USF2000 – Two-fer in Toronto
The Mazda Road to Indy was fully represented in Toronto this weekend with the USF2000 National Championship back in action for the first time since the Night Before the 500 in May, and the Pro Mazda Championship racing after it’s last event in Milwaukee. They shared the weekend with the Firestone Indy Lights series and of course the IZOD IndyCar Series with everyone except Lights doing a double-header.
After five events, Cape Motorsports driver and championship leader, Scott Hargrove had accumulated three poles, four podiums, three fastest race laps, and three wins, placing him well ahead of Belardi Auto Racing’s Danilo Estrela. The only other driver to win a race this season is Scott’s teammate Neil Alberico with two wins and two fastest race laps, but he also has two DNFs and a P20 finish at St. Petersburg. That inconsistency has placed the lightning fast driver well back in the points. Estrela’s consistency, securing four top-five finishes over the first five events, has been enough to keep in in P2 in the championship, but without a win, he’s had to watch Hargrove’s lead continue to stretch.
The Canadian Invasion
The series already had strong Canadian representation on the grid, but as the series goes north to the land of Tim Horton’s and poutine, their numbers have swelled. Fully one third of the drivers this past weekend were Canadian. Many of these young Canadians, like Andretti Autosport’s Garett Grist have been looking to Toronto as their home race.
“I am really looking forward to the Toronto Indy this coming weekend. USF2000 has never been to Toronto so it’s new for everyone. We are all on a level playing field which excites me. Since it’s my hometown race, it makes it even more exciting but it comes with some added pressure. We have great momentum going from the Night Before The 500 event which we hope to build on.” — Garett Grist, #7 Andretti Autosport
Unfortunately for many, their experiences on the Streets of Toronto were no better than that of their countryman James Hinchcliffe. Stefan “Razzle Dazzle” Rzadzinski had mixed results, finishing in the top-10 in Race #1, but suffering a DNF in Race #2. Similarly, National Class drivers James Dayson and Ryan Verra would DNF in one race and score a good finish in the other.
The hardest time was had by Sergio Pasian, racking up two DNFs in his first USF2000 appearance for the Canadian team Britain West Motorsports. Fellow first-timer, Steve Bamford fared much better scoring respectable P17 and P14 finishes for Cape Motorsports. Jesse Lazare who was so strong in the first few events, posted his season-worst finishes with a P16 and P18, no where near his earlier top-five finishes
On the upside, Dalton Kellett put in two top-ten performances, dramatically improving over his results at Sebring and St. Petersburg. Daniel Burkett similarly put in a couple of solid performances finishing P10 and P11 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Garrett Grist had a rough Race #1 finishing way back in 22nd, but he made up for it in Race #2 finishing strong up in 6th.
Lastly, Scott Hargrove also had a weekend of mixed results. In Race #1, starting from P2, he quickly lost a position to JAY Motorsports’ Florian Latorre. During the first of three restarts, Hargrove made contact with Latorre and damaging his front suspension. The damage wasn’t enough to force Hargrove to park the car, but it did limit his pace and he would fall back to P15 by the end of the race. Race #2 went much better for the championship leader, as he fought clear of a real furball of a fight to chase down the race leader. He’d come up one position short, but P2 points would be enough to help control the hemorrhaging of points he suffered in Race #1.
The Race Winners and Strong Performers
Race #1 was lead in its entirety by Neil Alberico who not only started from pole, but also set the fastest race lap. It was a much needed turnaround for the Cape Motorsports driver as inconsistency has greatly hindered his championship chances this season.
“For sure momentum played a big factor after winning the last race at Indy and then going into a break. You just have to keep on your toes and focus on what you have to do to make things happen. The championship is not over until it’s over. We had an unfortunate start to the season, but that’s racing. The Cape Motorsports guys did a great job this weekend. There is not a lot of track time here and you have to maximize every lap of every session. I couldn’t be happier about today’s race and starting tomorrow on pole. I am going to try to score maximum points and keep moving forward.” — Neil Alberico, #2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
Two drivers that had outstanding showings in Race #1 were the 2012 National Class Champion, Henrik Furuseth, and JAY Florian Latorre. Latorre, despite early contact with Hargrove, managed to hold on second place. His position wasn’t unchallenged as Furuseth pushed hard from P3. Furuseth looked to be on his way to his first podium finish in the USF2000 Championship Class, but Belardi Auto Racing’s Danilo Estrela would get the jump on the Norse during the third and final restart. Still, P4 represents Henrik’s best finish thus far.
Having set the fast lap in Race #1, Alberico again lead the field to the green flag in Race #2, looking to repeat his flag-to-flag domination. He looked poised to do just that, until on Lap 17 of the 21-lap race, Estrela made a strong move on the outside of the infamous Turn 3, giving him the preferred inside line into Turn 4, and took over the race lead. Danilo would keep that lead for the remainder of the race as Alberico would get bogged down in traffic and slip to P5 by time the field took the checkers.
“I tried to pass [Scott] Hargrove on the outside the lap before and it didn’t work out so I figured if I could break a little bit later and turn later, I could run on the tarmac and not on the concrete and I would have the run on the outside of the corner. Neil [Alberico] did what I expected him to do and went to the inside so I braked late into Turn One and overtook him. I couldn’t be more happy. The track is amazing; the event is amazing and the car was really good. We have been trying very hard and I have to thank Brian [Belardi] for helping me. The team won at Mid-Ohio, our next race, last year and I am very excited to go there and try for another win.” — Danilo Estrela, Belardi Auto Racing
Danilo’s teammate, Peter Portante, had a strong showing in Race #2, taking over P2 for a time, but would lose positions to a determined Scott Hargrove and Florian Latorre. Like Henrik in Race #1, Portante’s P4 finish represented his best performance on a street or road course in the USF2000 National Championship thus far. He did have a podium finish at Lucas Oil Raceway, but this was his best finish on a twisty track.
The Championship Battle
As the USF2000 drivers get set to head to a first ever triple-header weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the first weekend of August, it still seems to be Hargrove’s championship to lose. The Cape Motorsport hot shoe has 173 points after salvaging a nice finish in Race #2 at Toronto, keeping at bay Belardi Auto Racing’s Danilo Estrela who is 37 points adrift with 136 points. Neil Alberico, in spite of having a rocky start to the season, has fought his way back to P3 in the championship with 117 points, 19 points behind Estrela.
With 30 points awarded for P1, 25 for P2, 22 for P3, and a bonus point each for pole, fast lap, and most laps led, Estrela will most likely need a little help in the way of mistakes from Hargrove to have a chance to close the gap. We are only half way through the season with seven more races on three race weekends still to go, so overtaking Hargrove certainly is possible. Mid-Ohio is challenging circuit, especially if it’s wet as we saw last year. A significant portion of the OpenPaddock crew will be at Mid-Ohio this year, so be sure to stop by the Esses and say hi to Shaun and Mike, look out for Kevin in the pits and paddock, and I’ll be all over the place with my cameras. See you there!