Hawksworth sets sights on Lights and beyond
15 January 2013
British driver Jack Hawksworth took a big risk with his motor sports career when he decided to move to the US in 2012 at the age of 21, to try his hand in US open wheel racing in the Star Mazda Championship - the first step on the 'Road to Indy' ladder to future stardom.
To say that the decision to move to the States proved a massive success is an understatement. The former Formula Renault UK driver smashed all expectations in his rookie season in America, setting new Star Mazda Championship records for the most wins, poles and fastest laps (eight, ten and ten respectively over the course of the 16 completed rounds of the year with Team Pelfrey) on his way to clinching the 2012 title.
"Yeah, it was really good decision," Hawksworth told Crash.net at the weekend while attending the Autosport International show in Birmingham. "I made the decision at the start of last year that we were going to try a something a little bit different and were going to go over to the States.
"I thought I had a good opportunity out there. A lot of things came together and it ended up being a really good year, and now because of that I've got another really good opportunity to go racing out there next year and potentially keep climbing the Road to Indy ladder system," he added.
Crucially the championship comes complete with a $600,000 scholarship to put towards a seat in the 2013 Firestone Indy Lights Series, and it had been this incentivising aspect of the US open wheel racing system that made all the difference to Hawksworth when trying to determine the best way to further his motor racing career.
"It was actually the sensible thing to do," he explained of the decision to move to America 12 months ago. "Racing in Europe at the moment is difficult to climb the European ladder system. There's not really any scholarships or prizes for winning championships or anything.
"You're really relying on somebody to step in and take you to the next level whilst in America there is that kind of certainty that if you do win the championship there is going to be the scholarship funding from Mazda to take you up to the next step," he continued. "So it made a lot of sense to go out there, purely because of the fantastic support of Mazda, and stuff like that."
The scholarship money that he won in 2012 has now helped secure him a seat with the top team in the Firestone Indy Lights series, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which was previously behind Tristan Vautier's championship-winning campaign last year.
"I'm really pleased to have Jack join SSM in 2013," team owner Sam Schmidt said when the signing was announced in December. "I watched his progress very closely this year in Star Mazda. He did a fantastic job, especially since he had not raced in the US before and everything was unfamiliar.
"If the performances of drivers like Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly are any indication, Jack Hawksworth will be a Firestone Indy Lights championship contender in 2013," Schmidt added, referring to previous graduates of the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship.
When Hawksworth arrived in the US 12 months ago, he had been a total unknown and there were few expectations on him, especially compared with the likes of three-season veteran Connor De Phillippi and sophomore driver Sage Karam who had been fully expected to fight it out between themselves for the title. Instead, Hawksworth's stranglehold over the season caught the eye of many in the US - even the then-IndyCar CEO, Randy Bernard.
“The goal of the Mazda Road to Indy is to find the future stars of INDYCAR, and Jack Hawksworth is definitely a future star of our sport,” Bernard told SPEED.com in September. "As a rookie to racing in America, he conquered a very talented class of Star Mazda drivers and won the 2012 series title in dominating fashion."
There was agreement, too, from John Doonan, Mazda's director of motorsports: "Like many of the previous Mazda Road to Indy graduates who are now in the IZOD IndyCar Series, I have a feeling you will be hearing the name Hawksworth for many years to come."
No longer an unknown in the States, then; but that means Hawksworth comes into Indy Lights carrying some pretty sky-high expectations of what he can achieve in 2013 from all concerned - not least from himself.
"It would be great if we could have a similar season to this season," he told Crash.net. "Obviously, it was fantastic. All I know is that I'm going to go out there and prepare as well if not better than last year, and try to learn from some of the mistakes made last year.
"Even though it was such a great year there's always things that you look back on and think you could have improved on, so what with all the experience from last year and with the same level of commitment then hopefully we can do just as well," added Hawksworth, who hails from Bradford in West Yorkshire and who started racing karts when he was just 13 years old.
"I've driven the [Lights] car already and it's a lot of fun, really good fun car," he continued. "I know a lot of the circuits so in some respects it should be less of a challenge in that everything won't be as new as it was last season. But then obviously the heavier car, more horsepower - it's quite a big step up in performance so there will be a lot to learn. But I don't think it will be a gigantic leap or anything."
Even though the forthcoming Indy Lights season is the biggest thing on Hawksworth's radar right now, that doesn't stop him looking ahead to the next rung on the ladder: racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series itself, and of course the prospect of driving in the greatest spectacle in motorsport - the Indianapolis 500. He's inspired by knowing he's following on the heels of some inspirational British success in the championship in recent years.
"There's been a lot of successful British IndyCar drivers: Dan Wheldon won the IndyCar series once [in 2005], I think he won two 500s [2005, 2011] and of course Dario [Franchitti] has been a really big player over there in the last four or five years," he pointed out. "He's won a lot of championships and a lot of races, so we've had a lot of success over there as a nation. It'd be great to join those guys and have the same sort of success as those guys have had."
British drivers have increasingly become one of the largest contingents in IndyCar of late, and Hawksworth said that the way that the American series had embraced British and overseas drivers was something he particularly admired and was grateful for.
"I think Americans like the British, and they also want to compete against the Europeans," he said. "The IndyCar Series isn't just an American series, it's truly an international series and they want the best drivers from all over the world.
"I feel like any British driver or any aspiring European driver would be welcomed over there because [IndyCar drivers] are of the theory that they want to test themselves against not just the best Americans but also the best Europeans," he added. "So now I feel very welcomed over there."
Hawksworth will embark on his Firestone Indy Lights campaign on the streets of St Petersburg on March 24, the same day that the IZOD IndyCar Series itself will hold its 2013 season opener at the same venue.