The margins were usually super tight in USF2000 this year, setting up a dramatic three-way title decider
On this week’s Formula Scout Podcast, USF2000 champion Michael d’Orlando joins to talk through a title campaign that was fought by the closest of margins against a stacked field of talent. Listen to the episode on Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or below, and read on for some of the highlights!
“I’m a firm believer that, as much as the US sometimes get the bad rep by fans, that USF2000 is really stacked, and every single year that I’ve been racing in it it’s been just extremely close competition,” says d’Orlando.
“I’m quite happy to say that I was the champ of what I believe to be one of the hardest series in the ladder of formula cars. I’m kind of ecstatic about it.”
To present an example: “There’s been a couple of qualifying sessions where I got nicked by like less than a thousandths, and I’m like ‘are you kidding me?!’.”
He’s not wrong, for the St. Petersburg season opener he was 0.1006 seconds off pole position, but qualified seventh, and was pipped to top spot by 0.0532s at Mid-Ohio.
USF2000’s pole margins in 2022
St. Petersburg 0.0084s, Barber Motorsports Park 0.1248s, Barber race two 0.0113s, Indianapolis Motor Speedway 0.0656s, Indianapolis Raceway Park 0.1350s, Road America 0.1064s, Road America race two 0.2294s, Mid-Ohio 0.0532s, Toronto 0.2460s, Toronto race two 0.0416s, Portland 0.0805s
D’Orlando had targeted a step up to USF Pro 2000 for 2022 after being last year’s USF2000 runner-up, but the budget wasn’t there. Staying in USF2000, and winning the scholarship that goes with claiming the title, seemed to be the best way of making the desire USFP2000 move possible for 2023.
He was brought around to that view by Dominic and Nicholas Cape, the owners of the Cape Motorsports that has run d’Orlando since 2020. They knew he “would learn just as much in another year of USF2000 as you would if you moved up to USFP2000″, and d’Orlando started off a “little bit bummed” by the idea of a third full campaign but realised the benefits as soon as he was back on track and had a car underneath him and a team around him capable of winning the title.
The first pole and win came in the eighth race of the season at Indianapolis Raceway Park, as d’Orlando won the Freedom 75 oval race for the second year in a row. He put the lights-to-flag success down to “qualifying and car set-up”, mastered in the pre-event test, on a short oval unlike others that appear in junior racing.
“The thing that I found with oval racing, especially in qualifying, especially on a short oval like IRP where you’re using the third lane the entire time and you only have half a lane before you hit the wall, it’s more of just overcoming the fear of ‘what happens if I push it even more’.
“And that’s what it’s been, I figured it out in 2021. You’ve just kind of have to send it. I don’t really like saying this, but you have to have serious cajones. Just for qualifying. Your warm-up lap should be a qualifying lap. Even though your tyres are cold, you have to throw the car around and make sure everything is set for those two laps. And that’s really all it is.
“And with 2021 and 2022 getting the pole, that really just puts you in a great position for the race. The only thing you have to worry about is slower cars you’re catching, and they don’t put up much of a fight either way. And the guy behind you has aerowash, and they’re using more of the tyre. So when you’re out front you really have more of an advantage because you’re kind of in control the entire race.
Laps led in 2022
1 d’Orlando 138 2 Rowe 88 3 Denmark 60 4 Jones 28 5 Alex Quinn 24 6 Nepveu 24 7 Clark 18 8 Frazer 6 =9 Weir 1 =9 Garg 1
“If you’re out front, you don’t want to run away the whole time, because you use all your tyres. So at the end it could be that last little bit where second place comes in with fresh tyres and gets you at the end. I feel like it’s more if you stay just in front of the car behind you for the entirety of the race, they destroy their tyres. And then you win. That’s kind of how it seemed to me this year. That was my strategy, at least.
“[The track] is really short, it’s hard on tyres, and not only that, it’s not a normal oval where you’ll go down to the oval for a typical outside-inside-outside racing line. You’re staying in the top lane the entire time. Very high commitment.”
D’Orlando then claimed pole for the next two races at Road America, but only converted one of those into a victory.
“Road America was a little off because in race one, I don’t remember what happened at the start, but I ended up getting shuffled back. When you’re starting on pole like Road America it gets a little hectic, especially with the long straights, and you’re looking in your mirrors the entire time. I didn’t know how to do it first race, so I ended up shuffling my way back, and Billy [Frazer], I don’t know how he spun me around, from the outside? But my head wasn’t in the right place for that race.
“But I then ended up coming back in first place in the second one, it was my maiden win at that track so it was definitely a really solid one. But Mid-Ohio was a different story with the three races there.”
At the following round, d’Orlando claimed two poles out of three in a dramatic weekend for himself and Pabst Racing duo Jace Denmark and Myles Rowe, his two title rivals.
“I had an incident with Myles in the first race where he nicked off my front wing, and I had to come in for a pitstop and go out again, and then finished second to him [in race two]. Finishing under caution, I could have had him on that last lap, but I never got it. But that’s racing. And then the [race three] win.
“That race where I got second to Myles, it’s really tough when you’re facing two team-mates, because they’re not going to fight, they’re just going to shuffle you back.”
He added: “Mid-Ohio was a really rough weekend. And normally it’s my best because I’m always really quick at Mid-Ohio. So it was a little bit of a change of events and I ended up getting the win at the end, but damn there’s been a lot of exciting races. Some of the incidents, like in race one at Road America and race one at Mid-Ohio, if I didn’t have those then I’d probably have been leading the championship going into Portland, which I wasn’t. There’s a lot of those things that I can learn from.”
D’Orlando’s Mid-Ohio form over six visits to the track includes four wins, four second places and four pole positions.
Between Mid-Ohio and the Portland title decider was Toronto, a bumpy street circuit new to the entire USF2000 field and which Pabst had a pace advantage at. Two fourth places there left d’Orlando 23 points behind leader Rowe, with Denmark just two points behind d’Orlando and outsider Jagger Jones making it two Cape drivers versus two Pabst drivers in the title race.
“[Portland] was the weekend. Going into the weekend I feel like we had a good car. But Myles, Jace and Pabst all had a leg-up on us, so they figured out something in the car that made them blisteringly quick. And we don’t know what it is.”
The Pabst duo were 0.4420s clear of top Cape driver Jones in practice, with a far slimmer margin in qualifying but with Cape still 0.2788s behind. It was a rarely seen gap for USF2000.
“Everything we did, we always had a maximum, and that maximum was never Pabst’s pace,” d’Orlando explains.
“So we get into qualifying, and I ended up qualifying ninth. This was detrimental. I get back, and I’m like ‘I don’t know where the time was, I don’t know where any of this was’. But [team-mate] Nicky Hays ended up getting fifth, so obviously it was possible with the Cape car. So I had to figure out what to do and where to get a little bit faster.
“I go into race one, I just work my way up a little bit, try to get as far up as I can. Try to be a little bit smart. It’s the last race weekend, everyone’s going to be chequers or wreckers, they’re going for the win, for every single position possible.
“So I knew there was going to be carnage, and every single race there was carnage. It’s more about being a slithery snake trying to get through all the madness that happens. Especially races one and two, that was all I had to do. Even though there was a little bit of a mishap with Nicky in turn four, I ended up getting right back to where I was anyway. It wasn’t a bad race.”
D’Orlando had got up to fifth in race one, but after his grassy encounter with Hays he had to climb back up to seventh.
“Then you had race two, where the same thing happened again except Myles went straight over the top of someone, I had no idea what happened with that. I ended up going to the outside for turn one on the start, and then I just see Myles completely in the air, and I’m like ‘alright, time to brake and not get in this!’. Then I ended up [emerging] fourth, and I just stayed their the entire race.”
Rowe’s aerial moment occurred after riding over the back of pole-sitting team-mate Denmark on the run to turn one, and they ended up finishing a lapped 16th and 18th respectively.
“Finally you get into the last race, and I went from a 23-point deficit to seven points for the lead,” continues d’Orlando. “And there’s three people within that. There’s Myles, then Jace [six] points behind, then there’s me. So this was the race, everyone knew anything can happen, any one of the top three can win after this race, any one of them.
“I started sixth place because my second fastest lap [in qualifying] was quite good and it moved me up. The same thing happened again where Jace got spun out [by Thomas Nepveu, pictured above], but Myles got caught up in that too and his front wing came off. So Jace DNF’d and Myles had to come in with the front wing.
“It went to a safety car and they got back out and Myles was blistering quick this race so all I had to do was get out front and hope he didn’t catch up the spots to nick me in the championship. And that’s kind of what we did. We went into the restart, passed Nicky into corner one, and the first place was gifted to me because Nepveu caused the whole thing [and was penalised] and I stayed out front. Even with an extra oversteery car, because I was holding on for dear life that race.
“Not only do you have to deal with the emotions that you’re going to be champion, the next thing you know you have to deal with a car that is oversteery as hell. Then you’re holding on for dear life the whole time. It was one hell of a race, and I finally got in across the chequered flag and started putting my hand in the air, and they were like ‘you’re champion! you’re champion!’.
“I didn’t believe it until I got in, I did not believe it. I’d thought Myles nicked me somehow. I don’t know to describe the emotions, but if you can just imagine your life goal, and then you just accomplished one huge milestone, that’s what it felt like. I was on the verge of tears, I was crying actually!”
A fourth win of the year earned d’Orlando the title by six points over Rowe, who took 12 laps to recover from 15th to fifth but could progress no further, with Denmark finishing five laps down in 16th and ending the season 24 points behind.
Since the season finale, d’Orlando has been talking to as many teams as possible to make sure he joins Pabst’s Denmark and Rowe on the 2023 USFP2000 grid using his scholarship. He’s also been busy with college, and did his finals last weekend. Now that’s out of the way, next up is Christmas, and top of d’Orlando’s present list is a test drive in the Tatuus IP-22.
2022 USF2000 standings
|5||Billy Frazer||Exclusive||3x 2nd||2x 3rd||1||268|
|6||Thomas Nepveu||DEForce||1x 2nd||1||0||262|
|7||Nicky Hays||Cape||2x 2nd||3x 5th||0||235|
|8||Christian Weir||Turn 3||2x 3rd||1||1||229|
|9||Bijoy Garg||DEForce||1x 2nd||3x 2nd||1||203|
|10||Spike Kohlbecker||Turn 3 w/ Ignite||3x 6th||1x 7th||0||200|