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.
STAR MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY GOODYEAR
Since Connor De Phillippi will still be in Star Mazda for a third consecutive year, and with a former championship-winning team, that makes him the head-and-shoulders favorite for the title.
The American will be part of four drivers with Juncos Racing, joined by Chilean veteran Martin Scuncio (LEFT) and two Venezuelans, Bruno Palli and Diego Ferreira, who enter as part of the “Team Viso Venezuela” initiative founded by IndyCar Series driver E.J. Viso.
De Phillippi, who drove last year for Team Pelfrey, will have to take down that squad's three yellow cars. The trio of USF2000 champion Petri Suvanto, who moves up, Englishman Jack Hawksworth and veteran Gustavo Menezes should certainly be in contention for race wins from the outset, and likely for the championship depending on how the early results shake out.
There's two other potential stars-in-waiting here, too, both from Andretti Autosport. One of our RACER.com bloggers, Zach Veach, moves up from USF2000 for a full Star Mazda season in 2012, and after scoring a podium in one of his two Star Mazda starts a year ago. Veach and Sage Karam are possible title contenders, Karam (RIGHT) more likely as he won a handful of races a year ago.
JDC Motorsports, the defending champion team with Vautier, should also have its moments with Juan Piedrahita and Gabby Chaves likely to contend. The team also has TrueCar-backed Ashley Freiberg on its roster, and she could pull a surprise result or two over the course of the season now given a full year opportunity.
Canadian driver Stefan Rzadzinski had a nice touch in testing, running car No. 99 in paying homage to the late Canadian racing hero, Greg Moore. There's a handful of others in the field, motorcycle veteran Larry Pegram among them, who might be fringe top-10 contenders but are unlikely to do anything more than that.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA
The USF2000 championship has been the busiest of all the MRTI series over the offseason, with the six-race Winterfest championship and already its first race weekend out of the way at Sebring, although already the two main contenders for the title have emerged from the deep field.
Spencer Pigot, last year's championship runner-up and Winterfest champion, and his fellow 18-year-old teammate at Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, Matthew Brabham, split the season opener at Sebring last weekend. They were the also the only two race winners in the Winterfest events. The road to the title will have to go through them first.
But, saying they'll be the only winners for the full season would be an injustice to the rest of the field. Andretti Autosport has two potential winners in Thomas McGregor and Shelby Blackstock, and Belardi Auto Racing has three in Roman Lagudi, Colin Thompson and Scott Anderson.
Others who could stand out include the third member of the Cape/WTR squad, Trent Hindman, series returnees Matthew DiLeo and Timmy Megenbier, the JDC Motorsports trio of Neil Alberico, Scott Hargrove and Zac Silver, and ArmsUp Motorsports' Luigi Biangardi.
Two more hopefuls are Michael Johnson, the 19-year-old paralyzed driver who drives a specially built car with hand controls for JDC, and Shannon McIntosh, who looks to improve in her second season, now with Pabst Racing Services. These two won't be threatening the leaders too frequently but will be ones to watch as they learn and attempt to punch above their weight.
The series has also taken the step of adding Formula Enterprises and Formula Continental cars to its National class, which has bolstered the overall car count. A number of names to keep an eye on here include Patrick Gallagher, Mark Eaton, Scott Rettich, Henrik Furuseth and Bobby Kelley.