March 30, 2014 — Audio and story by Race Chaser Online open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — photo courtesy Indy Lights — ST. PETERSBURG, FL — Old versus new is the mantra for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in 2014.
Bolstered by an increased car count and an influx of fresh talent, the new was on full display on Sunday afternoon, but when the checkered flag waved Sunday in St. Petersburg, it was the familiar face of Zach Veach leading the field to the line to collect his first career Indy Lights victory.
The 19-year-old Ohio native started second on the outside of Gabby Chaves, but snuck underneath the pole-sitter in turn 1 to grab the lead on the opening lap and never looked back, eventually opening a gap of nearly five seconds over the Colombian and putting over 20 seconds of distance between himself and third place competitor Jack Harvey by the race’s conclusion.
A restart on lap 5 following the lone caution of the race on lap 1 did little to bother the Ohio native as he smoothly maneuvered his car through the passing zones while holding off a meager challenge from Chaves.
Veach led just 56 laps in his rookie season in 2013 (all at Milwaukee), but led every lap unchallenged Sunday afternoon. The year was filled with positives and negatives, but a victory in the season opener sets the tone for a new beginning for Veach and his team.
“I think last year was a real learning ground for us. We made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot, so we just put that all into preparation to pull off a perfect 2014 season,” Veach told Race Chaser Online following the event. “I think right now, we’re starting it off on the right page, we just have to continue with our momentum going forward.”
Veach’s teammate at Andretti Autosport, Matthew Brabham, started third but quickly fell one lap down after sideswiping the turn 3 wall on lap 8 and puncturing his left rear tire. The 2013 Pro Mazda champion was forced to pit but continued posting competitive times throughout the race. However, he failed to climb back onto the lead lap by the race’s end. Brabham was classified as the last car running to the checkered flag in 9th position.
Brabham inherits the Andretti Autosport ride vacated by Carlos Munoz, who graduated to the IndyCar Series after a stellar 2013 in both divisions. Veach is confident the new pair will have a working partnership that mirrors his with the Columbian last year.
“I think our relationship is a lot like mine and Carlos’ was, he just speaks a little better English! Matt is a great kid. He knows how to have a lot of fun and when to be serious, so I think he’s going to help me just as much as I’ll help him this season,” Veach said. “With a name like Brabham, he has a lot of family history that helps us out as well, so I’m just happy to be a part of that.”
Brabham brushed the wall in nearly the identical location of rookie Scott Anderson’s massive opening lap shunt. Anderson started in fifth, but slammed the outside retaining wall without scrubbing off any speed exiting turn 3, crashing in front of half the field and littering the track with debris from the left side of his demolished Fan Force United machine. Anderson walked away from the wreckage under his own power.
As Veach and Chaves separated themselves from the rest of the field, the competitors bunched up behind the lengthy third place battle between Vittorio Ghirelli and Alex Baron. Baron stalked Ghirelli for over ten laps, but appeared to lose grip on his tires with approximately fifteen circuits remaining. Baron clipped the rear end of Ghirelli at the start/finish line on lap 26, damaging his front wing and ending his day in the turn 1 runoff with twelve laps to go.
Englishman Jack Harvey impressed in his debut by picking up a third place finish. The two-time GP3 Series winner in 2013 picked off Baron on lap 23 on the inside of turn 1, then set his sights on Ghirelli, earning the final step of the podium with a brave pass in turns 11 and 12, a rare location for passing.
Other notable finishers include 2013 Marussia F1 seat candidate Luiz Razia in 5th and Mexican Juan Pablo Garcia in 7th.
The race was originally slated for 45 laps, but was shorted to 38 laps due to the 50 minute timestamp enforced to keep the day’s events running smoothing.
NBC Sports Network will air every race of the Indy Lights season, beginning with the campaign opener on tape delay Saturday afternoon at 4 PM.
Indy Lights will contest a ten round schedule as a support series on IndyCar race weekends. The season continues on the Streets of Long Beach on Saturday April 12.
Audio with race winner Zach Veach: