By Steve Wittich
For the third straight year, the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship will come down wire at a third different race track in California. In 2013, Sage Karam edged Gabby Chaves at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. In 2014, it was Chaves just eeking out the title over Jack Harvey at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California. This year, it is Harvey who leads a quartet of drivers with a chance to take home the title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The early rabbit in 2015 was Carlin Rookie Ed Jones. The 20 year-old from Dubai won the first three races of the year and led the title fight for six of the first seven races. Fellow rookie Spencer Pigot, driving for Juncos Racing took the first of four victories on the year at Barber Motorsports Park and lead the championship for the one event Jones didn’t, but it was experience that took over the top of the championship table at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. Sophomore Jack Harvey, piloting the No. 42 Racing Steps Foundation sponsored car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian won the annual “Carb Day” race on the famed 2.5 mile oval and has held the lead in the championship for the next seven events.
Coming into to the two race Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires and Powered by Mazda finale, Harvey holds a slender six point lead over Pigot and an 18 point lead over Jones. Havey’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian rookie teammate RC Enerson is the fourth driver in contention for the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship.
The 18 year-old Enerson will need some help to jump the three drivers ahead of him, but he does carry the most momentum into the season ending event. In the last four races (Iowa, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio *2) Enerson has scored 99 points vs. 64 by Jones, 64 by Pigot and 59 by Harvey.
With track time at a premium on a busy Pirelli World Challenge/Mazda Road To Indy weekend, previous experience at a circuit can certainly come into play, however, this is the first visit to Mazda Raceway for Harvey, Pigot and Jones. Enerson has previous Skip Barber and USF2000 (2 races in 2013) experience on the 2.238-mile, 11 turn natural terrain road course.
Holding even more importance than track experience could be situational experience. Having previously chased a championship “should” prepare a driver for the pressure cooker of racing for the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship.
Havey has been on both sides of a championship fight. On the down side, he lost the 2010 Formula BMW championship to Robin Frijns by only 11 points and tied Chaves for the 2014 Indy Lights crown. On the plus side, he won a close fought 2012 British Formula 3 title over Jazeman Jaafar and Felix Serralles.
“I’m very excited about Mazda Raceway; I’ve always wanted to race there,” said Harvey “It will be a great finale for the entire Mazda Road to Indy. But I’ve been in this situation before, where I knew I had to win the last race to win the title. Last year, I had two poles and two wins in the last race weekend of the year so I feel very confident in what I can achieve as a driver and I’ve got massive belief in my team. We were the fastest at Mid-Ohio. I’m excited to get back in the car – I love this time of year. It’s just down to me and my team to get the job done. Winning the championship would definitely help our cause progressing forward into IndyCar.”
Chasing a Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship is nothing new for Spencer Pigot. The reigning Pro Mazda champion won his first of two advancement scholarships in 2010 by taking home the Skip Barber National title, helping him move into USF2000. In 2011 and 2012, Pigot just missed out winning an advancement scholarship, coming home second in USF2000 during both seasons.
Ed Jones is no stranger to chasing a championship from behind. Jones missed the first two races (interestingly Pigot was in his seat) of the 2013 European F3 Open season, but was able to score 10 podiums in 14 races to overhaul Sandy Stuvik for the title.
Enerson is also no stranger to being in a championship race. The driver who has generally been much younger than his competition, won the 2014 USF2000 Cooper Tires Winterfest crown as a 16 year-old and just missed out on the full-season title, battling Florian Latorre down to the last race at Sonoma Raceway.
Also watch for which driver will best be able to keep their emotions in check this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The driver that can put that $1 million and a guaranteed Verizon IndyCar Series seat out of their mind, will have the best chance to win the title.
Other things to watch for:
– Qualifying: In the past, overtaking at Mazda Raceway has been challenging, so starting up front will be one of the keys to having a successful weekend. In 16 previous Indy Lights races at Mazda Raceway, the furthest back a race winner started was fifth. In fact, 12 of the 16 previous winners have all started on the front row.
– Teammates: We saw firsthand during the Verizon IndyCar Series finale at Sonoma Raceway how big of an impact your teammates can have on the title fight. On one hand, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball were able to place themselves between Scott Dixon and Juan Montoya and steal valuable points from Montoya. While on the other hand, contact while racing teammate Will Power very likely cost Montoya his second IndyCar championship.
– Bonus Points: As Gabby Chaves was chasing Harvey late in the first Indy Lights race during the finale at Sonoma Raceway in 2014, he turned in a last minute flyer that earned him quickest lap of the race and a single bonus point. Chaves and Harvey ended up tied for the championship and Chaves won after a count-back of second place finishes. Bonus points are earned by claiming pole, leading the most laps and turning the quickest race lap, and six points are on offer this weekend. Among the top four so far this year it is Jones who leads the way with 11 bonus points, and is trailed by Pigot (9 points), Harvey (6 points) and Enerson (2 points).
– Count-backs: Chaves and Harvey were deadlocked on points last year, meaning the tie-breaker moved wins. Both drivers accumulated four wins, so the next count-back was second place finishes, and because Chaves had stood on the middle step of the podium four times versus one time for Harvey, he was crowned champion. In 2015 the total number of wins is:
Pigot —> 4
Jones —> 3
Harvey —> 2
Enerson —> 1
In 2015 the total number of second place finishes is:
Harvey —> 6
Enerson —> 2
Jones —> 1
Pigot —> 1
Contact: Incidents between Harvey and Spencer Pigot in race #1 and Harvey and Jones in race #2 ruined each drivers race, proving that keeping your nose clean is an important part of winning a championship. Among the championship contenders it’s Jones who has completed the highest percentage of laps. Jones has completed 99.2% of the laps in 2015, top in the series, and is trailed by: Harvey (94.8%), Spencer Pigot (94.5%) and Enerson (89.5%).
You don’t have to look too far to find a pair of drivers that have the potential to play championship spoiler.
The two Indy Lights races at Mazda Raceway this weekend will be the seventh and eighth natural terrain road course races of the season. Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course have all held doubleheaders, and below are the points that the drivers have scored in those races.
1. Max Chilton —> 131
2. RC Enerson —> 129
3. Sean Rayhall —> 128
4. Jack Harvey —> 123
5. Spencer Pigot —> 122
6. Ed Jones —> 97
7. Shelby Blackstock —> 86
8. Felix Serralles —> 84
9. Scott Anderson —> 82
10. Kyle Kaiser —> 75
11. Juan Piedrahita —> 75
12. Ethan Ringel —> 68
Chilton, the European trained Formula 1 veteran, has spent the majority of his career racing on natural terrain road course, so his four podiums should come as no surprise. Surprisingly, the 24 year-old has previous experience at Mazda Raceway. As a 16 year-old in 2007, Chilton journeyed to the Monterey area to take part in the American Le Mans Series Race, but was told that he was too young. The Redgate, England native promptly jumped in a Pro (Star) Mazda and qualified fourth, before running into trouble in the race and finishing 15th.
With two wins and three podiums on natural terrain courses in 2015, and no teammate in championship contention, expect 8Star Motorsports rookie Rayhall to go for broke this weekend. The 20 year-old from Georgia will also be able to call on previous experience at Mazda Raceway where he finished second in the Prototype Challenge class of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship in 2014.
Weekend Schedule for Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire
Friday, September 11
10:15am-10:45am — Indy Lights practice #1
3:45pm-4:15pm – Indy Lights practice #2
Saturday, September 12
8:45am-9:15am — Indy Lights qualifying
3:45pm-4:30pm — Indy Lights Race #1
Sunday, September 13
12:30pm-1pm — Indy Lights autograph session
2:40pm-3:40pm — Indy Lights Race #2
Don’t forget that RoadToIndy.TV is live streaming all of the race action on Saturday and Sunday. Catch it here:
… or you can watch on the RoadToIndy.TV app – available via Android or Apple iOS.
Links to other coverage so far this weekend: