Hawksworth 'pulls a rabbit out of the hat' with Mid-Ohio podium on challenging weekend|
After inexplicably finding himself the best part of two seconds shy of the pace, Jack Hawksworth admitted that a podium finish was a miraculous outcome to the Firestone Indy Lights Mid-Ohio 100 - but that is exactly what he delivered as a combination of good old-fashioned Yorkshire grit and an indomitable fighting spirit saw the talented young Bradford-born ace make further inroads into the championship lead.
Hawksworth travelled to Mid-Ohio as the driver in-form in the 2013 Indy Lights field, with his tail up off the back of a sublime second victory of an impressive rookie campaign in the Toronto 100 three weeks earlier. As the fiercely-contested title battle reaches fever pitch, he was confident that it was time to make his mark.
"I love Mid-Ohio," he enthused. "It's an awesome road course, with a lot of elevation change interspersed with fast corners and heavy-braking zones. I was really up for the challenge and I believed we had a great shot at carrying our momentum forward from Toronto."
That much was corroborated during practice, as the McLaren Autosport Award finalist and British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) SuperStar lapped consistently quickest in his 450bhp Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) single-seater - and by some margin. Despite affirming that 'everything felt great, and I went to bed on Friday night thinking it was going to be a really good weekend', matters were soon set to take a turn for the worse...
"From the moment the car rolled back out of the truck again on Saturday morning, we were struggling for balance and speed," Hawksworth explained. "That was both frustrating and mystifying at the same time. Having been very fast out-of-the-box, we were suddenly nowhere when it really counted. I felt I put a better lap together in qualifying than I've done all year, but it was only good enough for third place."
If he was 'just' three tenths of a second adrift of the benchmark on Saturday afternoon, however, the 22-year-old Cullingworth native - who is carrying scholarship funding from the 'Mazda Road to Indy' as well as backing from Sparco USA, Exa Networks, Core Pilates, Arai Helmets and Nicholas Jones - found himself in even greater dire straits 24 hours later, and it was only a veritable master class in defensive driving that saved him from being written out of the chase for the coveted crown.
"I got a really good start to pull nearly alongside Gabby Chaves into Turn One, but there wasn't quite enough room to make the move stick so I had to get off the throttle, allowing Peter Dempsey to snatch second," he recounted. "After that, I settled into third, but it swiftly became apparent that we had nothing for the guys in front.
"I fell into the clutches of the group behind and had Carlos Munoz all over the back of me until he made a mistake. I then spent the next 20 laps needing to place my car inch-perfectly in order to stave off Zach Veach. Carlos, meanwhile, was working his way back up the order, and after recovering to fourth, he put me under some serious pressure over the final 15 laps. It was pretty much 55 minutes of solid defending, because I knew if I made even the slightest error, it wouldn't have been just one of them sweeping past me!"
It speaks volumes for Hawksworth's flawless precision, unwavering tenacity and skill behind the wheel that he was the only driver to successfully fend off Munoz's advances as the championship leader scythed his way through the pack like the proverbial hot knife through butter.
At times, indeed, the reigning Star Mazda Champion - competing in his sophomore campaign stateside this year - had as many as four faster adversaries snapping right at his heels, and he had his dogged determination to thank for somehow holding on to pluck a result out of nowhere as he lapped routinely third-slowest on the track.
His fifth podium finish of the season enabled Hawksworth to reduce his deficit to the top of the points table from 43 to 40 with three races left to run - and hearteningly, next up at the beginning of September is Baltimore, where 12 months ago, he tallied his seventh triumph of a record-breaking Star Mazda run.
"It was a strange weekend," he concluded of Mid-Ohio. "It certainly wasn't what we had been expecting or hoping for, but as a team, we executed everything absolutely perfectly. I extracted the maximum possible out of the car in the race - it was probably my best drive of the season, I'd say, because we were miles off the pace and I was under pressure from lap three onwards. I was constantly on the defensive and having to draw upon every single trick in the book!
"It was obviously really disappointing that we didn't have the speed, but I was proud of my performance and that of all the SPM guys, who worked tremendously hard as ever throughout the weekend to try to get to the bottom of our problems. We gave it everything we had and more, and we really pulled a rabbit out of the hat to come away with third place because we were far from the third-quickest car in the race.
"We didn't take anything like as many points out of the championship leader as I had been targeting, but it could have been a heck of a lot worse and to have taken any points off him at all in the circumstances I think was fairly incredible. All things considered, to have left Mid-Ohio in better shape in the championship than when we arrived was pretty unbelievable!
"Although Baltimore wasn't where we won the Star Mazda title, it was where we effectively stuck the knife into the opposition and put ourselves in control of our own destiny. It's another of my favourite tracks - a really enjoyable street circuit, extremely technical and physical and one of the best races on the calendar with an amazing atmosphere. There will be no change in my approach - we need to be ultra-aggressive from the outset and nail the perfect qualifying and race. Ultimately, our goal is simple. We've got to go out there and win."
Report by Russell Atkins