at a career crossroads having completed three years in Star Mazda. Although he won't turn 20 until Christmas, he either needs to move up to Indy Lights – which he more than deserves – or discover a new endeavor for 2013. Potentially, the winds for him could shift to sports car racing and while that would be great for him personally, it would be open-wheel's loss at one of its few truly talented Americans in the pipeline.
5 – SAGE KARAM
Star Mazda, P3, Andretti Autosport, three wins, two poles, seven other podiums
THE GOOD: As most of Hawksworth's wins were clinical pole-to-win romps, they weren't exactly worth the price of admission. Karam, meanwhile, had a flair for the dramatic as through no fault of his own he wound up needing to perform miracles to make something out of frequently troubled weekends.
His three wins came at Iowa (as in 2011), Trois-Rivieres and the second Baltimore race. Baltimore's was particularly impressive in a rebuilt car. He also nearly snatched the win at the season finale at Road Atlanta from Chaves, but spun at Turn 7. He joked right after, “I did it more for show” as he finished second.
True standout efforts came in Toronto and Edmonton. At Toronto, he'd qualified second for the Saturday race but stalled on the grid with a mechanical issue, thus meaning he'd have to start last in race 2, as the grid was set by fastest race laps from race one. No matter. A 21st to third drive in the second 45-minute race was one of racing's most ferocious drives all season. Meanwhile, in the mixed wet/dry race one in Edmonton, Karam had one lap where he rose from 10th to second, where he ultimately finished.
THE BAD: When you have fireworks for good reasons, occasionally you also have them for bad ones. Karam's worst moment undoubtedly came in Baltimore race 1, where he hit the front straight chicane wrong and launched into the concrete wall. Disconcertingly, a loose wheel came dangerously close to his head but avoided knocking him out. Three other finishes outside the top 10 cost him valuable points.
THE FUTURE: The time is right for Karam to make the jump into Indy Lights after a dominant USF2000 season in 2010 and a year-to-year improvement in Star Mazda. Young, energetic and certainly quick, an Andretti Autosport drive wouldn't surprise at all – and would give Lights a needed American boost. He was another to have tested in Lights at this month's Griffis test.
4 – MATTHEW BRABHAM
USF2000, Champion, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, four wins, six poles, seven other podiums
THE GOOD: Perhaps what was more impressive about Brabham than his raw pace was his consistency level, which you wouldn't expect from someone only 18. He matched Spencer Pigot's 11 podiums (split into four wins and seven others rather than eight and three) and also minimized his mistakes. If the car wasn't there to challenge Pigot, rather than risk it (other than Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio), he was content to collect points and maximize the result.
I'd have to say, though, despite the wins – and a win on debut at Sebring was particularly impressive – his best drive came at Mid-Ohio race 1. To come from 30th to third on a track notorious for its lack of passing opportunities, in a 30-minute race, and in a car that has so little downforce and such small tires (lower grip than in other cars), was nothing short of miraculous. That effort showed he could carve through the field rather than simply lead from the pole and get the result.
THE BAD: Again, tough to find much fault from a title-winning season. Perhaps more could have been achieved at VIR, where his two worst finishes came despite needing to keep Pigot within sight to clinch the championship. And then, obviously, there was the contact with him at Mid-Ohio race two.
THE FUTURE: Brabham seems to have the most secure opportunity of the three Mazda Road to Indy champions at this juncture. He's already been busy this offseason thanks to winning the Team USA Scholarship. Like Pigot, he's made his testing debut in a Star Mazda at the Griffis test, and did well in the second day with Andretti Autosport. Where he slots in that field, and with what team, will determine how high he can climb in 2013.
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.