STAR MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP
This year was meant to be Connor De Phillippi's elusive breakthrough title season in Star Mazda, but Jack Hawksworth – De Phillippi's replacement at Team Pelfrey – must not have got the memo.
The two split the opening weekend victories at St. Pete, and a further win by Hawksworth at Barber meant the English rookie was no one-trick pony. Nearly a two-month break occurred before De Phillippi regained momentum with a dominant win on the oval at Lucas Oil Raceway Park the night before the Indianapolis 500, and another strong run for the American at Iowa – where Hawksworth crashed – saw him recapture the points lead.
The tide turned in Toronto, with De Phillippi and the rest of the field struggling to match Hawksworth's pace. The weekend sweep in Toronto netted Hawksworth a 39-point lead over De Phillippi in the championship chase, a gap that would prove unassailable for him or anyone else.
Hawksworth won one race at each of the next four weekends in Edmonton, Trois-Rivieres, Baltimore and Monterey, and locked up the title at the latter event. Considering his limited experience of only a handful of Formula Renault UK and karting races in England in years previous, for Hawksworth to roll the field as much as he did was as surprising as it was impressive.
The depth of field, too, was phenomenal and made it all the more shocking it was as easy a title win as it was. De Phillippi, driving for Juncos Racing (FAR RIGHT, Eric McCombs photo), was always making the best of his situation, but his brutal stretch in Canada where he had at least one bad race in each of the three weekends proved his ultimate undoing.
Sage Karam (LEFT) could have contended for the title too for Andretti Autosport, had it not been for a slow start. Often the only driver to match Hawksworth on pure pace the second half of the year, where Karam starred was in rebounding. He put on a passing clinic in Toronto race two, coming from 21st to third by the finish, then achieving a 10th to second drive in the rain in Edmonton. At Baltimore, too, he crashed in race one but then stormed to a dominant win in race two.
Realistically, and if budgets weren't the major determining factor, all three of those drivers should move up to Indy Lights in 2013. De Phillippi and Karam would provide the American driver punch the series so desperately needs, and Hawksworth has earned his chance with the title.
Chilean sophomore Martin Scuncio and Colombian rookie Gabby Chaves have a win apiece, with Chaves upholding the honor for JDC Motorsports, last year's champion team, in 2012. A podium regular, Chaves hung around the top three in points all season, while Juncos' Scuncio faded after his win at Barber race two. The other race winner was Venezuelan rookie Camilo Schmidt, having survived the wet/dry Edmonton race one (LEFT). On merit, he probably wouldn't have achieved that.
Of the others, it was a bit surprising to see Andretti's Zach Veach, in his second season, and defending USF2000 champion Petri Suvanto of Team Pelfrey fail to grace the top of the podium. Veach had his moments but fought inconsistency, while Suvanto was probably one of the year's hardest luck drivers. Veach may move up to Indy Lights next year having already tested, but like Suvanto, he'd be a title contender if he opts for another year in Star Mazda.
Gustavo Menezes (Pelfrey) and the trio of Chaves' JDC teammates, Juan Piedrahita, Stefan Rzadzinski and Ashley Freiberg, all had a moment or two of brilliance and would benefit from more seat time and another season next year. Juncos, too, had two further entries for Diego Ferreira and Bruno Palli – backed by IndyCar's E.J. Viso's “Team Viso Venezuela” initiative – and Ferreira outclassed Palli there. Palli, though, made his Indy Lights debut at Fontana.
A strong field usually topped 20 cars, but at no point did Hawksworth seem phased or likely to fall atop his perch. Happy with racing in America, he now has the chance to match Vautier with an Indy Lights title next year.
“I came into this season knowing I needed to win the championship if I was going to have any chance of continuing my racing career, and I'm just so happy to have had Team Pelfrey helping me and supporting me all the way,” Hawksworth says. “They've given me fantastic equipment all year so it's just a fantastic feeling to wrap it all up and achieve everything we set out to a at the start of the year.”