Last week, we published the RACER Top 10 IZOD IndyCar Series drivers of 2011 but wanted the counterpoint of Justin Wilson, one of the best drivers in the series but one who was ineligible for inclusion due to missing too many races. Putting the four-time champion Dario Franchitti at the top was the most significant difference in JWil's list, but what's also noteworthy was how similar the lists were, even beyond the top 10…. David Malsher asked Justin Wilson to explain himself.
Justin's Top 10
1. Dario Franchitti
2. Will Power
3. Scott Dixon
4. Oriol Servia
5. Tony Kanaan
6. James Hinchcliffe
7. Graham Rahal
8. Ryan Hunter-Reay
9. Marco Andretti
10. JR Hildebrand
Justin Wilson: First I better add a disclaimer that I'm going to p*** off some friends. But like you said, it's just an opinion. And it was a bad year for you to give me this job. Two guys who took two poles each didn't finish in the top 10 in the championship, the guy who finished fourth only took a couple of podiums, two Penskes didn't make it to Victory Lane but Sarah Fisher Racing did with Ed Carpenter. So a mixed up season, mainly because it's so competitive but also the double-file restarts. It's not dull. If we've had poor TV ratings, it's not because of the racing, that's for sure. And it's not because of the nationalities of the drivers, either: almost all the American drivers did well at times this year, and the four who make your top 10 made mine, too.
So I took loads of notes, and then arranged them in order, and then again…and again. Lots of scribbling out, lots of arrows rearranging them.
David Malsher: Well, I'm glad you found it as difficult as I did. My two nearest misses were Ryan Briscoe in 11th and Alex Tagliani in 12th.
JW: Yeah, and it was hard to leave out Ryan because he did finish sixth in the championship. He just wasn't on the same form that we've seen in past years. He clearly has the talent – he stuck it on the front row a couple of times – and he looked good in practice sessions, but then it didn't come together in qualifying. And despite the yellow flags, qualifying still defines where you're going to race on the road and street courses most of the time. So he didn't get the results that I'm sure he was expecting of himself.
DM: Yeah, occasionally Roger Penske puts Briscoe on a slightly alternate strategy, which sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. At Edmonton this year it didn't: He needed that late splash 'n' dash, when he should probably have finished third.
JW: I think we all expected Ryan to be more prominent more often than he was. And the same is true for Tag. He got pole at Indy and Texas, and had some strong showings, but there were also races where you didn't notice he was there. He finished 15th in the championship despite missing Kentucky, so he'd probably have finished 12th, which is exactly where I ranked him. I realize it's tough for a single-car team, so I appreciate that he does have the odd flash of brilliance. It's finding that consistency that's so hard in IndyCar for anyone: I know I found it hard, because of how tightly packed the field is.
But I think for a single-car team, it was JR Hildebrand who was the standout guy as a rookie and that's why he's 10th. He did a nice, solid job throughout the year, with no one to help him except Buddy Rice at Indy and Kentucky. Everyone will remember the final turn at Indy, but…JR still finished second in the biggest race in the world as a rookie! OK, with only two wheels pointing the right way, but it's still a massive achievement; think how many people have raced there 10 times and not finished inside the top 10. He also had some strong showings at Iowa and also at Kentucky until that half-spin in the pits. Yeah; for a rookie in a one-car team, he never looked out of his depth. That's why he's in my Top 10.
DM: OK, you've put Marco Andretti ninth, same as us. As well as the Iowa win, there were some other flashes of his natural talent really being used.
JW: Yeah, Marco is Marco – very interesting driver – and there were definite signs of improvement this year. To me, he's starting to realize he's got what it takes. I've always felt that he has the pace, but he somehow wasn't sure of himself and would make some strange decisions. And there's still a little bit of that, but I now see him getting better and better. The more he relaxes, the more he'll be a complete driver, he'll stop trying to force issues and he'll be making fewer bad decisions and more of the good ones that we saw this year.
DM: And that was a very intelligent drive he put in at Motegi, where he wasn't over driving the tires too early in the stint and there he was with more grip than most of his rivals when the final restart came.
JW: I agree. He just needs to be relaxed both in and out of the cockpit, and to be told: “Look, it's all here for the taking if you can only realize it!” I respect his talent, I really do. Last year at Mid-Ohio, I ran wheel to wheel with him for half a lap, at a track which is hardly wide enough for one car and at each corner I'm thinking, “Oh, this is a bad idea. Why have I even put myself in this position?” And each time, Marco made the right judgment call on how much road he was going to use, how much I was going to need – it was just good clean racing. And I came away thinking, “Wow, he's made some bad decisions in the past but he knows how to make good ones. He just needs to realize he does.” In my opinion, everything's there, it's just a bit jumbled up, and only the driver himself can un-jumble it. I think that's what we're now seeing Marco do.