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.
Interesting take. I never regarded him as less than confident. OK, Ryan Hunter-Reay. I've been informed that RH-R scored more points post-Milwaukee than any other driver. Haven't verified that, but I'm sure IndyCar can.
JW: It wouldn't surprise me if that's true. From Iowa onward, Ryan was there collecting good points for the rest of the season. And if he could have a whole season like the second half of his year, he'd be challenging for the championship. He gets his head down and just gets on with it. I was in a similar position as him at the start of the season – nothing was going right. But he did a really nice job of turning it all around, and he's still one of the very fastest guys on street courses.
Graham Rahal, my pick for number seven, has been pretty strong, especially in the last four or five races, but basically from Mid-Ohio onward. At Loudon he was really strong, very close to Dario the whole weekend but had that wrong place-wrong time accident. He had a few like that through the year so I thought he might struggle to cope with the fact that he was so fast and kept being taken out. Maybe myself or Scott Dixon should have welcomed him to the club!
Actually, we could do a whole top 10 on that, couldn't we? Base it on the championship order, so you get 10 points each time you take out Dario, nine for taking out Will, eight for Scott, and so on, and see who's King Crasher!
Anyway, back to Graham: the speed's there, obviously, and so's the team strength, so in the new season I expect to see everything fall into place.
DM: Were you surprised to see the second Ganassi team get up to speed so quickly? It seemed it took just half a season to start threatening the Target arm of the team.
JW: No surprise at all. They've got some really good people there. Even if they'd had blank checks to get whoever they wanted, I don't think they could have done any better with their choices. It's a good group, and I think Charlie Kimball also getting stronger as the year went on shows that they'll be a force to be reckoned with. Plus they've got Dario and Scott there as teammates: which driver wouldn't want their feedback?!
That's the difference between Formula 1 and IndyCar, isn't it? In F1, you want to beat your teammate – and you do here, as well – but you also want them to be good teammates who can help you develop the car and move the whole program forward. Otherwise your team gets stale, and you can be beating your teammate in every session and every race, but all the other teams have passed you by.
DM: Glad to see you were as impressed with James Hinchcliffe as I was…but were you as surprised as I was?
JW: Hmm…well, I knew James was good, and pretty quick, but like you said, it goes to prove that the junior formulas can only tell you so much. You see drivers who rush through the lower ranks, you see flashes of brilliance and then they get into an IndyCar and you're like, “Uh…what happened?” And there are other guys who you think are very good but not the next champion, and they finally reach IndyCar and it's a case of, “Wow! Where did that speed come from?” James is more of the latter. He was in the junior formulas – Atlantics and Lights – for a lot of years, and it would have been easy to dismiss him as a guy who was never going to make it, but instead I get the impression he just used it to become a better and better driver. He just accumulated that experience, so when he finally got the chance, it paid off for him; that's what allowed him to be on it, straight off. All the experience has allowed James to tackle every scenario that comes up when he finally got the opportunity to prove himself, and he's done a great job this year. He will be a championship contender in the years to come.
DM: And it's good to see that Newman/Haas Racing still has that core of personnel that made it so great, and that James appreciates that and is soaking everything up like a sponge, listening and learning.
JW: Yeah, exactly. It's still a good group that has been through some down times and is now being able to show its potential thanks to a couple of strong drivers.
DM: OK, now you've put Tony Kanaan a little higher than I did – where he finished in the championship, in fact. My main issue with TK was that he made his job harder on Sundays by having difficult Saturdays, particularly on road courses.
JW: He did have some difficult times, but he did really well at Iowa, and Baltimore was pretty special. That's what Tony does best: battling. When things go wrong – like his brakes failing in the warm-up leading to a huge accident – he just keeps fighting. He starts last, makes the best of the situation and comes through to finish third. You never count him out: he's always there, plugging away, working hard, racing well. And yes, they sometimes get lost on a weekend, and you wonder why he's starting down in 20th, but they come back strong.
DM: And you don't see Tony make mistakes on race day, obviously ignoring Milwaukee. He races very smart, and doesn't go for over-optimistic maneuvers. Considering how many cars he had to pass at starts and restarts this year, to do that and race cleanly shows someone who's very aware of what's possible and what isn't. It made for great viewing for spectators, too!
JW: Yeah. Tony's good, basically. Even if he takes the wrong path with the car setup at the start of a weekend, you know he's never going to give up once he's shown a bunch of cars to pass! That's just part of his character and why so many fans like him. He takes every opportunity he gets, and makes the most of it.
JW: And I've got to say similar things about Oriol Servia who we've both placed fourth and who was a well-deserved fourth in the championship.
DM: Yeah, great job from him and exactly the kind of driver that Newman/Haas needed.
JW: Oriol's just strong at all types of circuit and he performed at his best all year. OK, you look at Texas and they had two bad races, but other than that, they were up there the whole season.
DM: I interviewed Craig Hampson at…ironically, I think it was Texas…and he said the team expected to suffer at the mile-and-a-half ovals because they couldn't justify investing a ton of money into working on the oval setup when the cars were 1) going to be obsolete at the end of the year, and 2) even if they invested, they weren't going to bridge the vast chasm of experience between themselves and Ganassi.
JW: Right, but Newman/Haas was basically quick everywhere else, often the fastest of everyone outside Penske and Ganassi, and sometimes quicker than some of the Penske and Ganassi guys. And I think some of the credit for that can be given to Oriol. It's great for him, because he hadn't had a consistent full-time ride over the previous two years. And also good for Newman/Haas who have been through a lot since Champ Car and IndyCar merged.
DM: Do you think Oriol is as fast as he ever was?
JW: I'd say so, yes. He hasn't lost anything and he's proven that he can get the result in qualifying and races. He missed out on a win here and there – he doesn't need reminding about that – but not through his fault. And, in the meantime, he just keeps getting the good results.
DM: He said after Long Beach that for the first time in his life, he felt he had a car that was faster than Penske and Ganassi. And when you look at what transpired that race, with Power being taken out of the running by the same Helio incident that claimed Oriol, and with Hunter-Reay losing his gearbox, you've got to say that race could have been his.
JW: I think that's true. And even on the weekends that qualifying doesn't go well for him, he doesn't get involved in accidents. He picks his way through on race day and suddenly he's a contender. Basically, Oriol spent the year doing exactly what you'd expect of a combination of him and Newman/Haas. It seems to be his natural home, and hopefully for both parties they'll be able to work together on the new car.
DM: Scott Dixon – third in the championship, third in our lists. In a class of his own at a couple of races, and right up there at almost all of the others…
JW: There are so many times in racing where your immediate thought is, “I was so unlucky there,” but as a driver you come away analyzing, “Well, was I unlucky or could I have done something more to avoid the circumstances that caused the DNF?” There were times I felt that about myself this year. But watching from the sidelines and seeing Scott's 2011 season, I've decided: there is definitely such a thing as simple racing luck, because that guy didn't have any! None at all.
There's nothing between him and Dario in terms of strength – they have a slightly different driving style, but ultimately they get the same performance. And the only difference between first and third in the championship this year was luck. That's not to take anything away from any of the top three drivers. But I think Scott had one of those seasons where if it could go wrong, it would. It's interesting watching it as a spectator, because as a driver, you're normally so self-centered and thinking about your own set of problems, you don't notice how badly someone else is suffering. But from outside the car, I can say it was pretty apparent that Scott was in situations where, you thought, “Yup, you couldn't have done anything about that one.”
DM: Yeah, it makes you wonder how he's so resilient. You never see Dixie's game drop in standard.
JW: He proves time and time again that he's got the talent to do it, and he does do it…when circumstances allow! At Mid-Ohio and Motegi, he was dominant – fast, intelligent, and determined when he went wheel to wheel. But at Long Beach and Edmonton, in particular, he was probably sitting there thinking, “What the hell just happened?” He probably lost 40 or 50 points total just from those two alone, and he finished 55 points from the championship. Unfortunately, ifs, buts and maybes don't have points attached. It's just how it goes.
But you can virtually guarantee that every year there will be a couple of races where Scott is untouchable.
DM: So, combined with Dario, Ganassi has a great lineup. If you were a team manager, you'd be wanting to choose two of the top three guys, and that's exactly what Ganassi has got.
JW: Because they know that's what it takes: two top drivers who can feed off each other and drive the team forward. And keeping the same personnel year to year is important, too. There's no point in pressing the “reset” button at the end of every season. It's a team sport, and you only build team spirit if there's job security. Keeping the same people and getting the most out of them is what it's all about. That and making sure you don't make the same mistake twice – and that's what Ganassi is king of. The first time I saw them do that was at Indy this year when they made the same mistake on Dario's and Scott's cars in qualifying, and then made similar mistakes on the two cars in the race. So at least they were consistent! But typically, Chip's team is faultless.
DM: Right. The big difference between your Top 10 and mine is the man at the top. So let's have you roll the two into one here and compare and contrast Dario Franchitti and Will Power.
JW: Well, they're both fast, they each have an edge, depending on the circuit, and there was nothing to choose between them the whole season. But I went with Dario ahead of Will, just because…at the end of the day, the results are the results and Dario came out on top. I mean I'm looking at the full printout, and you can't pick between them. Will was really strong early in the season and got his first oval win – which was pretty cool to see. I'm still not going to make a call on the Toronto incident because I like both guys, I'm good friends with both guys and I want it to stay that way!
Will made an amazing comeback after that incident to spend the rest of the championship hunting Dario down, with a couple of great wins at Infineon and Baltimore and then second in Japan and got into the lead with what we thought was just two rounds to go, but turned out to be just one. Then at Kentucky he gets t-boned in the pits and that was the defining moment.
But, at the same time, Dario did some fantastic races, too. At Loudon, he was just on fire that weekend – so dominant he even lapped Will. And the clash with Sato I'd say was six to one, half a dozen to the other, because Dario was so much better than anyone, he didn't need to be intimidating Sato or do anything like that. The two of them found themselves in the middle and we know what happened. But I haven't seen anyone that dominant in a field as good quality as this in a long time.
DM: One correction I must make to my own reading of events is that at Toronto, it was Dario's call, not the team's, to pit when he did; he was running third and saw they were approaching traffic so thought it was a smart time to stop. It turned out to be beyond smart when that yellow flew…
I still think he should have gotten punished for the Toronto and Motegi incidents, but I realize no one was getting punished for doing the same things, so…at least Race Control was consistently wrong at those races! And to be fair, Dario then really carved through the pack in Japan.
JW: Yeah, there were times when it was…hard to understand some of the decisions being made up there. But, yeah, Dario's comeback drive at Motegi was good. He always does what he needs to do. He turns it up when he's got the car under him and makes things happen.
DM: So now Dario has four IndyCar championships. Does that put him up with the legends, in your view?
JW: I think what he's doing right now puts him up there, yeah. He's good on all types of tracks, and although he made one or two mistakes this year, it's because he and Will are pushing each other so hard. The pair of them – and Scott – are finding themselves in new situations, trying to find that last tenth of a second, so it's inevitable occasionally that each of them will step over that limit.
Generally, you'd have to say Dario is doing the perfect job every weekend. He's always there, he never has a terrible weekend, and he's still hungry for it. Even now, he's pushing hard, working on the new car. And he's the benchmark we all have to aim at to become champion.