This coming weekend represents the IZOD IndyCar Series’ and Firestone Indy Lights’ season opening event, although it will represent the second race weekend for both the Pro Mazda Series Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda. This will also be one of four weekends over the season in which all four INDYCAR-sanctioned series race at the same venue on the same weekend. Maybe call it four and a half with Indianapolis even though the USF2000 and Pro Mazda drivers will be at Lucas Oil Raceway the night before the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Let’s take a brief look at each of the three junior series as they hit the Streets of St. Petersburg.
USF2000 National Championship
The USF2000 drivers just finished racing at Sebring International Raceway and now look forward to rare back-to-back race weekends. As they showed during February’s Winterfest, the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor racing duo of Neil Alberico and Scott Hargrove have the pace to beat for the field. With a win and a second-place finish, Scott Hargrove takes a strong lead into Races 3 and 4. Neil, having had a mechanical failure and subsequent DNF in Race 1, will have a lot of ground to make up.
“This whole week has been phenomenal. Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing provided me with a fantastic car. I’m thrilled that we were able to capitalize on the momentum coming out of the Cooper Tires Winterfest and secure the points lead. I can’t wait to continue the success next weekend at the St. Petersburg GP!” — Scott Hargrove, #38 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
Andretti Autosport’s Garrett Grist and Belardi Auto Racing’s Danilo Estrela will be right there waiting to pounce on any mistakes by Hargrove and Alberico. The walls at St. Pete are close and there’s little room for error. Who comes out ahead going to Indianapolis in May depends on who handles the bumps and traffic the best, and with 31 drivers entered for this weekend’s races, traffic will be an issue.
Pro Mazda Championship
Like we’ve seen in the USF2000 series, DNFs have already played a significant role in the shape of the 2013 championship. Both of last year’s USF2000 championship contenders, Team Pelfrey’s Spencer Pigot and Andretti Autosport’s Matthew Brabham, are quick again this year, but a Turn 1/Lap 1 incident during Race #2 at the Circuit of the Americas that ended his race has him mired in a tie for eighth in the championship. The driver that has surprised some, but not those who were attentive to what was happening toward the end of last season, is Juncos Racing’s Diego Ferriera. Diego leads Matthew Brabham by four points in the championship with a win in Race #1 and a second-place finish behind Brabham in Race #2.
“We had a good weekend in Austin, TX, and we are really quick on bumpy tracks so we are quite confident going into St. Petersburg. We have a really good pace going through testing, and we had a good advantage on everyone in Austin, so we are just looking to carry that into St. Petersburg and get through the practice and learn how the track changes so we can keep our speed above everyone else and go for the race win. My goal is to definitely try and lead the championship heading out of St. Petersburg and win as many races as possible. I think we have the car to do it and the team is working really well so I think we have a good chance.” — Matthew Brabham, #83 Andretti Autosport
The key to this weekend’s two races will be Turn 1/Lap 1. Although traffic shouldn’t be too much of an issue once the race begins, the two opening rounds at COTA have shown that even with an abundant run-off area, these Pro Mazda drivers are extremely aggressive and reluctant to back off when fighting for position early in a race. The JDC Motorsports drivers Nick Andries and Juan Piedrahita were caught up in the mayhem during Race #1 and the two Team Pelfrey drivers Spencer Pigot and Petri Suvanto fell victim in Race #2. Coming out of St. Pete with the championship lead will require coming out of Turn 1 unscathed, a task much easier said than done.
Firestone Indy Lights
This will be the opening round for the nine-car strong Firestone Indy Lights series. Yes. That’s right. Nine cars. Single-digits. That low count is in part due to INDYCAR’s decisions, or lack thereof, regarding the new chassis. At least one team, Jubilee Motorsports, has announced that they will not be competing as their business model relied on a new chassis coming to the series n 2014. While the car counts are definitely not a good sign for the series, the talent level is very strong. The three top finishers in the 2012 Pro Mazda Championship, Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves, and Sage Karam, are all signed on at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. While minimal seat-time thanks in part to the rainout at Barber earlier in the month will make racing at St. Petersburg a challenge, they will have the backing of the most successful team in the history of Indy Lights.
Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Muñoz and Belardi Auto Racing’s Peter Dempsey have significantly more racing experience and seat time in the Indy Lights Dallara, and they are backed by strong teams. They will provide a strong challenge to Schmidt’s youngsters.
“It’s been a pretty long off-season. The team has worked extremely hard both during testing and at the shop, and I feel that everyone has given absolutely 100 percent leading up to this weekend’s race in St. Petersburg. I feel very confident that the Belardi Auto Racing team is going to have a strong package this weekend. I feel like I’ve been training harder than ever, and my mindset is in a completely new place because I know I am fighting for a championship title and not just running race by race. The field is going to be very competitive this year, so it will be important for us to make sure we bring everything we have to every race weekend. I’m really pumped up to get the season started.” — Peter Dempsey, #4 Belardi Auto Racing
As with the Pro Mazda races, how one handles Turn 1 will be critical. Go in too cautiously, and the veterans Muñoz and Dempsey will leave you looking like a fool. Go in too strong, and you’ll make yourself look the fool as you shoot wide or cause an incident. The real key, however, will be remaining flawless throughout the 45-lap race around the bumpy and tricky St. Petersburg layout. Manhole covers and bumps in the track have lead to the demise of many a leader of the Indy Lights race here. Keep a eye on the run up to Turns 4 and 8.
|0835||Pro Mazda||Practice #1|
|1010||Indy Lights||Practice #1|
|1340||Indy Lights||Practice #2|
|1625||Pro Mazda||Practice #2|
|1310||Pro Mazda||Race #1|
|1500||Pro Mazda||Race #2|
Live Timing and Scoring:
USF2000 Live Timing and Scoring: http://usf2000.com/Multimedia/Live.aspx
Pro Mazda Live Timing and Scoring: http://www.promazdachampionship.com/timing/index.html
Indy Lights Live Timing and Scoring: http://racecontrol.indycar.com/