Sunny skies returned to central Florida on Friday and fortune shown on Raphael Matos, who lead wire-to-wire to claim victory in the opening round of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear today at Sebring International Raceway as part of the 53rd Annual 12 Hours of Sebring activities. Joining Matos on the podium for the first of twelve rounds were Matt Jaskol and Graham Rahal.
Matos, of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, started on the pole position for today's 20-lap event based on his best practice times of the weekend after qualifying was washed out by Thursday's heavy storms, but proved that he belonged out front, pulling away to a five second victory over the Las Vegas, NV, native Jaskol. "I have to give all the credit to the team this weekend," Matos said afterwards. "Mylon Stockton and Rick Cameron and the rest of the Ocean Tomo Racing crew worked really hard this offseason to put this program together and to finish in front of a field this deep is a great way to start the season. I also hope this will help me as I work to find the budget to complete the entire season."
Jaskol, driving the #70 Hearn Motorsports Mazda used by Matos last season, set the fast lap of the race at 2:00.768 and hopes this podium finish will put his sponsorship hunt into overdrive. "Richie Hearn took a chance this weekend to put a kid with no money into the car, hoping for the results, but knowing if something happened I probably couldn't pay him back so it feels great to give a podium to him to start the season," Jaskol commented. "On one hand I'm happy to have finsihed so high in a field so deep but on the other hand I know we had a fast car and as the race progressed we could match Matos speed. I was hoping for a caution, talking to myself as the laps wound down to keep pushing a little deeper each lap but we couldn't close the gap he had built up earlier."
Also pleased with his podium finish was Graham Rahal in the Bobby Rahal Automovie Group sponsored Andersen Walko prepared Mazda. Looking at a two year program of development in the series, the 16 year old son of former IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal didn't expect to find himself on the podium this soon. "Looking at the field last season I didn't think a podium would be possible this year, but after preseason testing with Andersen Walko Racing and the early practice sessions this week I was fast and I knew I could run up front," Rahal said. "We have four great drivers under our tent and we all work really well together so I think we'll have a great season."
Carving his way through the field to a fourth place finish was former series champion, and winner of the 2004 season finale, Luis Schiavo. Starting twelfth after battling problems in the practice sessions, Schiavo found his rythym early in the event, jumping up to eighth after two laps and then meticulously working his way up to fourth in the HASA Pool Products/UltraLub/Energy Freight Mazda. "We started the weekend well on the first day of testing but had some problems on wednesday when the starting positions were determined," Schiavo explained. "I knew I'd have a great car in the race thanks to my engineer Remy and when the green flag fell I just started moving forward."
Rounding out the top five was another series rookie, James Hinchcliffe, in NOCO/Mobil1 Mazda prepared by new series entrants AIM Autosport. Making his first appearance in the series, as well as his first appearance to Sebring International Raceway, the Oakville, Ontario, Canada native was pleased to come away with a top five finish. "Being new to the series and not having raced against many of these drivers I might have been a bit too cautious at the start, but in the end we finished the weekend with a lot of points," Hinchcliffe said. "With qualifying for our event with the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal being based on points it is important to bring the car home as high as possible each weekend and the AIM autosport crew did a great job all weekend."
Today's event will be broadcast on Speed Channel on Sunday, April 24th at 11:00 AM Eastern Standard Time. Round Two of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear will be held at Road Atlanta on April 15-17 for the Grand Prix of Atlanta.