Tristan Vautier of Grenoble, France, a rookie to U.S. racing but boasting an extensive European open-wheel résumé, claimed victory in the opening round of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear driving his No. 38 Andersen Racing/Moulin TP/Cecibon/Circuit du Laquais Mazda. Vautier also became the first winner of the VISIT FLORIDA Trophy, a newly announced championship-within-a-championship sponsored by the state's official tourism company.
Vautier, who qualified third on the grid for the traditionally exciting Star Mazda standing start, stalked race leader Conor Daly for the first half of the 45-minute race, finally making the pass at the halfway mark on the straight between Turns 12 and 14. The final finishing order was Vautier, second-year Venezuelan racer Jorge Goncalvez in the No. 9 Team Apex/ Wabash Capital Investments Mazda and Daly. And it was a near thing with Goncalvez; he took a serious run at Vautier in Turn 1 on the restart after a midrace full-course yellow and nearly made it stick. As it was, he finished just 0.175sec behind the leader; this is his first-ever Star Mazda podium finish after finishing ninth in this event last year and scoring a best finish of fourth in his rookie season in 2009.
The top-finishing Master Series driver (ages 45 and older) was Gerry Kraut who finished a very creditable 12th-overall in his No. 55 JDC Motorsports/Dougherty & Co./Dougherty Funding LLC Mazda. Expert Series winner (drivers 30 to 44) JW Roberts was lucky to have his engine expire on the last turn of the last lap and coasted across the finish line 17th overall to claim the final podium spot.
"I passed Connor on the straight between 12 and 14; his car looked quite hard to drive so I went to the right and he stayed fair, which I thank him for," said Vautier, whose resume includes both the European Palmer Audi series and the FIA Formula 2 Championship. "I was sitting there third on the grid just thinking to have a clean race and do as good as I can, but I was faster than I expected and was able to put in a very good result for my fans and sponsors and the Andersen team that gave me such a good car. It was a good first race, but not an easy one; this Star Mazda racing is at the same competitive level as European series, so I think this is going to be a very long, very hard season."
Rounding out the top five were Quebec racer Mikael Grenier, who qualified second and finished fourth in No. 17 Andersen Racing/NAPA Auto Parts/CAA-Quebec/HS Telecom Mazda, and Anders Krohn who started from the pole, got shuffled back in traffic on the opening lap and managed a fifth-place finish in the No. 47 Andersen Racing/Norse Cutting & Abandonment/Trallfa/Colosseum. Krohn is a second-year Star Mazda racer who won on the Milwaukee Mile last year and finished sixth in the championship. He finished third in this race last year. Grenier ran six Star Mazda races in 2009 in preparation for a full-season assault on the 2010 title; he finished on the podium in two of them, but this was his first race at Sebring.
Connor De Phillippi, the 2009 Skip Barber Pro Series champion who won his 2010 Star Mazda Championship ride courtesy of the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder qualified 10th for his first race and finished seventh. Possibly the drive of the race was put in by Texan Rusty Mitchell. A third-season Star Mazda racer, he qualified 11th in his No. 66 Mitchell Motorsports/Motorola/Petro Comm. Mazda but was penalized by series officials for "jumping the start." A drive-through-the-pits penalty put him at the back on the field on lap four but he managed to race his way back into contention, finishing 11th. Mitchell started from the pole and finished second in the streets of Trois Rivières last season.
The hard luck story of the race was no doubt Englishman Richard Kent, driving the No. 33 Team GDT/ Traka Mazda in 2010 after a 2009 season that saw him win two races, score three pole positions and finish seventh in the championship. Struggling with a new team, he still managed to qualify eighth before being sidelined on the reconnaissance lap prior to the start of the race by a broken driveshaft. Twenty-two cars finally took the green light for the standing start, and 18 of them finished on the lead lap. Results for the race are final and the point standings among the top-10 are; Vautier 44, Goncalvez 33, Daly 37, Grenier 34, Krohn 33 (32 plus one for pole), Joao Horto 30, Connor De Phillippi 29, Michael Furfari 28, Chris Miller 27 and Caio Lara 26. JW Roberts leads the Expert Series with 20 points and Gerry Kraut leads the Master Series, also with 20 points.
The next Star Mazda Championship round takes place next weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. This will be the first time Star Mazda cars have competed on an IRL IZOD IndyCar weekend and is part of the newly announced "Road to Indy" driver development program that also includes the Cooper Tires Presents USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights. All three series will be on track at St. Petersburg.