NA-F2000: Pre-season first test notes 2006-03-09

Californian Teenager J.R. Hildebrand Sets Torrid Pace in First Pre-Season Test Braselton, Ga. (March 9, 2006) -- The first round of the 2006 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Championship is still more than two months away, but a dozen drivers took...

Californian Teenager J.R. Hildebrand Sets Torrid Pace in First Pre-Season Test

Braselton, Ga. (March 9, 2006) -- The first round of the 2006 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Championship is still more than two months away, but a dozen drivers took advantage of the opportunity to get a jumpstart on their campaign by testing for the past two days at the fast and challenging Road Atlanta circuit.

J.R. Hildebrand, 18, from Sausalito, Calif., set a stunning pace for the Cape Motorsports team, posting the fastest time in every single session and ending up with a best lap of 1m23.506s -- more than a half-second faster than the pole position lap set by runaway series champion Jay Howard in the opening race of the 2005 season.

"I couldn't be happier," said Hildebrand, who finished a close second in last year's Pacific F2000 Championship and went on to win a prestigious Team USA Scholarship, which gave him the opportunity to contest the Formula Palmer Audi Autumn Trophy series in England. "The car felt great and I got along really well with my engineer, Dominic (Cape). The most satisfying thing is that not only were we fast, but we were very consistent, and I was always able to back up my quick laps. It gives me a great feeling going into the season."

Cape Motorsports teammates Charlie Donnelly, 21, from Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland, and Dane Cameron, 17, from Sonoma, Calif., also dipped below last year's pole time, while Englishman Neil Doran, 22, from Chelmsford, Essex, England, created a good first impression aboard a JDC Motorsports Van Diemen.

Donnelly, the reigning British Formula Ford Zetec Champion, overcame a severe sinus infection on the second day of the test to post the second-fastest time: "The grip, the amount of downforce, was the biggest thing to get used to, compared to the Formula Ford I drove last year, but I'm really starting to feel comfortable in the car and getting familiar with the team. There's going to be some stiff competition this year -- it's certainly not going to be a walk in the park -- but come the first race we're definitely going to be racing at the front."

"We had a few mechanical problems with the car on the first day but we made good progress and are getting faster and faster," added Cameron, who will be flying the colors of Finlay Motorsports, Red Line Oil and the Jim Russell Racing School after winning last year's SCCA Formula Russell Championship in California. "It seems like my driving style is a little bit different to the other guys [on the team], but [engineer] Dominic's been really helpful."

Englishman Doran was forced to sit out the 2005 season, due to budgetary problems, but is looking forward to building on the solid background he developed while finishing a strong second in the 2004 British Formula Ford Championship Scholarship division.

"I'm concentrating on the U.S. and it's looking very promising," reported Doran, who posted the fourth fastest time. "We had a really good couple of days. The cars are pretty awesome with the slick tires and wings; they're really good fun to drive."

Noah Bystrom, from Eden Prairie, Minn., ended up just a tick of the watch slower than Doran in a second JDC Van Diemen, while talented Venezuelan Ricardo Vassmer turned some very competitive times for the Comprent Motorsports team. Vassmer was a clear winner of the 2005 Cooper Gold Cup Series, for older, Pinto-engined cars, and is expected to be a front-runner when the new season starts at Road Atlanta in May.

Andy Knight, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was another youngster to make good progress during the two-day test. Knight, 19, who has been a front-runner in Formula Ford and the Toyota Racing Series in his homeland the last few years, took a little time to get used to the conventional gearshift pattern of his G.FRO Van Diemen, but by Day Two at Road Atlanta was consistently among the top-five on the time sheets.

"I definitely wasn't as quick as I would have liked to be," said the Kiwi, "but it was my first time in the car and at this track, so it wasn't too bad. It's quite a bit different from the Toyota Series car. It hasn't got as much power and it's much less stiffly sprung. I'm still getting used to it."

The only major incident of the test came this morning, when 16-year-old Philip Metzger lost control of his G.FRO Van Diemen and crashed in Turn Six. The left side of the car was extensively damaged but the Colorado youngster emerged unscathed.

"Overall it's been a great couple of days," summarized series president Jon Baytos. "The boys set some amazing times. It's a stellar group. I've been coming to this place since 1974, and usually the lap times don't start coming down until a lot of rubber has been laid, so I'm shocked.

"What's even better is that usually when we have a test this far before the first race, we only have four or five cars turn up. This time we had a dozen, and there are a lot more talented young drivers still trying to put deals together, so I think we're in for a terrific year."

The Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Championship is sanctioned by the Grand American Road Racing Association and represents one of the first rungs on the professional open-wheel auto racing ladder in North America. It features modern, purpose-built, single-seat race cars powered by either four-cylinder, double-overhead cam, fuel-injected 2.0-liter Ford Zetec engines, which produce around 160 hp, or the older, slightly less powerful, carbureted 2.0-liter Ford "Pinto" engines which will be vying for Cooper Gold Cup honors. All cars employ "slick" (treadless) Cooper Zeon racing tires and are capable of speeds in excess of 140 mph.

Formula Ford 2000 originated in England in 1974. Alumni include Formula 1 World Champions Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill; Champ Car World Series title-winners Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy; Indy Racing League Champion Sam Hornish Jr.; and the past two Indianapolis 500 winners Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon.

The 2006 championship will kick off with a pair of races at Road Atlanta as part of the Formula D Drift extravaganza on May 11-13. Of the remaining six race weekends, each of which will comprise two 30-minute races, four will be held in conjunction with the Champ Car World Series (at Portland, Cleveland, Toronto and Road America) and two will support the American Le Mans Series (Mid-Ohio and Mosport).

<pre> Best times for each driver (Hometown; Team Chassis):

1.  J.R. Hildebrand, Sausalito, Calif.          Cape Motorsports Van Diemen             1:23.506
2.  Charlie Donnelly, Naas, Ireland             Cape Motorsports Van Diemen             1:23.902
3.  Dane Cameron, Sonoma, Calif.                Cape Motorsports Van Diemen             1:23.903
4.  Neil Doran, Chelmsford, England             JDC Motorsports Van Diemen              1:24.853
5.  Noah Bystrom, Eden Prairie, Minn.           JDC Motorsports Van Diemen              1:24.937
6.  Ricardo Vassmer, Caracas, Venezuela         Comprent Van Diemen                     1:24.977
7.  Andy Knight, Christchurch, New Zealand      G.FRO Van Diemen                        1:25.126
8.  Chris Meredith, Potomac, Md.                Cape Motorsports Van Diemen             1:25.235
9.  Gerald Kraut, North Oaks, Minn.             JDC Motorsports Van Diemen              1:25.642
10. Philip Metzger, Littleton, Colo.            G.FRO Van Diemen                        1:25.815
11. Olivier Comeau, Sherbrooke, Canada          Britain West Motorsports Van Diemen     1:26.335
12. Ira Fierberg, Manhattan Beach, Calif.       Dave Freitas Racing/JDC Van Diemen      1:26.396

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Series Other open wheel
Drivers Jimmy Vasser , Paul Tracy , Dan Wheldon , Chris Meredith , Ayrton Senna , Damon Hill , Buddy Rice , Charlie Donnelly , Ira Fierberg , Olivier Comeau , Jay Howard , Dane Cameron , J.R. Hildebrand , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Toyota Racing