Firestone Indy Lights – 2009 Season Review – Mid-Season Grind

The Mid-Season Grind
The two oval races at Kansas and Indianapolis really took a toll on equipment. The devastation seen at Kansas put several teams out of contention for the remainder of the season including Guthrie Racing being banned for their harsh response Sean Guthrie’s endangerment of the Delphi Safety Crew. The first few races of the season saw strong grids with cars numbering in the mid-20s. After Indianapolis, the fields were significantly reduced averaging around 17 cars. This was a disappointing, but considering how many shards of carbon fiber were scattered around the Kansas Speedway, the fact that so many remained and were able to return given the funding level of most of the FIL teams, the series was fortunate to have as many as they did.

The Milwaukee Mile
Bia’s huge hit in the south chute during the Firestone Freedom 100 destroyed her car and with insufficient funds to purchase a new chassis, she would sitout the Milwaukee race. She spent the time instead in Brazil tried to gather funding to make a return as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the surprise driver of the Freedom 100, Mario Romancini, his strong performance at Indianapolis was no fluke by taking the pole position, leading every single lap, and setting the fastest race lap. This was Romancini’s first win, and Andersen Racing’s second in the Firestone Indy Lights series. JR Hildebrand continued doing what he needed to maintain his quest for the championship, staying ahead of his teammate Sebastian Saavedra. JR finished in P2 with Sebastian right behind him in P3 which allowed JR to pull out a small margin of 10 points, but many other racers such as Romancini and James Davison are continuing to make ground.

The Iowa Speedway
Iowa marked the return of Ana Biatriz to racing after her costly accident at Indianapolis put her on the sidelines searching for funds to purchase a new chassis. In her first race back, she qualified her new car in sixth. Not a bad place to start at Iowa. Romancini, who was so quick on the short oval at Milwaukee, struggled during qualifying and had to start the race back in P13, a dangerous position on a high-speed short oval. The mechanical gremlins that plagued AFS/AGR early in the season returned, causing Sebastian Saavedra to pit early from his qualifying position of P3.

Ana in Victory Lane: Photo -
Ana in Victory Lane: Photo -
JR Hildebrand once again set the pole, but a penalty for blocking would set him back in the pack and take him out of contention for the race win. Sebastian, with his mechanical issues resolved, headed back out on track several laps down, but with the fastest car on the track. Frustration and youthful exuberance led him to make a very poor decision when near the end of the race he passed race leader Wade Cunningham. Apparently, Saavedra wanted to show the rest of the grid and his team that he was the fastest on track, but after passing Wade, Sebastian slowed slightly and impeded Wade’s entry in to Turn 1. Bia took full advantage of Wade’s loss of momentum, overtaking him through Turns 1 and 2 and assuming the race lead. She would lead all the way to the yellow/checker finish. The final caution was brought out by Pippa Mann and James Davison tangling wheels in Turn 2. Although a frustrating end for Cunningham, the day was a sweep for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. All three podium positions would be occupied by one of Sam’s drivers: Bia in P1, Wade in P2, and James Hinchcliffe in P3.
Watkins Glen
Independence Day saw fantastic American Open Wheel Racing on one of the great American road courses, Watkins Glen. Although Vision Racing’s, James Davison took the pole, and led for the first 14 laps. This was a great boost of confidence for the Vision team who had languished mid-pack most of the season so far. JR Hildebrand assumed the lead as he and Davison headed down to the bus stop and kept it through out the race, fending off Davison during a late-race restart to remain in front. JR’s AFS/AGR teammate Sebastian Saavedra was involved with yet another on-track incident resulting from frustration getting the better of the young driver. During the last laps, Sebastian slipped from P3 to P5 as both Felipe Guimaraes and Charlie Kimball were both able to get around him. Sebastian tried to recapture his position a little too aggressively in the Bus Stop and made hard contact with Kimball resulting in a 30-sec penalty that dropped him even further down the order to P18. This would be devastating for his championship bid, allowing Hildebrand to make maximum ground on his teammate.

Streets of Toronto
The race on the Streets of Toronto saw something very rare for the Firestone Indy Lights series, pit stops! A morning deluge left the track very wet causing race officials to declare the a wet race mandating that all competitors start on rain tires.

Toronto starting grid:  Photo -
Toronto starting grid: Photo -
The track was drying rapidly, however, and it was obvious that everyone at some point would be coming into the pits to change rains for slicks. Radip pit stops to change tires, however, are NOT a regular occurrence in the series. Usually, if someone pits, its because something has gone very wrong and their day is pretty much done. To further complicate matters, not all teams had pneumatic equipment that we’re all used to seeing in Formula 1 and the IZOD IndyCar Series, so some teams were out trying to change all four tires with hand wrenches. Instead of seeing the blindingly fast stops of seven to nine seconds that are seen so often in the top series, pit times were upwards of a minute or more. The AFS/AGR crews, taking advantage of their association with the crews from the IndyCar Series, proved to have the best coordination and technique for executing the tire changes and that made the difference in the race. JR Hildebrand was first out of the pits, closely followed by his teammate Sebastian Saavedra. Midway through the race, Sebastian would overtake his teammate and championship competitor for the lead, and keep that lead all the way to the checkers. This was a great turnaround for Sebastian who had two horrible results in the previous two races. Unfortunately for the young Columbian, JR’s second place finish meant that he didn’t gain much ground in the championship fight.

Edmonton City Centre Airport
JR Hildebrand started the weekend by securing his fourth pole of the season, and during the race he never looked back. It was a clean sweep for the championship leader, pole position, led every lap, and set the fastest race lap.

“We were running our own pace and I think the other guys started to fall off a little bit,” Hildebrand said. “I was just trying to run the same lap time from start to end and the car came to me a little bit as the tires went off, so I didn’t have to take too many risks to accomplish that. We were able to bring home another win. —

It was a good weekend for the Palm Beach International Raceway as well, with Richard Philippe qualifying and eventually finishing in second and Charlie Kimball racking up another top-five finish. The race was fairly uneventful with most drivers ending the race pretty much where they started. The notable exceptions were Saavedra, Cunningham, and Davison. Sebastian Saavedra started in fifth, but worked his way up to a podium finish in P3 by the end. Wade Cunningham started in P12 and worked his way up to P6 by race end. That’s nothing to sneeze at given how difficult it is to pass at Edmonton. James Davison had a rough afternoon, starting in P3, but slipping all the way back to P10. It was not at all what the Vision Racing team had expected after such a good qualifying performance and having top-five finishes on the previous two circuits.

Edmonton Podium: Photo -
Edmonton Podium: Photo -

JR’s dominant victory would continue to strengthen his grasp on the series championship. His lead over Sebastian Saavedra leaving Edmonton was 69 points. It seemed that the battle for the P2 position was the only real uncertainty in the championship for the remaining races.

Next: The Battle for the Championship

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