Seventh heaven as Baltimore brilliance brings Hawksworth to brink of Star Mazda crown|
Jack Hawksworth placed one hand on the 2012 Star Mazda Championship crown at Baltimore, as the US racing rookie's seventh victory of an extraordinary maiden campaign the other side of the Pond has brought him to within striking-distance of his season-long goal.
Having triumphed on road courses and street circuits alike and challenged for glory on ovals - hitherto uncharted territory for the talented young Bradford-born speed demon - Hawksworth headed to the Indy Grand Prix of Baltimore sitting 41 points clear of his nearest pursuer in the title standings, and conscious that the tension was beginning to mount.
"This was the weekend where we probably started to think about the championship a little bit more," he conceded. "We're getting to the business end of the season now, so we have to be sensible. We knew we couldn't afford to do anything stupid or make any mistakes, but at the same time, we didn't want to be too cautious either because that's when your concentration can slip and you can get into trouble.
"The atmosphere was awesome, the crowd was massively enthusiastic and Baltimore is a proper street circuit - really bumpy and with absolutely no room for error. It's a long and technical lap with plenty going on - definitely one of the most enjoyable I've driven this year."
Be that as it may, paving issues over the railroad tracks on the back straight - with a bump sending cars unnervingly airborne - necessitated time-consuming repairs during practice that culminated in the Star Mazda qualifying session being cancelled, severely limiting the number of laps available to competitors.
For someone who was discovering the circuit for the first time, that was far from ideal, but Hawksworth is nothing if not a quick learner and was swiftly onto the pace of his more experienced adversaries. What's more, with the grid for race one being determined by championship order in the absence of qualifying, the Team Pelfrey single-seater ace found himself installed in what has become his customary slot of pole position.
"I would rather have earned pole than be gifted it on a plate," he confessed, "but at the end of the day, I'll take it any way it comes, and we were very fired-up to win. All weekend, though, it was a question of trying to avoid the carnage, because the track evolved constantly. The organisers constructed a temporary chicane in an effort to remedy the railroad situation, but due to the location of the kerbs, if you got it even just slightly wrong, it tried to pitch you into the wall!
"Following all the changes to the circuit, going into race one, everybody had two completely new corners to learn at full speed; that was a tricky situation, but I was able to build up a gap before the first safety car period. After that, I got a good re-start, established a two-or-three-second lead again and felt very comfortable - the car was really starting to come to me - and then the safety car re-appeared.
"After the final re-start, Sage Karam in second stuck it in the wall and so the race ended under yellow flags. It was an important win, and with Sage being my closest championship rival, for him to DNF was a bit of an unexpected bonus."
Admitting that 'there was a lot of pressure with having to consistently nail the re-starts' and describing it as a 'crazy race', fastest lap secured Hawksworth the coveted PEAK Performance pole position - a record-breaking tenth of the season, to accompany his record-equalling seventh triumph - for race two the next day, but an early scare would swiftly dispel any notions he had of trying to make it a victory double.
"I got a really good start, but Sage was pretty racy straightaway," recalled the highly-rated Cullingworth hotshot. "He went for a late do-or-die lunge, and because I didn't want to risk an accident and knew I didn't need to beat him, I didn't put up too much of a fight.
"We had good pace, so I was confident we would be able to pick him off later in the race or at the very least have a good go, but then halfway round the first lap I made a small mistake, turned in a fraction too early into a left-hander and just clipped the inside retaining wall at Turn Seven. My car was slightly bent at the front after that and wasn't handling the way it had been, which made it difficult to drive.
"Mentally I had to concentrate even harder than before, to nurse the car around and not make any more mistakes, but I could still keep the guys behind me covered in terms of pace and brought it home in second for a decent haul of points. I think somebody must have been smiling down on me because I was very lucky to get away with it, in truth, but sometimes you need a little bit of luck..."
Some would argue that you make your own luck, but either way, Hawksworth's tenth podium finish from 14 starts during his remarkable stateside adventure to-date has increased his championship lead to 61 points with only 93 remaining to play for. That means he can seal the deal in the penultimate outing at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California - but in order to do that, he stresses, maintaining his razor-sharp focus will be key.
"Baltimore was one of those weekends that I'm just glad to have survived without incurring any major damage, to be honest," mused the 21-year-old British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) Rising Star and TORGOEN Swiss brand ambassador, "and to come out of it looking in such good shape championship-wise is perfect.
"Massive thanks to the Team Pelfrey guys for working tirelessly as ever to give me a fantastic car, and even though race two wasn't the win we had been aiming for, it was probably one of the most significant results we've had all year when you look at the bigger picture. It feels like we're one giant step closer to where we want to be.
"We were strong on road courses earlier in the campaign, so I'm really looking forward to Laguna Seca. It's one of the most famous circuits in the world with the legendary 'Corkscrew' and all its undulation, fast sweepers and elevation changes, and I'm pumped-up to do a really good job round there to wrap this championship up. I feel under a lot less pressure than I did going into Baltimore and I'm ready to push and attack a bit more.
"I was obviously really happy with the records we set at the weekend, but equally, they will count for nothing if we don't go on to win the championship. We're almost there now, but I can't take my eye off the ball even for a second. I want to finish the job off at Laguna - and I want to do it in style."
Race Report by Russell Atkins
Photos by Eric McCombs