Indy Lights – 1st Quarter Recap & Firestone Freedom 100 Preview

It’s been far too long since we’ve talked about the Firestone Indy Lights series. The first quarter of the 2012 season is over and the championship battle is tight! There were three different winners over the first three events, creating a situation where the top three in the championship are separated by one point each!

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Andretti Autosport’s Sebastian Saavedra leads the way with 129 points after finishing 3rd at the season opener in St. Petersburg, scooping Barber by winning from pole, leading the most laps, and setting the fastest race lap, and finishing 2nd at Long Beach after grabbing his 2nd pole position of the season. Last year’s Star Mazda Champion and now Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Tristan Vautier won the season opener from pole with the fastest race lap and most laps led, finished 2nd at Barber, and 3rd at Long Beach. His teammate Esteban Guerrieri finished 2nd at St. Pete, 3rd at Barber, and won at Long Beach while leading the most laps. Those bonus points for pole position (1pt) and most laps lead (2pt) are shaping up to be VERY important and are what makes the difference right now in the standings.

This Thursday, the Firestone Indy Lights drivers retake to the track as they practice and qualify for the Firestone Freedom 100 race on Friday, Carburetion Day. The grid sizes have been small this season, numbering in the mid-teens, but the race this week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway looks to be a bit larger. The official entry list hasn’t been announced, yet, but from the various team announcements, it looks like we could see upwards of 20 cars take the green flag this Friday. The additional spots are going to a mix of new drivers to the series and returning veterans.

New and Returning Drivers

Peter Dempsey in his new ride - Photo by Chris Jones,
Peter Dempsey returns to the series after a tumultuous 2011 season. His team at the beginning of the season, O2 Racing Technologies, withdrew in protest at Milwaukee last season and were subsequently suspended from competition. Later in the season, he drove for Andretti Autosport and performed extremely well. This year, he has signed with Younessi Racing to compete at Indianapolis and at Bell Isle. Normally, new teams such as Younessi’s wouldn’t be expected to be competitive, but in addition to hiring Dempsey, they also hired his engineer from his time at O2RT, Dave McMillan. I’m not going to pick the squad for the win, I do think they will be competitive. Don’t be surprised to see Dempsey run and finish in the top 5.

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Another veteran to rejoin the ranks of Indy Lights drivers is Anders Krohn. He joins the Bryan Herta Autosport squad at Indianapolis, but has nothing beyond that. That’s not to say that The Viking hasn’t been very busy. He’s been working hard promoting young, upcoming open-wheel talent from his home country of Norway such as Henrik Furuseth who competes in the USF2000 National Championship and will be racing himself on the 5/8-mile oval at Lucas Oil Raceway in the Night Before The 500 event.

Chase Austin returns to Indy Lights as well with Juncos Racing joining JV Horto. Although, Juncos Racing has been very successful in the Star Mazda Championship, this is their first season in Firestone Indy Lights and their first time racing at IMS. It will be interesting to see how they do. The team has struggled a bit as they come to grips with the Indy Lights racing machine.

Two other newcomers are likely to take the grid, Mike Larrison for Belardi Auto Racing, and Emerson Newton-John for Fan Force United. I’m not expecting them to be contenders, but its good to see new drivers coming to the series.

With the championship so tight, and the top three drivers so good not only on the twisty tracks, but also on the ovals, picking a favourite is tough. This will be Tristan Vautier’s first experience racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so I’m disinclined to pick him for the win and I think there’s a fair shot he doesn’t make the podium. I do think he will be in the top-5, but IMS is a tricky circuit and the Indy Lights machines can reach average lap speeds of 190+ mph, a level of speed to which Tristan hasn’t had much experience. Esteban certainly has the skill set to be very strong here, having led a couple of laps last year, and coming in 0.4s shy of the win to finish in P2. Esteban has a great chance at improving that finishing position this year and scoring the victory. Last year, consistency was an issue for him, but it looks as though he has improved on that over the off-season and has been very steady so far this season.

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My pick for the win, has to be Sebastian Saavedra, reunited with Andretti Autosport and AFS Racing for both the Firestone Freedom 100 and for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Sebastian is not only comfortable on high-speed ovals, his first win in Indy Lights was on the 1.5-mile oval Kansas Speedway, but he also has significant experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The last time he was with AA/AFS, he was teammates with JR Hildebrand and they fought tooth and nail all race long with JR edging him out in the end. This year, I think he’ll finally find Victory Lane. Whether he sets the pole or not is another matter. I think Esteban Guerrieri is likely to take that honor.

Other Carb Day Notes
Regardless, of whether my prognostications pan out or not, Carburetion Day should be great this year. It will definitely be hot! Bring lots of water, sunscreen, and portable shade. After the race, be sure to stop by the IndyCar Fan Village for the Bryan Herta Autosport Carb Day Tweet-Up! Tags and BHA owners Bryan Herta and Steve Newey will be present, and the team will be handing out free goodies to a few lucky attendees. Sign up at and be sure to give the team a follow if you haven’t already, @BHA.

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