Hawksworth shines on oval test debut - and professes himself ready for 'the big one'|
You would have been hard-pressed to tell that Jack Hawksworth had never driven on an oval before to see him in action in the Star Mazda Championship group test at Lucas Oil Raceway - and after lapping an outstanding second-quickest on his first visit to the track, the talented young Bradford-born speed demon is brimful of confidence for his prospects come race day.
The first of two consecutive oval outings in swift succession, Lucas Oil Raceway will stage the celebrated 'Night Before the 500' on 26 May, round five on the 2012 Star Mazda calendar and inarguably the series' blue riband event, coming just 24 hours as it will ahead of the legendary Indianapolis 500.
Having already ably demonstrated his prowess on street circuits and road courses by coming out of the starting-blocks flying with a brace of victories and two second places at St. Petersburg and Barber to assume an early championship lead, Jack knew that competing on an oval would be a different kettle of fish entirely, with the defining characteristic a non-stop sequence of banked, flat-out turns and no straight stretches worthy of the name. Happily, the test would be a case of ever-decreasing lap times rather than ever-decreasing circles...
"It's a pretty cool place, really old-school and with plenty of character," reveals the on-form Star Mazda rookie, a newcomer to the American scene this year and incredibly with only one prior campaign of car racing under his belt. "I expected it to be different - and it certainly was!
"Oval driving is a different ballgame altogether - one that requires a different way of working. Set-up is a major element, so working closely with your engineers is key. On road courses, the driver makes up a bigger part of the DNA. On ovals, it's more of an engineering exercise. It requires a different kind of mental approach.
"You don't get much of a breather around the lap, that's for sure! You have a little lift off the throttle on the entry to the corners, and then you need to get back on the power again pretty sharpish. You're always on the edge, so it's all about knowing what your car is capable of and driving to that limit but not beyond. You have to be extremely disciplined and consistent; if you drift even slightly off-line, you'll be in the wall.
"If you try to extract an extra tenth out of the car that it isn't willing to give, it puts you out of your groove, and if you go in just a little too deep, you're in big trouble. It can all get out-of-hand extremely quickly, especially if your car is not handling quite perfectly. Then, you're really playing with fire. That's the real challenge of ovals, I feel - making sure you're completely on top of the car.
"It took me a few sessions to feel confident and get properly up-to-speed. There are still more adjustments we can make and we still have more to learn - but the more laps we do around there, the better we're going to get. There's definitely more to come."
Given that he lapped a close second-fastest amongst the 16 drivers in attendance at the wheel of his 260bhp, Team Pelfrey-run single-seater - a scant six hundredths of a second shy of the benchmark - that conviction is encouraging indeed...not to mention rather unnerving for Jack's rivals. Be that as it may, he is well aware that safely and successfully navigating 100 laps in the race will be no mean feat.
"It's the constant repetition of corner followed by corner followed by corner that will make it tough and such a stern mental test," acknowledges the 21-year-old Cullingworth hotshot and British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) Rising Star, "but I'm very happy with the work we did with the team to establish a good set-up during the test; we made really good progress and learned an awful lot.
"I would be surprised if we're not up there in the mix by the time the race comes round. Our lap times compared to the other drivers looked pretty strong all day, to be honest, and it will be interesting to see if we can turn it up a little bit further when we get to the race weekend."
Despite the prestigious nature of the event, though, and his palpable excitement about it, Jack is remaining laudably level-headed, stressing that at 29 points clear in the title standings, he does not need to take unnecessary risks, and maturely refusing to put any extra pressure on himself for the occasion.
"This is the big one," concedes the TORGOEN Swiss brand ambassador and former national and international karting star, "but it still carries the same number of points as all the other races, so it would be daft to get carried away and put everything on the line.
"My approach will be the same as it has been all year, which is to try to get the best out of what we've got. If there's an opportunity to win, then we'll go for the win, but if a podium is all that looks to be within reach, that's what we'll focus on. The most important thing will be to get to the finish and score some decent points."
Report by Russell Atkins
Photos by Eric McCombs