Although the USF2000 season kicked off last weekend at Sebring, this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marks the first combined outing of all three Mazda Road to Indy ladder divisions for 2012. Here's some tidbits about the season ahead in Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda and USF2000.
FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS CHAMPIONSHIP
More veterans are set to contest the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights championship, as opposed to the near three-quarters of the field that were rookies in 2011. Additionally, the top rung of the ladder has undergone some organizational adjustments.
Tony George Jr. and Jason Penix, both 28, shift into new roles for the season. George replaces the retiring Roger Bailey as the director of Indy Lights, while Penix will serve as director of grassroots initiatives. From a competition standpoint, the series has added former HVM team manager Vince Kremer as FIL technical director, with Tony Cotman remaining in race control for the series.
Of the top three drivers from a year ago, Josef Newgarden has of course moved up into IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, while Esteban Guerrieri stays for another year and Stefan Wilson is sidelined despite his most promising season yet a year ago.
Guerrieri had a seat fitting as part of being linked to KV Racing Technology, before a certain fellow named Rubens Barrichello came calling. Essentially, there's no harm for Guerrieri to lose out to Formula 1's most experienced driver, and so his second season with Sam Schmidt Motorsports should see him as one of the championship favorites.
Here's where the other veterans come into play. Sebastian Saavedra (LEFT), in a mature move, has dropped from IndyCar back to Indy Lights, and resumes with the AFS/Andretti Autosport effort that he won races and contended for the title in his 2009 rookie season. Gustavo Yacaman, Saavedra's Colombian countryman, is also back for his second season with Team Moore Racing and fourth overall. Those two led the series' test session at Sebring mid-March.
Two of Guerrieri's SSM teammates, rookies Oliver Webb and Tristan Vautier, should also figure into the title equation. Webb showed promise in a handful of starts for Jensen Motorsport a year ago, including scoring a podium in Edmonton, while Star Mazda champion Vautier is a talented and amiable driver who should win races in his rookie season. Unlike Conor Daly a year ago, who only ran a partial Indy Lights schedule, Vautier will be able to use the scholarship provided from Mazda for a full season. Likely, one of those five drivers will secure the 2012 championship.
Three other returnees – Victor Carbone (Schmidt), Jorge Goncalvez (Belardi Auto Racing) and David Ostella (TMR) – are hopeful of improving from their rookie seasons. Carbone ended 2011 with a win at Las Vegas (3, RIGHT), while Goncalvez did well on the ovals and already has a podium in 2012, driving with Yacaman and two others in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Other rookies who could surprise at some point include Alon Day (Belardi), Carlos Munoz (Andretti), J.V. Horto (Juncos), Alex Jones (Brooks), Armaan Ebrahim (Fan Force United) and Troy Castenada (BHA). Castenada is the first confirmed American driver for the season opener, which is expected to range between 16 to 18 cars. Others expected to compete include Juan Pablo Garcia (Jeffrey Mark Motorsport), Darryl Willis (Hillenburg Motorsports) and Rodin Younessi (Younessi Racing).
Regrettably, Wilson, Connor De Phillippi, Peter Dempsey and Dean Stoneman – four drivers all linked to seats or ones that had prior testing time this offseason – appear unable to gather the necessary funding for a full season effort.
Their inclusion in the field would have added even more talent to what should be a deeper field at the front of the queue, but alas, there do seem to be more genuine race winners and/or championship contenders in play than a year ago.