The drama in INDYCAR this season isn’t confined to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Just one rung from the top of the American open wheel ladder, a contentious battle for another championship is beginning to take form.
Becoming Firestone Indy Lights doesn’t only mean drivers can add an honor to their résumé (one shared by drivers such as J.R. Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden), it also means a considerable scholarship to assist in making the jump to the IICS and the top level of INDYCAR.
This year, there are five key drivers who could reasonably assume they had at least a shot at winning the Lights championship. However, no one quite expected matters to turn out as they have up to this point.
A rookie won the first race. One of the most experienced drivers is trying to hang in back in P5. And the top three drivers are separated by a total of three points. In fact, a viewer turning into the three separate broadcasts on NBC Sports Network would come away with three very different impressions as to who was dominating the Series.
Bottom line, there’s no shortage at drama when it comes to which driver will be the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights champ. Here’s a quick look at the Top 5 Lights championship contenders as it stands now:
After a disappointing year with Conquest Racing in the IICS last season, Sebastian Saavedra reassessed his career in the offseason. Taking a step back, he signed with Team AFS/Andretti Autosport, in a deal that included a full season in Lights, plus a ride in the Indianapolis 500. So far, it looks like it’s a smart move. The young Colombian driver is getting some of the additional development time he needs, and is currently sitting at 130 points in the standings, just ahead of the competition for the top spot. A solid win at Barber was a good sign for Saavedra, and he’ll go into the Firestone Freedom 100 with the confidence of an Indy veteran.
Tristan Vautier might be the 2011 Star Mazda Series Champion, but he isn’t stopping there. After winning in his Lights debut at St. Pete, he’s followed it up with two successive podium finishes. He’s a mere two points behind Saavedra, and has served noticed that just because he’s a Lights rookie doesn’t mean he’s going away anytime soon. At 22 years of age, he’s still got some development ahead of him, but he’s currently giving the more experienced competitors all they can handle.
Esteban Guerrieri finished runner-up to teammate last year to Josef Newgarden, and he missed out on the championship due to inconsistency, a common enough trait in young drivers. He won a jaw-dropping 6 pole positions last season, but could only turn that into 3 victories, with a number of poor finishes severely hurting his chances at beating out Newgarden. This year, he’s only three points behind Saavedra in the standings, and seems to be heating up after a dominant performance at Long Beach. So long as he avoids the streakiness the plagued him last season, he looks to be a strong challenge to beat for the rest of the field.
Victor Carbone is sort of the forgotten man in the Firestone Indy Lights battle. Again with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Carbone didn’t seem to catch fire until the tail end of his rookie 2011 campaign, with a podium at Baltimore and a win on the Las Vegas oval. He’s had two P5s and a P4 so far this season, but will need find his late-season form if he’s going to move from his current overall P4. At 92 points, he’s 38 behind Saavedra.
Gustavo Yacamán is in his fourth season in Firestone Indy Lights, easily eclipsing any of his fellow drivers in the title hunt this year. However, after a respectable P6 and P4 to start his 2012 campaign, he ignored a black flag due to a missing mirror, and was assessed a post-race penalty at Long Beach. He missed out on a podium, falling back to P10, and taking a hit in overall points. Sitting in P5 at 80 points, he needs a moment like his 2011 win at Baltimore to get back in the hunt. Anything short of a string of strong finishes could doom his quest for a championship.
When the Firestone Indy Lights campaign picks back up at the Firestone Freedom 100 before the Indy 500, fans should have a great battle on their hands. Additionally, drivers such as Oliver Webb, Juan Pablo Garcia, and Alon Day wait, ready to take advantage of any miscues. There are many drivers who could be Lights champion, but in the end, only one will emerge victorious.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.