JR Hildebrand / (294, 11th)
Oriol Servia / (287, 13th)
Best start: 4th (Hildebrand, Fontana) / Best finish: 4th (Servia, twice)
Avg. Start: Hildebrand 15.2, Servia 18.3
Points Per Race: Hildebrand 19.6, Servia 19.1
Laps Led: Hildebrand 60
It was a bit of a weird year for two single-car teams, strongholds of the all-oval Indy Racing League era, which joined forces at Indianapolis at the same time one team got rid of its Lotus engine and got a new lease on life. JR Hildebrand and Oriol Servia seemed a perfect match as basically teammates, and while the results weren't spectacular, it seemed an improved year for both Panther and Dreyer & Reinbold as a whole.
Given their abilities, and given the fact 16 different drivers graced a podium this year, it was strange neither Hildebrand nor Servia were among them. They had a combined six top-five finishes. Servia had one of the year's oddest statistics in that all four of his top-fives came on ABC-televised races (Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Toronto) but only cracked the top-10 once on the NBC Sports Network (seventh at Baltimore).
Hildebrand never had one eye-popping race, like Indianapolis a year ago, but a stellar drive from 20th to fifth at Long Beach raised some eyebrows, and he had a solid stint of finishes the last six races of the year when he finished between seventh and 12th in five of them. Servia's efforts at Barber and Brazil in the Lotus were incredible in the year's early races; all too frequently, though, he had a myriad of mechanical issues.
Both drivers struggled in qualifying. Combined, there was only one Firestone Fast Six appearance (Hildebrand's fifth at Barber) and five total top-10 starts. That left them playing catch-up and needing to try off-sequence strategies to make up ground in the races. In a year with as much quality competition throughout the field as this one, the team's road and street course setup and qualifying pace needs to improve for 2013 if they want to take the next leap.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING (Honda)
Takuma Sato / (281, 14th)
Michel Jourdain Jr. / (16, 32nd)
Best start: 3rd (Edmonton) / Best finish: 2nd (Edmonton)
Avg. Start: 17.2
Points Per Race: 18.7
Laps Led: 76
If this year's season was three laps shorter – at Long Beach, Indianapolis and Fontana – Takuma Sato may have cracked the top-10 in points. But 42 points lost from those three races, all from last-lap crashes, were in part responsible for his ultimate 14th place in the standings in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's full-time return to the championship.
Sato spent most of his Sundays needing to overcome what was, frankly, a series of disappointing qualifying efforts. He started in the top 10 only three times all year, one of which was at Long Beach where the Chevrolet teams all needed engine changes and promoted the Honda runners to a near top-10 lockout. He also had five races with grid penalties, and that didn't help his cause. Fittingly, his best and most consistent run of the season came when he qualified well – third at Edmonton – then backed it up by pushing Helio Castroneves all day before settling for second at the flag. A third from 25th at Brazil was also among the year's best drives.
Despite his good qualities – he's one of the nicest drivers on the grid, genuinely exciting to watch, and he has the speed more frequently than he doesn't – he still ended against the barriers way too frequently. Mechanical issues sabotaged him at four races but he ended in the wall in a series-high six races. His Indianapolis crash – brave and bold as his attempt was on Dario Franchitti – also set the team back for the oval stretch of races as planned tests at Milwaukee and Iowa were scrapped because the car was.
It was especially disappointing to see the crash regression after he dropped from nine accidents in 2010 to just three a year ago. He finished only five of 15 races this year. Bobby Rahal is a smart individual, and his blogs throughout the year on RACER.com have illustrated what Sato needs to do, still, at the end of his third year – find consistency to match his flashes of brilliance.
DALE COYNE RACING (Honda)
Justin Wilson / (278, 15th)
James Jakes / (232, 22nd)
Best start: 3rd (Wilson, twice) / Wins: One (Wilson, Texas)
Avg. Start: Wilson 14.1, Jakes 18.6
Points Per Race: Wilson 18.5, Jakes 15.5
Laps Led: Wilson 26, Jakes 11
Since 2009, the team after Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport that has won the most races is…drumroll, please…Dale Coyne Racing. Yes, everyone's favorite perennial underdog has two wins while three others have one. Both are thanks to Justin Wilson, back with DCR after a year-and-a-half sojourn with Dreyer & Reinbold that didn't include any wins.
Although there was a later technical infraction found on his sidepod ramps, Wilson's win at Texas was among the year's most dramatic moments. It was a race that required patience over stints to keep the tires from degrading too rapidly, and where reduced downforce fully put the drivers back in control – perhaps it was fitting, then, that one of the renowned top drivers in the series got a win.
Unfortunately that was really the only highlight of the year for Wilson and team, reunited with Coyne and engineer Bill Pappas. Results went begging at Long Beach (fuel strategy gone awry), Milwaukee (engine failure), Toronto (contact), and Mid-Ohio (an early spin, recovery but further bad stops). Wilson had five other top-10 finishes but they were all seventh or worse.
Series sophomore James Jakes definitely made strides from his rookie year, but was largely anonymous for a second year running. He did at least crack the top-10 on a couple occasions, and had a very good run to improve from 24th to 12th at Sonoma.