Battle for the Championship
The Kentucky 100 at the Kentucky Speedway was the 100th race for the Indy Racing League sanctioned Firestone Indy Lights series, although it looked like weather might put a damper on the celebration. The track was dry for the race, but qualifications were rained out resulting in the grid being determined by points. That gave the AFS/AGR team the front row. Wade Cunningham started from P4, right behind his nemesis from Iowa and championship contender Sebastian Saavedra in P2. JR Hildebrand, although being awarded pole, never saw the green flag due to yet more mechanical gremlins that the team just hasn’t seemed to be able to shake. All race long, Wade and Sebastian battled for the lead with Wade taking the front spot more often that not. The last ten laps, however, saw them side-by-side with Sebastian edging ahead of Wade coming off of Turn 4. Unfortunately for the fans, and for James Hinchcliffe, the race ended under yellow as Hinch hit the wall on the backstretch. Also of note was James Davison’s third straight top-five finish, keeping him in contact with Sebastian for 2nd in the championship and securing his 3rd place position over Mario Romancini.
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course:
During last year’s rain-soaked race at Mid-Ohio, a late-race caution caused confusion for race leader James Davison. After taking the white/yellow flags, he pulled into the pits rather than crossing the SF line again to take the checkers.
no images were foundHe had mistakenly thought the race was over with the white flag. He would not make the same mistake again. With definitely something to prove, Davison came back to Mid-Ohio and dominated the entire weekend, winning the pole position and leading every race lap including the all-important last lap to finish under the checkered flag. James Hinchcliffe had his best race of the season at Mid-Ohio as well, finishing in a very strong 2nd. JR Hildebrand ended exactly where he started, in third. However, Hildebrand drove the race of a true champion by keeping his car on the track and staying out of trouble, understanding that his car wasn’t strong enough to win this race. His teammate, Sebastian Saavedra, however, drove like a demon! Sebastian did not have the greatest of qualifying efforts, starting all the way back in P10, but during the race he passed one car after another, most of them at the end of the back straight headed into the Esses. His aggression would lead to a mistake, however, and in a bid for fourth spot he struck the wall in Turn 12, effectively ending his race. That mistake had huge implications for the championship as Davison would gain maximum ground on Saavedra, 41 points, to shrink the margin between the two to 16 points. Hildebrand’s third-place finish allowed him to stretch out a huge lead over his teammate, 63 points. This is why I say Hildebrand drove like a champ this weekend; he understood the larger picture where the championship was concerned and realized his opportunity to make significant headway toward securing that championship.
Advantage, Hildebrand! Not only does JR come to the Infineon Racewave at Sears Point with a 63-point lead, but Infineon is also his home track and the course on which he won his first race in a car. In a clear demonstration that practice makes perfect, JR would school the entire field on how to race around the very hilly and technical Infineon circuit. He not only won the pole and lead all race laps, and set fastest race lap, but he also wins the race by nearly sixteen seconds! 15.8918 seconds to be exact. Saavedra who’s only hope for the championship was to finish ahead of JR and make ground before the final two rounds had his hopes dashed early. He qualified in P2, but an engine failure and subsequent change put him at the back of the grid. As we’d seen several times before during the season, Sebastian quickly began to claw his way back up through the field, but Infineon does not offer many opportunities to pass. Seventh would be as far as Saavedra would climb. This would pretty much lock up the championship for Hildebrand who’s point lead would reach a near insurmountable 90 points. James Davison had yet another excellent outing for Vision Racing, finishing in third. Now Saavedra wasn’t looking ahead to over take JR, he was looking behind trying NOT to be overtaken by James who was now only seven points back! The untold story of the race, and of the season, is that of Felipe Guimaraes driving for Bryan Herta Autosport. Felipe finished in second place, logging his third top-five finish in every one of his three starts. BHA recently secured a new race shop, so look for that team to be a strong player during the 2010 season.
JR Hildebrand walks into the Chicago Speedway needing only to finish in P13 or above to walk out a champion. Although none of JR’s wins this season came on an oval, finishing above P13 would be a simple feat for the AFS/AGR team provided the mechanical gremlins would stay away this week. They did, and JR would drive smoothly and safely to a fifth-place finish and secure the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights Championship.
“My strategy was not to crash,” said Hildebrand, who entered the race needing to finish 14th. It’s just a dream come true. I came into this year with Andretti Green Racing knowing I had every opportunity to make this happen. It feels great to bring it home to the boys and bring everything back together after the last few years. Hopefully, we can take this (championship) and move forward for next year.” — FirestoneIndyLights.com
Daniel Harrington would win his first Firestone Indy Lights race, showing that Felipe wasn’t the only quick driver at Bryan Herta Autosport. The victory over Vision Racing’s James Davison was narrow one as the two battled for the lead late in the race and Harrington edged out Davison by a nose, 0.0613 seconds. Davison started in P6 and drove hard to finish in P2 ahead of Sebastian Saavedra who started in P2 but finished in P6. This would change the order in the championship standings, with Davison taking a slim five-point lead to the final race in Homestead-Miami.
With the top spot in the championship settled, half of the AFS/AGR team could take it easy this week. The other half, however, still had a lot of work to do. Although he was fastest in both practice sessions, Sebastian was unable to make a qualifying effort as the team once again faced mechanical failures. This time, it was a fuel pressure failure that prevented Saavedra from making a run at the pole position, and instead putting him in the back of the grid again in P16. Inspite of this less-than-optimal starting position, Sebastian drove an aggressive race, as has been his style all season, and finished in third. That was good enough to secure Rookie of the Year honors, but not quite enough to reclaim 2nd spot in the championship. James Davison would finish the race in fifth and edge out Sebastian for second position for the season by a single point. Mario Romancini won his second race of the season, his first being at Milwaukee, after a tough battle with the series champion JR Hildebrand who lead for most of the race. Mario lead one and only one lap, the only one that counts, the last one, overtaking JR coming out of Turn 4 to win by 0.0057 seconds. How’s that for a final race of the season?
The Firestone Indy Lights season started out strong with car counts in the high twenties, and multiple teams showing strength. The devastation at the Kansas Speedway and Indianapolis forced many of the competitors out resulting in grids only in the mid-teens. The racing was still outstanding, and very often outshining the feature race of the IndyCar Series. The Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year remains tops on my list of Most Epic Races of All Time. Although the AFS/AGR team proved to be the strongest throughout the season, as they were last season, many other teams stepped up and showed that they could compete up front as well. Andersen Racing’s Mario Romancini won two races including the dramatic season finale at Homestead, Bryan Herta Autosport had two drivers prove themselves to be very quick with Felipe Guimaraes finishing in the top five for every race he competed, and Daniel Harrington winning his and BHA’s first Firestone Indy Lights race. Sam Schmidt Motorsports proved to be a power once again with Wade Cunningham and Ana Biatriz routinely showing strong on the ovals and James Hinchcliffe performing very well on the road and street courses. The most improved team this year had to be Vision Racing with James Davison driving brilliantly in the latter half of the season and overtaking AFS/AGR’s Sebastian Saavedra for 2nd in the Championship.
What’s in store for next year? Hopefully more of the same, although many of the drivers will be different or in different rides. Panther Racing closed its Indy Lights operation, but both drivers already have seats for 2010. Martin Plowman, aka Plowey, will be at AFS/AA along with Charlie Kimball, and Pippa Mann will be with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Some of the 2009 class are moving on to other series. Hinchcliffe is rumored to have at least a part-time gig in the IndyCar series, and JR Hildebrand recently tested a Force India F1 car, but may have to settle for a part-time IndyCar ride. Most drivers and teams are struggling to find the sponsorship money just to come back to the Indy Lights series. Its as inexpensive as racing at 190+ mph gets, but that doesn’t mean its cheap. We’ll keep our ear to the ground over this off-season and come back with a preview of the 2010 Season when more has been settled.