It’s often said that winning a championship doesn’t happen in an instant, but is cultivated race after race over the whole season. Certainly, that’s true, but while a championship can’t be won in an instant, two contenders for the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights championship found that it can certainly be lost in an instant this past weekend on the Streets of Baltimore. Going into Baltimore, three drivers were battling for this year’s Indy Lights title, Sam Schmidt Motorsport’s drivers Tristan Vautier and Esteban Guerrieri and Andretti Autosport’s Sebastian Saavedra. Coming into the Baltimore race weekend, Esteban lead the way with 383 points over his teammate Vautier’s 376 points. Saavedra was trying to recover from a couple of DNFs earlier in the season was back a little further with 346 points. Team Moore Racing’s Gustavo Yacaman, while not close enough to Esteban to have a realistic chance at the championship, having 335 points, he was close enough to Sebastian and perhaps even Vautier to move higher in the final end-of-year standings. Coming back to Baltimore as its defending champion, Gus was certainly looking to gain major ground this past weekend.
Qualifying held no surprises. The Sam Schmidt Motorsports duo of Tristan Vautier and Esteban Guerrieri locked out the front row while Andretti Autosport’s Sebastian Saavedra and Carlos Muñoz locked out the second row. Gustavo Yacaman found himself in the 3rd row again, qualifying in P6. Although the major players took their accustom spots, it was disappointing that the drivers only were able use 30 of their allotted 40 minutes for the Indy Lights qualifying session. The session ended prematurely as Fan Force United’s Emerson Newton-John wadded up his car after taking the infamous Pratt Street chicane over the light rail crossing that cause so many drivers so much grief all weekend long.
At last year’s inaugural event, Yacaman put on one heck of a show with his hyper-aggressive driving style first taking the lead, then losing it, then reclaiming it later in the race to take the victory. Coming into this weekend, it seemed that he was not content with anything but a successful defense as last year’s winner. Right from the first lap, Yacaman was making passes and dive-bombing people going into Turns 1 and 3. On Lap 2, while battling Esteban for P2, he was a bit overly aggressive and made contact with Esteban’s right rear going into T3. The contact didn’t affect Esteban, but it damaged the left side of Gustavo’s front wing. First thought of the on-air commentators Mike King and Arie Luyendyk Jr. were that Gustavo would have to come in for a nose change. Gus had absolutely no such plans and stayed out with his damaged wing. It didn’t seem to affect his speed one bit as he continued to hound Esteban.
Two laps later, Gustavo again tried to get around Esteban in Turn 3, but carrying too much speed, Gustavo had trouble making the corner and pushed Esteban wide into the tire barriers. Saavedra saw an opportunity as the two in front of him went wide, and tried to make the pass on Gustavo at the exit of T3. Gustavo quickly made his way back to the racing line well ahead of Sebastian, but not carrying as much speed. Sebastian clamped on the binders, but was too late as he made contact with Gustavo’s gearbox, spun, and damaged his nosecone on the inside wall. The ill-fated pass attempt by Sebastian cost him not only a podium finish in the race, but also any hope of contending for the championship after having to make a lengthy pit stop to fix his broken nose. Esteban’s chances at the championship also suffered a bit, but it certainly could have been worse. After nosing into the tire barrier, Esteban was able to get a push-back by the corner workers and continue on with an undamaged car.
Carlos Muñoz continued to show his growing strength in the Indy Lights chassis as he moved his way back up the field after losing a couple of spots early. The mayhem in Turn 3 on Lap 4 allowed him to get by Esteban and his teammate Sebastian, but on Lap 24, he caught and passed Gustavo down the front stretch after getting a much better exit out of the chicane. Muñoz would hold on to P2 for six laps until on Lap 30, he would suffer an electrical issue that killed his racing machine. Gustavo then inherited P2, salvaging what could have been a disastrous day had any of his contact at various points through the race been a bit stronger.
Esteban, who had been making his way back to the front, found himself back in a podium position. For Esteban, making it back to P3 after what could have happened in Turn 3 was a huge success, although he would relinquish the championship lead to Tristan who ran up front unmolested all race long.
For Tristan, the weekend couldn’t have gone better, taking away maximum points by securing the bonus points for pole position and for most laps led, then winning from pole completely unchallenged. Reclaiming the championship lead after losing it to Esteban in Iowa had to be a huge relief.
“This win feels great, from the start of the weekend the car was hooked-up. It felt great at the start and I could pull away so I could save my tires. The Firestone tires were amazing and I never had a problem with them during the race. I’d like to thank Sam and Mazda for putting me in the car this weekend. We scored lots of points so that was very good for us with an oval at Fontana coming up next. We have to stay focused and arrive ready in California. Today was a great win on a track that was very exciting and quite physical but a good race for us – we’re all quite happy.” — Tristan Vautier, #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports
With the Baltimore results in the books, there remains only one more event to decide the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights title, September 15th’s race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. The championship is now down to two drivers, the Sam Schmidt Teammates Tristan Vautier, 2011 Star Mazda Champion, and Esteban Guerrieri, veteran Firestone Indy Lights driver and 2011 runner-up. While Tristan has the lead now, it’s not a significant lead edging Esteban by only 11 points, 429 to 418. Normally, one might say that Tristan has the advantage, but Esteban has more experience on ovals and has outscored Tristan on the ovals this season 135 to 118. Esteban is especially strong on super speedways this year. The racing style at Fontana will play perfectly to Esteban’s strengths.
Saavedra’s overly ambitious attempt to get around both Esteban and Gustavo which ended in his damaging his racer and finishing back in P10 killed his championship ambitions in the blink of an eye. Not only that, but he also lost a position to Gustavo Yacaman who move up to third after his P2 finish at Baltimore. With Gus having only 375 points, though, he’s still too far back to make a run at the title. That won’t stop him from going for the win at Fontana, and going for it elbows-up and biting at the wheel! It should be exciting.
I know a lot of people will be expecting Tristan to win the championship, but I’m putting my money on Esteban. His superior oval racing record, especially on super speedways, gives him the edge. It will take more than a P1 finish, though. To overcome the eleven-point deficit, Esteban will need to secure the bonus points for pole and most laps lead as well to insure the championship if Tristan finishes in P2. If Tristan finishes P3 and Esteban finishes P1, then regardless of bonus points, the championship goes to Esteban. Mechanical issues, lapped traffic, and aggressive drivers can change things quickly, as we saw in Baltimore. Fontana should be an exciting weekend with both the Firestone Indy Lights and the IZOD IndyCar Series titles both hanging in the balance.