French teenager Alexandre Baron scored a stunning debut victory Saturday in the Allied Building Products Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Round 11 of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
Baron, 18, from Narbonne, France (ABOVE, with car owner Tim Walsh), had tested only once before for the Afterburner Autosport team, but took to the USF2000 cars like a seasoned veteran, claiming the Minnesota-based squad’s first-ever pole position and then leading throughout an incident-packed 16-lap race to secure the team’s maiden victory.
Championship leader Scott Hargrove qualified second fastest ahead of Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Neil Alberico. Baron got a good jump at his first-ever rolling start, but when he left the door open under braking for the Mario Andretti Hairpin at Turn Two, Hargrove glimpsed an opportunity to dive to the inside and fill the gap.
Moments later, as Baron attempted to maintain his advantage, the two leaders made contact which dislodged the nosecone on Hargrove’s No. 38 Analytic Systems/Race/Energy/Metal Action/Skip Barber Racing/Bell Racing Van Diemen-Mazda. Alberico, also racing for the very first time at Laguna, managed to sneak past into second place on the exit of Turn 1, by which time Baron already had made his escape.
The Frenchman led Alberico by over 2.5 seconds at the completion of lap 1, with Wyatt Gooden, in a second Afterburner car, third ahead of Englishman Michael Epps (Belardi Auto Racing), who had made a startling getaway from eighth on the grid. Baron’s advantage was negated soon afterward due to separate incidents at Turn Three and Turn 11.
Baron again took off in the lead at the restart, this time with Alberico hot on his heels. The two leaders were never separated by more than a second, but Alberico wasn’t quite able to get close enough to make a challenge and had to settle for second place when the race finished under caution after 16 laps following another pair of incidents farther down the field.
“I want to say thanks to everyone for the warm welcome and thanks to my team for doing an incredible job,” said Baron. “I managed to keep Neil [Alberico] behind me from the start. He tried to close the gap on me but I was able to stay out front and not make any mistakes. My thoughts on tomorrow are to improve the car as nothing is ever perfect and hopefully get another win.”
Gooden finished third his first podium appearance since Round 4 at St. Petersburg in March while Garett Grist, fresh off his first victory in the most recent race at Mid-Ohio, passed Epps on lap 9 to claim fourth for Andretti Autosport.
Another newcomer, Scott Andrews, from Australia, also posted an impressive performance in finishing sixth for JDC MotorSports. Andrews had posted the fastest time in practice this morning but qualified only 10th after losing his best lap time due to causing a red flag stoppage during qualifying when he spun at Turn Four. A strong start saw him rise to seventh on the opening lap, which became sixth when Hargrove made a pit stop to replace his damaged nosecone during the first caution period.
Hargrove resumed in 20th before fighting his way back to 11th at the checkered flag. Hargrove now holds a 31-point advantage over Alberico with three races remaining.
Ryan Verra of Alliance Autosport claimed his first National Class victory following a race-long battle with fellow Canadian James Dayson (ArmsUp Motorsports).