Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hawksworth, Servià and Why Indy Lights Does A Great Job Promoting Drivers Just Not Indy Lights Champions

The final songs are coming to an end and the amount of chairs are dwindling as two more were taken today.

British driver Jack Hawksworth has been hired by Bryan Herta Autosport to drive the #98 Barracuda Honda. The 2012 Star Mazda champion won three races in Indy Lights last year and finished fourth in the final standings behind Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves and Carlos Muñoz. Hawksworth joins Justin Wilson as the second full-time British driver on the grid. The #98 Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosport Honda was split in 2013 by drivers Alex Tagliani, Luca Filippi and J.R. Hildebrand. Filippi and Hildebrand were thought to be the leading candidates for the seat in 2014.

Prior to the Hawksworth announcement, it was announced Oriol Servià will be joining Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for four races in 2014. The Catalan driver has been announced for Long Beach, Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500. More races are expected to be added to Servià's schedule. Servià split the 2013 season between Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Panther Racing. He has one previous start with RLLR, the 2009 Indianapolis 500 where he started twenty-fifth and was ninth place when the fuel pump failed and Servià finished twenty-sixth after 98 laps. 

Later that season, Servià would join Graham Rahal at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing for four races where he finished eleventh at Mid-Ohio, sixth at Sonoma, seventh at Chicago and fourth at Motegi. In those four race Rahal finished eighth, twenty-first after a mechanical failure, fifth and third at Motegi where he was leading late before being passed by Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

I am glad to see Servià on the grid and I hope those four races turn into a full-season for the Catalan. He has always been quick but has never had a decent ride underneath him for long.

Nationalities aside, it is great to have another rookie on the grid. 

Nationalities aside, it is great to have another graduate from Indy Lights.

Nationalities aside, it stinks the defending Indy Lights champion with scholarship money doesn't have a ride and two drivers they beat for the championship do. 

Hawksworth is a talented driver and showed he could hold his own on road and street courses. On ovals however, there were times he sounded rattled and not comfortable with ovals. I think he could have benefited from another year of oval racing in Indy Lights but when it comes to road courses, he should be more than capable of holding his own in IndyCar.

It stinks Luca Filippi and J.R. Hildebrand appear to left standing as the music nears it's final note. Filippi has had plenty of success to be not only full-time in IndyCar but on the Formula One grid. It is  a shame he hasn't had a chance to fully displace his talent. I think it's safe to say every driver after Sam Hornish, Jr. at Panther Racing deserves a mulligan and Hildebrand isn't an exception. If only Andretti had a opening for Hildebrand after he won his Indy Lights championship in 2009. Who knows where his career would be. 

It is great that this rookie class will actually be a competition. Between Hawksworth, Carlos Muñoz and Mikhail Aleshin, all three drivers have potential to turn heads in 2014. It is a good sign for IndyCar that their is new blood and two-thirds of it is coming from the ladder system. However, something has to be fixed to guarantee the champion a ride.

If third and fourth in the 2013 Indy Lights championship can get rides, then why is the champion Sage Karam who got a million dollar scholarship for an IndyCar ride piecemealing together sports car starts for Ganassi Racing? What does that say to a young driver trying to come up through the ranks? Winning the championship doesn't mean you will be hired over the drivers you beat. That needs to be fixed. 

Or maybe just the limits of what the scholarship can be used for should change. Karam is only allowed to use it toward a full-time IndyCar ride. That's great but if the scholarship doesn't pay for a whole IndyCar ride, why not allow them to use it to continue their career in Indy Lights. Karam turned nineteen years old today. Once again, Karam turned nineteen years old today. Why force a nineteen year old immediately into IndyCar when he could use the scholarship and get another year of seat time under his belt if he can't get a promotion? 

If you are going to limit the scholarship to only be used for a full-time IndyCar ride, then make sure it pays for a whole damn ride and so all Karam and any future Indy Lights champion has to bring to IndyCar is their helmet and a fucking Sharpie to sign autographs.

With that said, I must reiterate that the ladder system and Indy Lights has done a very good job of promoting drivers to IndyCar over the recent years but it hasn't done a good job of promotion Indy Lights champions. Karam appears destine to become the seventh Indy Lights champion out of the last twelve to not have a full-time ride in IndyCar the season after winning the title. And of those previous twelve Indy Lights champions, only one has a ride for the 2014 IndyCar season (Josef Newgarden). 

Once again to reiterate, the ladder system and Indy Lights is working. Graduates Marco Andretti, Carlos Muñoz, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Sebastián Saavedra, Helio Castroneves, Newgarden and Hawksworth all have full-time rides while Ed Carpenter and Martin Plowman have limit schedules lined up. 

That's not bad at all but...
Tristan Vautier lost his ride after one year.
J.K. Vernay never got a shot. 
J.R. Hildebrand is struggling to continue his career. 
Raphael Matos is gone. 
Alex Lloyd got one full IndyCar season and isn't even 30. 
Jay Howard has only a dozen career IndyCar starts.
Wade Cunningham isn't even 30 and has only five career IndyCar starts. 
Thiago Mederios has one career start.
Mark Taylor had one season and he is completely out of racing. 
And A.J. Foyt IV, who is still under 30, may be the only of the last dozen Indy Lights champions you could say had enough opportunities and can definitely say he had his shot and his time passed. 

Indy Lights champions need a better reward and a longer of a leash because it is clear enough isn't being done.