ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – More than four years after winning two races in the 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Anglo-Frenchman Alexandre “Alex” Baron marked his return with the new Swan-RJB Motorsports team by scoring an impressive victory from the pole in this afternoon’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products.
Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport) and fellow countryman Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) finished second and third to perfectly illustrate the wide-open nature of this year’s USF2000 title-chase by ensuring that six different drivers and teams were represented on the podium during the first weekend of what promises to be a thrilling season. Up for grabs is a Mazda Scholarship valued at $325,000 to assist the series champion in graduating to the next step on the Mazda Road to Indy – the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – in 2019.
The 25-car field made a fine sight as the green flag waved under picture-perfect conditions on the famed St. Petersburg street circuit which wends its way close to downtown and along the harbor front, and also includes one of the main runways on the Alfred Whitted Municipal Airport.
Baron, 23, who lives in Narbonne, France, and holds dual British and French citizenship, made full use of his pole position to lead from Fraga, who started alongside him on the front row. Kohl, who is coached by former F1 and IndyCar racer Roberto Moreno and is beginning his third season of USF2000 competition, slotted into third ahead of British Formula 4 champion Jamie Caroline (BN Racing) and yesterday’s winner Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports), from Jupiter, Fla.
Baron, Kaylen Frederick (Pabst Racing), from Potomac, Md., who ran sixth in the early stages, Kohl and Caroline traded fastest race laps during the opening handful of laps before Baron asserted himself as Fraga was forced to focus on intense pressure from behind.
First to challenge him was Kohl, who dived for the inside under braking for Turn One on Lap Four, only to run in too deep and relinquish two places – to Fraga and a close-following Caroline. Five laps later, Caroline tried an identical maneuver – with a similar result as Fraga was able to regain his second position. The only difference was that Caroline was able to maintain third, as Kohl had fallen into the clutches of Kirkwood.
As Baron romped clear, Fraga and Caroline continued to squabble over second place, with Kohl resolutely holding onto fourth despite continued efforts from Kirkwood.
After a brief caution period on Lap 20, when a strong run by Pabst Racing’s Swedish rookie, Rasmus Lindh (who climbed from 14th on the grid to sixth), ended in the wall at Turn 13, Baron timed his restart to perfection and took the checkered flag well clear of Fraga. The race actually finished under caution after Mexican Manuel Cabrera (Exclusive Autosport) found the wall in Turn Eight.
Behind, Kohl sneaked past Caroline at the restart for third ahead of Kirkwood, yesterday’s runnerup finisher Jose Sierra (DEForce Racing), from Mexico City, and Greenfield, Ind., native Zach Holden, who made up a couple of places at the final restart. Calvin Ming (Pabst Racing), from Guyana, Frederick and Kory Enders (DE Force Racing) completed the top 10.
Kirkwood’s fifth-place finish ensured he will leave his native Florida with the points lead, 48-41, over Sierra, while Mexican-owned DEForce Racing holds a two-point edge over St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports in the Team Championship. The series will reconvene at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10-12.
Alex Baron (#19 Swan-RJB Motorsports): “This is great. I haven’t had a victory in such a long time so to come back and be in victory lane is something special. It was great, starting on pole and being able to pull out a gap. I didn’t overreact on the restarts and kept focused. The team did a great job prepping the car in such a short amount of time. Only two weeks ago, I had no idea what I would be doing this season! We only got a couple of test days so to get in the car and pull this off is an achievement for everyone.”
Igor Fraga (#91 Cenibra/Usiminas – Exclusive Autosport): “I am happy to get a podium but honestly, I wish I could do better. But with all the mistakes I know I am going to learn from them and improve. I will have more experience in the next races and I can’t wait. This weekend was quite hard for me, because I was doing a running start for the first time. I did a better start today than I did yesterday and I was able to improve my position as well as defend from the guys behind. The team did an amazing job with the setup of the car and I want to say thank you to them and to everyone who has supported me.”
Lucas Kohl (#22 Bellko Trading/Kohltrade/IVI Vision – Pabst Racing): “When you have a really fast car you can just get by people, and I didn’t have that today. The Pabst team did an amazing job putting me where I was but it was so tricky out there. I had to take every opportunity to move forward, but I really had to defend as well. It was great to be able to get to P3. We had a bad day as a team yesterday so for me to put the team back where we should be every weekend is an awesome feeling. It’s not too early to start counting points – you have to take all you can get starting at the beginning.”