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.”
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.”
USF2000 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
At the end of the day, the record books will show Matthew Brabham – or Matty, as he likes to be known – beat Spencer Pigot by seven points for this year's USF2000 championship. Although a close margin, it was often much closer than that.
Pigot was the head-and-shoulders favorite going into the season, a rare second-year driver in the championship. But after Brabham – his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate – pushed him hard in the six-race Winterfest, these two were set for a season-long showdown.
Brabham won on debut in Sebring but Pigot won the next five races running, although those were spread over five months! Pigot took race two at Sebring, swept the doubleheader at St. Pete a week later, and then edged Brabham in a shootout between the two on the oval at Lucas Oil Raceway Park. A Mid-Ohio win in race one kept Pigot at the head of the queue, but in each race, Brabham was right there and within striking distance.
The two's tight battle came to a head at race two at Mid-Ohio. On a wet track, and with limited track time, the two collided and fell out of the race. While Brabham recovered from the contact, Pigot seemingly lost his swagger as Brabham gained the upper hand the remaining weekends of the year.
Brabham won the first two of three races at Road America two weeks later, while Pigot (leading, LEFT, Hendricksportsphoto) and he split the wins on the streets of Baltimore. The second race in Baltimore – where Pigot crashed out – left Brabham 41 points clear of Pigot going into the VIR finale. Pigot did what he needed to do there, sweeping the weekend, but not gaining enough points on Brabham to recapture the lost markers.
Only Scott Anderson – MAZDASPEED's backed driver in this series, who advanced from Skip Barber – broke up the Cape monopoly on the top step of the podium. Driving for Belardi Auto Racing, Anderson won twice at Mid-Ohio and Road America. A slow start for him quickly turned positive from Indianapolis onwards, as the Denver native rarely finished off the podium. Teammate Roman Lagudi also had several good results, but struggled to maintain momentum throughout the season.
Matthew Di Leo and Trent Hindman completed the top five in points, Di Leo impressive in his sophomore season and on a single car team and Hindman with a quiet but solid second half of the season in the third Cape car. Hindman, just 17, finished two spots ahead of his fellow 2011 Team USA Scholarship winner Neil Alberico, seventh and top driver for JDC Motorsports this season.
Shelby Blackstock and Thomas McGregor (Andretti Autosport) and Luigi Biangardi (Belardi) had respectable debut seasons to complete the top 10 in points.
A three-way battle for the National Class championship, new for 2012, resulted in Henrik Furuseth taking the title over Mark Eaton and R.C. Enerson. Scott Rettich had the strongest start to the season in class but didn't compete again after Mid-Ohio. The National Class will be limited to Formula Enterprises (FE) class entries for 2013, and renamed the USF2000 National Class Presented by SCCA Enterprises.
Like De Phillippi in Star Mazda, Pigot has now gone more than one season in USF2000 without a title. He won eight races to Brabham's four, but three races with five points or less scored compared to Brabham's one ultimately made the difference. Just 18 and with a legendary surname, expect this as the first of many titles for young Matty Brabs.
“I am over the moon at how the whole year went,” he says. “We pushed each other so much and I think we were in a class of our own the whole season, and I am sure that he and I will be racing together the whole way up. It was definitely a good rivalry.”