As unpredictable as the weather was in St. Petersburg, so were the races and results throughout the weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. From first lap pile-ups to dominating performances and costly mistakes, every Mazda Road to Indy Series had its share of unpredictability and undoubtedly an exciting preview of what we hope to see the rest of the season. Here’s a breakdown of what went down in the Sunshine State last weekend, and what to look for as we prepare to head west for some more sunshine to cover the Indy Lights action at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
To give you a quick summary of the USF2000 runs throughout the weekend, only one driver repeated a P1 finish across the 5 races. With overcast skies and the threat of rain, the practice sessions got underway as scheduled on the streets of St. Petersburg on Friday. Practice 1 runs its course with little drama bringing Norweigan Henrik Furuseth to a P1 finish, and Jake Eidson from Cape Motorsports made a nice jump from P6 in the first practice run to his first P1 finish of the season. Drivers played it safe in both practices, bringing the full field into Saturday for the races.
Saturday morning was deceiving. The day started with little cloud cover, bright sunshine, and cool breezes. On schedule, the practice runs from Indy Lights and IndyCar get underway, leading up to the first race of the season for USF2000. As the ominous weather started to roll in, so did Brazilian driver Victor Franzoni. In the first three races of the season, Franzoni jumped from 10th, to 2nd, to securing P1 for the first official race of the season in the qualifier. Almost on queue and adding some drama to the weekend, the weather does almost a complete 180 degrees bringing with it tornado warnings and thunderstorms. After what seemed liked the rest of the day was going to be a loss, race officials brought out the street sweepers to “dry” the track and announced that USF 2000 would be the first on the track to resume the day’s (now modified) schedule.
During what seemed like Mother Nature’s taunting, the rain continued to come in and out as race 1 of the USF2000 season got underway. Now came the question, what role would Mother Nature play in this race? Seemingly unfazed by all of it, one of the most consistent drivers of the weekend so far had been RC Enerson who had finished in the top 5 in all 3 of the previous races. After winning Winterfest, he was due for a win, but he was going to have to take on Franzoni to get it. Taking a look at Franzoni’s in-car video, you can tell that the water on the track was definitely a factor, and Franzoni used it as his edge putting his fear aside to win the first USF2000 race of the season.
The next day, the track was dry, the sun was out, and it was exactly the kind of day you would expect in Florida. One might expect everything would go smoothly, right? Nope. We’re not entirely sure what happened, but in lap 1 less than a minute into the race, a 6-car pile up. Notably, the wreck took out Furuseth, Portante, and Jamin who all had been in contention for top spots in previous races. Now with optimal track conditions, RC Enerson was looking for a win. With the wreck having opened up some room in the field, Enerson and Franzoni were left to battle for the top spot at the podium. RC was the clear favorite going into St. Petersburg, and he set out to prove it. With a formidable opponent in Franzoni, Enerson had to bring his top game, and he did.
RC Enerson continues his dominance in USF2000 with a P1 win in race 2, but looking ahead to the next two races at Barber Motorsports Park, he has Franzoni on his heels. Following the finish of race 2, we learned that Franzoni was disqualified after failing to pass a technical inspection.
Unlike the other races of the weekend, the excitement within the Pro Mazda series opener in St. Petersburg was in the field, not necessarily the top positions. Spencer Pigot, Kyle Kaiser, and Juncos Racing came in to town without missing a beat from Winterfest, and began to dominate the series from the first practice session. Pigot and Kaiser held a monopoly on P1 and P2 in the first two races of the season. The rest of the field, was up for grabs.
Pipo Derani from Team Pelfrey was expected to make an impression, but he got off to a rough start placing 11th then 9th in the practice sessions. After race 1 he still wasn’t able to crack the top 3, but that didn’t stop him from fighting off Shelby Blackstock and Scott Hargrove in race 2 to get his first podium finish of the year. Second only to Juncos Racing, Cape Motorsports brought the most consistent performances of the weekend, with Neil Alberico and Scott Hargove never dropping below the top 10. Hargrove even brought home a P3 finish in race 1.
Certainly the driver we’re now following is another Juncos Racing driver who didn’t make the podium, but definitely made an impressive start this season. Argentinian driver Julia Ballario, a rookie in the Pro Mazda series started last (yes, last) in the first practice session in St. Petersburg. Shaving seconds off of her time in each race, Ballario went from 17th, to 15th, qualifying for race 1 in P14, only to keep moving up to P11 in race 1 and ending the weekend with her highest finish yet in P7. This series and car type is new to her so this impressive start is not to be underestimated.
There is tons of talent in this Pro Mazda field, and Juncos Racing, Cape Motorsports, and Andretti Motorsports are leading the pack. All of these drivers are talented and hungry for a win, so every move on the track needs to be the right one or it could be costly if anyone gets too comfortable.
Coming into the weekend in St. Petersburg, the buzz was surrounding the Indy Lights favorite, Gabby Chaves. Starting the season with a strong performance at Winterfest and with plenty of experience in the series, after the practice run (which he dominated earning him a P1) Gabby seemed to have his first win of the season locked in. Then, as I’ve previously mentioned, Mother Nature had a different plan. When Saturday’s thunderstorm and tornado warnings strolled in, it washed out the Indy Lights qualifier. Might this have played a role in what happened next?
The field of Indy Lights drivers were left hanging in the paddocks to race on Sunday. Might this have thrown off Chaves’ momentum? At the very start of the race, Chaves was in P1 with Zach Veach in P2. From a rolling start, the field approached turn 1 at the end of the runway, and in what might’ve been a defensive move Gabby decides to go wide in the turn leaving an opening along the inside for Zach Veach. In the first few seconds of the race, this was the biggest game changer that set the outcome in place. Zach not only had the stars aligned for him on Sunday, but the moon, the sun, and the clouds as well. After Zach took P1, there was no turning back. He was nearly flawless in his racing, the car didn’t flinch, and Zach would cruise into his first win of the season leaving behind some of his struggles from last season and dumping off some of the pressure from being a member of Andretti Autosport.
After lap 1, with Zach and Gabby in a comfortable lead from the pack, the battle was in place for P3. The experienced European drivers in Ghirelli and Razia were in close contention throughout most of the race, but it would be the rookie Jack Harvey from the UK who would prove his mettle and take that podium spot right from under them. This Indy Lights field is incredibly talented and competitive, and not only is this a promising start for the 2014 season, but for the Mazda Road to Indy and the future of IndyCar as well.