James Hinchcliffe and Tristan Vautier are the latest examples of how the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system can get a driver to the top rung of open-wheel racing.
Hinchcliffe drove to his first-ever IZOD IndyCar Series victory in spectacular fashion in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the same race in which Vautier made an impressive series debut despite mechanical issues near the end. He rebounded at Barber Motorsports Park with a 10th place finish in just his second race in the series, qualifying third.
As the IZOD IndyCar Series heads to California for next weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, there is another outstanding chance for a Mazda Road to Indy graduate to show what he can do in the ‘big leagues.’
Hinchcliffe began his racing career in the TKC Junior Rotax Class Karting championship with seven wins in seven starts in 2002, and that earned him a trip to the Bridgestone Racing Academy F2000 Series where he had five wins, four poles and 11 podium finishes in 2003. After a year in Formula BMW, Hinchcliffe moved up to Pro Mazda in 2005 with three wins, three poles and six podiums.
From 2006 to 2008 he competed in Formula Atlantic before moving over to the INDYCAR Ladder in 2009 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Firestone Indy Lights. That season he finished fifth in the standings with five podium finishes including a second-place at Mid-Ohio. He joined Team Moore Racing in 2010 and scored three wins – Long Beach, Edmonton and Chicagoland with a series-best four pole positions.
By 2011, Hinchcliffe had made it up the ladder into IZOD IndyCar where he finished 12th in the series for Newman/Haas Racing. He joined Andretti Autosport in 2012 finishing eighth in the standings. By winning the first race of 2013 Hinchcliffe is the IZOD IndyCar Series points leader heading into Alabama.
“Like Tristan, I ran Pro Mazda and then Indy Lights, and if you look back from 2008, '09, '10, 11' and now '12, at least one Lights driver has graduated from the ladder system to a full time IZOD IndyCar Series ride, and other guys have gotten part time deals,” Hinchcliffe said.
“It trains drivers well. Tristan has proven that. Like I said, five years in a row, somebody has graduated to a full time IndyCar. There is no other series that can boast something like that. It's nuts.”
Vautier is a newcomer from Corenc, France, who is the first driver to win Mazda Road to Indy scholarships in consecutive seasons. He moved up to the final step of the ladder for the same team that he took to last year’s Firestone Indy Lights championship – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
After a successful racing career in France, Vautier moved to the United States in 2010 and began racing in the Pro Mazda Championship. He finished fifth in the series for Andersen Racing with two wins including the season opener at Sebring.
In 2011 he won the Pro Mazda Championship for JDC Motorsports with four wins, six podiums and four poles in 11 starts, finishing in the top five in every start.
Last year he won the Firestone Indy Lights championship with four wins, 10 top-five and 11 top-10 finishes and four poles in 11 starts.
He is the latest driver to advance into the IZOD IndyCar Series from the Mazda Road to Indy and encourages more drivers from around the world to consider climbing the ladder.
“I think, yes, you can see drivers graduating and the chances of the drivers coming from the American riders,” Vautier said. “But I think more drivers should definitely try it because, especially for drivers who have less financial support, the scholarships can really make it happen.
“I would not be here today without that ladder system. So I think it works and more people should try it.”