ANOTHER FLYING FINN - PETRI SUVANTO SETS FAST TIME IN STAR MAZDA SERIES TESTING AT LUCAS OIL RACEWAY IN PREPARATION FOR ROUND 5 OF THE 2012 SEASON AT THE 'NIGHT BEFORE THE 500'Lucas Oil Raceway / Indianapolis / March 3, 2012 - Conventional wisdom would seem to dictate that the driver with the most experience in a particular type of car, driving on a particular track -- particularly an oval - would be the quickest.
That wisdom, however, fails to take into account the depth of talent in this year's crop of Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear drivers - and the strength of their determination to win the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship funding to move up and race in Indy Lights next year.
It's a potent mix that lead to interestingly mixed results in this weekend's official Star Mazda series test at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. This test, providing for many drivers their first-ever experience on an oval, is the prelude to two oval races in a row, beginning with the Night Before the 500 on May 26, followed by Iowa Speedway on June 22-23.
Finnish rookie Petri Suvanto - who won here in USF2000 last year -- set the quick time in both the 3-hour morning session and the 2-hour session later in the day, in the heat of the afternoon. Suvanto, 19, from Nurmo, Finland, turned the fastest lap of the test on Lap 56 of the morning session, 20.236 (122.040 mph), driving the same #81 Team Pelfrey / Mazda Road to Indy Mazda he used to score a podium finish in Round 2 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Suvanto is the reigning USF2000 champion and is racing in the Star Mazda Championship this year with scholarship funding from the Mazda Road to Indy. He has scored one podium finish so far in 2012, and three top-5s, placing him 6th in the championship."I had one of the best races of my career here last year, so I feel I know the track like the inside of my pocket," says Suvanto, who is currently serving his obligatory two year enlistment in the Finnish military. "The Star Mazda car is different, more powerful and faster, but if the team gives you a good car and you drive very smoothly, it is not so difficult to adjust. My season so far has not gone quite as I hoped; the competition here is very strong and even a small mistake costs you many places, so I'm still learning, and in the next two races, both ovals, it is critical to drive perfectly... and that is my goal."
In the final two-hour afternoon session, saving the best last, he posted a lap of 20.348 as the clock expired on the final session. His final flyer earned him top-of-the-time-sheet honors over Sage Karam, who had led most of the second session with a fast time of 20.393 in his #88 Andretti Autosport / Comfort Revolution Mazda. Karam, the 2011 Star Mazda Rookie of the Year, won two of the three ovals on last year's schedule. Karam was the 2010 USF2000 champion and raced in Star Mazda last year with Mazda Road to Indy scholarship funding; he finished 3rd at the 2011 Night Before the 500. Karam's performance very nearly put conventional wisdom back in charge, until you consider that it was English rookie Jack Hawksworth, who set the overall 2nd-fast time of 20.299 (121.616 mph) on Lap 73 of the morning session. Hawksworth, a two-time race winner so far this season and currently leading the championship driving the #82 Team Pelfrey / TORGOEN Swiss Watches / EXA Networks Mazda, is new to oval racing. He slipped to 4th in the final session, but only by 0.173-sec. - but it should be noted that, in both sessions, the top dozen cars were all within one second of each other.... a reliable indicator that the Night Before the 500 will feature some intense, wheel-to-wheel action.
And what of the most experienced driver in the series, and winner of last year's Night Before the 500 (as well as this year's Round 1 at St. Petersburg), Connor De Phillippi? He was 6th fast in the morning session with a lap of 20.581 (119.994 mph) in the #2 Juncos Racing / ModSpace Racing / One24 Mazda, and followed that up with a 5th-fast run in the afternoon, 20.601 (119.878 mph).
"Today was a productive day of testing with the team," said De Phillippi, who set the Star Mazda track record of 19.999 at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2011. "We are still working on improving many areas of the car to put it up front for the race this month. A big thank you to Juncos Racing and ModSpace Motorsports for getting me on track. Now we are onwards and upwards for the Night Before the 500."
Other interesting results: Italian F3 and GP3 veteran Gabby Chaves was 3rd-quick in the morning with alap of 20.446 (120.786 mph) in his #19 JDC Motorsports / OMP Mazda, but slipped to 10th in the afternoon. Gustavo Menzes, who finished 7th in the race last year, was 5th-fast in the morning with a 20.524 (120.327 mph) in the #83 Team Pelfrey / TrueCar.com Mazda; he fell to 8th in the afternoon. Zach Veach, on the other hand, was 7th-fast in the morning, but improved to 3rd-fast in the afternoon with a 20.483 (120.568 mph) in his #77 Andretti Autosport / Zakoski Data Backup Mazda.