Australian rookie Lochie Hughes romped to a conclusive victory in this afternoon’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening round of the new USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires season. Hughes, from the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, clearly took a shine to the bayfront street circuit, and under a gloriously sunny sky, swept a flag-to-flag debut victory for Jay Howard Driver Development.
Teammate Evagoras Papasavvas, from Loveland, Ohio, capped a tremendous day for former USF2000 and Indy NXT champion and NTT IndyCar SERIES driver Jay Howard by fighting his way past local driver Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing), from Gulfport, Fla., to capture second position just five laps from the finish. Johnson completed the podium in third.
Hughes, the winner of last year’s F4 United States Championship powered by Honda, set the scene for his triumphant debut by posting the fastest lap during qualifying yesterday to capture the Cooper Tires Pole Award. Johnson, the youngest driver in the field at just 14 years of age, started alongside on the front row for today’s 20-lap race with VRD Racing teammate Sam Corry, from Cornelius, S.C., and Papasavvas sharing row two.
The 21-car field made it cleanly through the tight and often tumultuous Turn 1, with Hughes maintaining his lead, but just a quarter-mile later in Turn 3, both Zack Ping (VRD Racing), from Buford, Ga., and Avery Towns (Exclusive Autosport), from Allen, Texas, separately clipped the tire barrier at the exit of the corner and retired moments later with badly damaged suspension.
After four laps behind the Pace Car, Hughes leapt away in the lead and immediately pulled out a small but appreciable gap over Johnson, Corry and Papasavvas. Next time around, Papasavvas executed the first of two impressive passes as he scythed cleanly past Corry under braking for Turn 1.
Hughes edged away gradually in the lead, finally taking the flag with a margin of victory of 2.4846s.
Behind, though, there was action aplenty. One slight slip from Johnson was all it took for the inspired Papasavvas to sneak through into second place, leaving Johnson to complete a memorable day in front of a throng of local supporters by finishing third.
The top three finished well clear of the rest, who, remarkably, were led by Simon Sikes. The native of Augusta, Ga., had started way back in 15th after making a mistake and catching the wall in qualifying. Pabst Racing worked its usual magic by undertaking major repairs, whereupon Sikes, who arrived at the event as one of the favorites for top honors, repaid the team’s faith by gradually working his way through the field.
Sikes’ final victim was Corry, whom he dispatched on lap 16. Sikes then posted the fastest lap of the race with just one circuit remaining to claim one more championship point. He also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Corry held on for fifth at the finish ahead of Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport), from Hartsdale, N.Y., Trey Burke (Future Star Racing), from Alvin, Texas, and New Zealander Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport).
Jay Howard secured the first PFC Award of the season as the winning car owner.
The green flag for the second round of the 18-race season, the Discount Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, will fly at 8:00 a.m. EST on Sunday. Sikes will start from the pole by virtue of the fact his fastest race lap was faster than all other drivers’ second fastest laps set on Friday in qualifying.