One weekend remains for Star Mazda at Road Atlanta next month, but otherwise, the 2012 seasons for the Mazda Road to Indy are complete. Tristan Vautier has followed his Star Mazda title with a championship in Firestone Indy Lights, while fellow rookies Jack Hawksworth and Matthew Brabham swept to the Star Mazda and USF2000 championships. Here's a look at their seasons.
FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS SERIES
The mantra all season in Indy Lights was “quality, not quantity” when it came to the top end of the field. IndyCar's top feeder series was top-heavy again in 2012, as a year ago, with three genuine title contenders in an average field of 11 of 12 cars.
The depth of a few years ago, with JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Sebastian Saavedra, Wade Cunningham, Raphael Matos, Martin Plowman, Jay Howard, Pippa Mann and the like all in the field has long since vanished. There wasn't a single American driver who completed the entire season and compared to the depth and quality of the Star Mazda and USF2000 fields, Indy Lights had more of a “meh” feel to it in 2012.
Still, that shouldn't discount the efforts put forth by the three drivers who largely fought for the title this season. Vautier served noticed he'd be a contender with a win from pole on debut in St. Petersburg, with Saavedra – back in the championship, stepping down from IndyCar – next up to win at Barber and Esteban Guerrieri – a series sophomore and pre-season title favorite – adding his name to the mantle at Long Beach.
They all fought back and forth, each in a pendulum swing from weekend to weekend. Guerrieri won a shootout at Indianapolis with a flare for the dramatic from the back of the field. He also won at Iowa and while consistent, he wasn't able to win again, and that ultimately sealed his fate by Fontana.
Vautier, by contrast, added three further wins at Milwaukee and then clutch wins at the Trois-Rivieres and Baltimore street circuits to lead by 11 points going into Fontana. All he needed was to keep Guerrieri in sight, and he did, to clinch the title.
Saavedra (trailing, RIGHT, LAT photo) never won again after Barber, always the bridesmaid with four runner-up finishes. But a brutal end to the season saw a fuel pressure issue in Trois-Rivieres, 10th after contact in Baltimore, and a DNS at Fontana from pole. It did not belie the maturity and pace he'd shown all season with AFS/Andretti Autosport.
Gustavo Yacaman (leading) of Team Moore Racing won twice at Detroit and Toronto, no small accomplishment, but never quite had the same pace as the other three. After completing his fourth year in the championship, he either needs to move up to IndyCar or move on to sports cars, where he'd be quick and perhaps better served.
Carlos Munoz also won twice for AFS/Andretti, in the mixed wet/dry race at Edmonton and at the season finale in Fontana. Given an offseason of full testing, he could be an early championship pick for 2013 if he returns.
Elsewhere the other two Schmidt cars – Victor Carbone and Oliver Webb – largely underwhelmed given the machinery at their disposal. David Ostella, Jorge Goncalvez and Juan Pablo Garcia made up the numbers but did little else.
Peter Dempsey perhaps deserved a better fate than he was dealt; the Irishman tested for Juncos Racing but had a race opportunity fall through there. He then flattered a Younessi Racing car's pace for two races but crashed in both, and his second half with Belardi Auto Racing featured some great pace and exciting moves if unspectacular results. Dempsey's one who would contend for the championship with a proper full-season opportunity at a top team after two fractured, stop-go seasons in the series.
No one really stood out of the remaining partial-season entries, although Stefan Wilson starred in a Fontana cameo with Fan Force United and unheralded Vancouver-born Chinese driver Adderly Fong ran strongly in a Brooks Associates car at Baltimore, qualifying sixth and finishing eighth in a 13-car field.
The bigger story off-track was the series confirming a launch of a new car for 2014 – a move long overdue for a series still running the same chassis as its first year in 2002. Several companies are in the running with the decision expected later this year. A new car radically altered and shook up Champ Car's Atlantic championship in 2006, it helped IndyCar as a whole this year, and while Indy Lights certainly won't have all its issues solved with a new car in 2014, it can go a long way to help.
As for Vautier, he's a deserving champion, Sam Schmidt Motorsports' sixth in Lights. The Frenchman has grown by leaps and bounds since arriving to the U.S. March 2010 and winning his Star Mazda debut at Sebring. He's matured, he has an affable personality and he's the new living embodiment of what the Mazda Road to Indy ladder stands for – a kid with no money advancing on talent and championship victories. You really hope he gets a proper chance in IndyCar and does not fade into the wilderness as his countryman J.K. Vernay did two years ago.
“Obviously, you have to earn it. You have to win championships,” Vautier says. “But it really rewards the winners, and you know they don't pick you because they like you; they pick you because you earned it. You have to win to get into this scholarship system, so I'm really thankful for that. I wouldn't be here without them.”