Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Firestone Indy Lights Preview: Small But Fierce

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Nine cars. That’s what constitutes the Firestone Lights entry list for the Streets of St. Petersburg this Saturday afternoon (televised NBC Sports Network 11am ET, Sunday). That’s not what we Mazda Road to Indy aficionados want to see, and there’s no getting away from it being frustrating for the Lights fans out there.

So, why should you tune in to watch these not-quite-ten compete on NBC Sports Network this season? Well, it’s an interesting field, not only because there are a number of good prospects, but because we have very few drivers with extensive Lights experience to judge. Between the nine drivers starting at St. Pete, there are only 79 total starts in Lights, and five out of the nine drivers have no FIL experience at all. While Sam Schmidt’s cars will again be formidable, at least six drivers in this field can be considered candidates for the Lights title and resultant scholarship towards the IZOD IndyCar Series. Frankly, no one is quite sure who’s going to come out on top, and that alone should make for an interesting year.

If you haven’t paid attention to Firestone Indy Lights in the past, but want to, there’s a couple of things to remember. The first is they have a full schedule appearing on NBC Sports Network. If that’s not an option, they are also on the IMS Radio Network and IndyCar’s Timing and Scoring. If you’re following along on Twitter, check out and use the hashtag #MazdaRoadtoIndy. #FIL is also used, but sometimes gets some cross-talk with some other interests.

There are 12 races scheduled, with 5 ovals and 7 road/street courses making up the 2013 campaign. Like Indy, the Lights season will end in Fontana. Last season, the race came down to the finale, where Tristan Vautier held off preseason favorite Esteban Guerrieri by a mere 8 points to secure the title.

Yes, this field isn’t big enough to be the healthy ladder rung we want, but remember Josef Newgarden and Vautier are the last two Firestone Indy Lights champs, and they seem to be settling in pretty well so far in the big cars. Your 2013 champ will likely be an addition to the 2014 IndyCar field, and so in that sense, you’re essentially watch a massive contest for a partial IndyCar scholarship, one that could make the difference between a seat in IndyCar, or not being able to make the jump.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the Firestone Indy Lights teams as they are, with a preview of each driver.

Andretti Autosport
Zach Veach, #12 (USA)
Carlos Munoz, #26 (COL)

Zach Veach has been with Andretti since his USF2000 days, and he’s quickly moved up the ladder to partake in his rookie season of Lights. Veach had an up-and-down year in Star Mazda, but also has a knack for marketing and sponsorship, which has made him among the more well-known ladder series drivers. Veach will probably have some rookie moments this year, but I’d expect some good moments, as well. That’s what development series are for.

Carlos Munoz wasn’t on many radars prior to the 2012 FIL season, but he definitely seemed to find a nice groove as the Lights season wore on. Wins at Fontana and Edmonton were complemented by podiums at Indy, Detroits, and Toronto. He turns to the Andrett team for the 2013 campaign, and will also attempt to qualify as a fifth Andretti Autosport car at the Indianapolis 500. He’ll have his hands full with the Schmidt cars, but if he drives as he did for much of last year, he could bring a Lights title back to AA.

Dempsey should finally have a full Lights season.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Belardi Auto Racing
Jorge Goncalvez, #4 (VEN)
Peter Dempsey, #5 (IRL)

This will be Peter Dempsey’s first full season in Lights, though he’s raced here with some success since 2011. The Irish racer has loads of talent, and should benefit from being in a regular seat. Belardi Auto Racing has taken some nice strides, and Dempsey should be an asset for them as a driver. It’s too early to tell just how Belardi will stack up against Andretti and Schmidt this year, but he did admirable work for Brian Belardi’s crew over the last half of the season, finishing P5 or better in three out of five races.

His teammate, Lights veteran Jorge Goncalvez, had four podiums with Belardi in 2011, but none in 2012. He also went from P5 in points to P10, which was indicative of just how disappointing last season had to be for the Venezuelan. As the most experienced Lights drivers in the field (28 FIL starts), the 21 year-old should have every opportunity to have a bounce-back campaign. Goncalvez could very well be the toughest Lights driver to predict in terms of how he’ll fare this year.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Gabby Chaves, #7 (COL)
Sage Karam, #8 (USA)
Jack Hawksworth, #77 (ENG)

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has the distinction of having Star (Pro) Mazda’s top 3 drivers of 2012 on their team for the 2013 Firestone Indy Lights season. Gabby Chaves finished last year’s Star (Pro) Mazda campaign with wins in the last two races, finishing runner-up. His oval development is limited, but he’ll definitely have plenty of practice this year. The Colombian-American driver is a product of both Skip Barber and the European feeders, and showed some nice consistency throughout last year’s schedule. He’s the sort of driver that quietly moves up, and all of the sudden you see in title contention.

Karam's new gig was a late addition to the Lights roster.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
After an offseason of uncertainty, Sage Karam has also made the jump to Indy Lights. Star (Pro) Mazda’s P3 in points last season, Karam has long been an Andretti prospect, but the move to Schmidt’s crew certainly won’t damage his chances any. Karam should be a lot of fun to watch as he develops, especially on the oval circuits this season. He could very easily grab a win or two this year, as he is likely one of the best oval drivers in the field.

Jack Hawksworth was an absolutely impressive Star (Pro) Mazda champion last season, with a record-shattering 10 poles and 8 wins on the year. Moving up as a Mazda Road to Indy scholarship recipient, many expect J-Hawk to perform just as well this season. While that’s probably too much to ask of him at this point, especially on the ovals, he should be a blast to watch develop in the next couple years. One of his biggest assets is his consistency, which will serve him immensely well in a series where that’s the downfall of many a prospect.

Team Moore Racing
Juan Pablo Garcia, #2 (MEX)
Ethan Ringel, #22 (USA)

Juan Pablo Garcia essentially stayed out of everyone’s way in 2012, generally well off the pace, but not a danger to others. Garcia is second only to Goncalvez in this field in the number of Lights starts (21), so we’ll see if he can bring home some quicker results this year. He generally took care of his equipment, and that’s always a plus, especially in a ladder series.

Ethan Ringel is a Lights rookie, having spent 2012 in the GP3 series, where he was the youngest driver on the season. At 18 years old, most of his post-karting race experience is in Formula Enterprise. He’ll definitely be expected to be on a big learning curve in Lights this year, so we’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach as to just where he is in his development as a driver. He has worked with IndyCar driver Jay Howard as a driver coach.

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