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Hawksworth maintains early-season Indy Lights advantage with podium at Barber

Jack Hawksworth has maintained his early-season momentum in the chase for the 2013 Firestone Indy Lights Championship crown, with a strong performance to clinch the runner-up spoils in the Legacy Indy Lights 100 at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Hawksworth had triumphed around the 2.38-mile, 17-turn road course last year en route to title glory in the fiercely-contested Star Mazda Championship - during his maiden campaign of competition the other side of the Pond. Fast forward 12 months, however, and the scheduled pre-season test there was cancelled due to incessant rain, meaning the talented young Bradford-born speed demon returned for the race meeting having never driven the circuit in his Indy Lights car before. Typically, it did not take him long to get down to business.

"I would obviously have liked to have had some prior testing there," he conceded. "That certainly would have helped as it would have given me some pre-weekend knowledge of how the Indy Lights car behaves around the track, but we had two practice sessions on Friday to get into it, so it wasn't a major issue.

"Barber Motorsports Park is awesome - a really cool road course. There's a lot of camber and elevation change and several really interesting sections around the lap with some long, sweeping corners and a tight hairpin in the middle. It's just an extremely well thought-out circuit with a lot of character and surrounded by beautiful scenery - the perfect place for a motor race!

"We stuck to our own programme in practice and prepared as best we could to make sure I was comfortable in the car and would be in the mix in both qualifying and the race. It's always difficult to accurately assess where you are in the pecking order during practice, though, as lap times are pretty irrelevant, with people working to different agendas and playing around with different set-ups."

Not only that, but unlike some of his rivals, Hawksworth elected not to bolt a fresh set of tyres onto his 450bhp Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) single-seater on Friday, so his lowly ranking on the timing screens was far from a true reflection of his potential.

Professing himself pleased with progress, the McLaren Autosport Award finalist and British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) SuperStar entered qualifying the next day in confident spirits - and was edging closer to the pole position benchmark with every lap when the red flags flew for an incident, obliging him to settle for P2 on the grid, less than a tenth of a second shy of the top spot.

"We got pretty damn close to pole!" he quipped. "It would be wrong to suggest that the red flag cost me a shot at it, though, as by that point, I don't honestly think we were going to go any quicker. Obviously I was a little disappointed to miss out by such a small margin for the second race in succession because track position is so important at Barber, but the car felt good and I was pretty happy with P2. There was still some room for improvement, but another front row start proved we had the pace, so it was a positive session overall.

"I got a good jump at the rolling start and went side-by-side with the pole-sitter Carlos Munoz all the way down to Turn One, but he had the inside line for the corner. I tucked in behind and then got another good run heading into Turn Two, but that isn't really an overtaking opportunity.

"Carlos got a little bit loose later around the opening lap, which forced me to come off the gas briefly and that allowed my team-mate Gabby Chaves to steal a run on me. I had to defend and our battle caused us to both run a touch wide, and by the end of the lap, although I had held onto second place, Carlos had been able to establish a 1.5-second lead.

"After that, we weren't quite quick enough through the early phase of the race to take the fight to him, and he could pull away by a tenth of a second or two every lap - which over the course of an hour, adds up. During the second half, our pace improved and we traded lap times a bit, but he always seemed to have me covered and was able to respond every time I increased the pressure.

"I was quite a long way ahead of third place, so I tried to keep the gap to Carlos as small as possible in the hope that his tyres would drop off or that he would make a mistake that might give me a chance - I never stopped pushing. We were just lacking that last tiny bit, and having started from pole, he was able to control the race. Maybe if we'd had another tenth of a second in qualifying, it would have been a different story..."

Taking the chequered flag a whisker over five seconds adrift of the experienced second-year Indy Lights campaigner, Hawksworth reflected that he and SPM had got the most out of the weekend possible and that the runner-up spot was still a very positive conclusion to proceedings.

Retaining a 12-point advantage in the championship standings, the 22-year-old Cullingworth native - who is carrying scholarship funding from the 'Mazda Road to Indy' in 2013 as well as backing from Sparco USA, Exa Networks, Core Pilates, Arai Helmets and Nicholas Jones - will head next to California for the legendary Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 21.

There, he will be eager to put some distance between himself and his pursuers by replicating his curtain-raising St. Petersburg victory in an iconic race that has been won by motorsport luminaries of the ilk of F1 World Champions Mario Andretti, Nelson Piquet, Alan Jones and Niki Lauda and IndyCar kings Al Unser Jnr, Alex Zanardi, Juan-Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti.

"Obviously, it would have been great to win at Barber - that's always the goal - but I was still really happy to be up there on the podium again and to have put more important points on the board," he mused. "That's vital at this stage of the season, because whilst the championship isn't usually won yet, it can certainly be lost.

"Long Beach will be completely new territory for me, but I'm really looking forward to the challenge. After Indianapolis, it's the biggest race on the Indy Lights calendar without a shadow of a doubt. The track looks fantastic, and everything I've heard about it is amazing.

"I love street circuits anyway, and everybody inside the team is working tremendously hard and I know will give me a really strong car there. It's all very exciting. There's clearly a lot of history and prestige attached to Long Beach in a motor racing sense, and some of the greatest drivers in the world have won there - both in IndyCars and F1. Maybe I'll be able to add my name to that list this year..."

Report by Russell Atkins

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