2 – Dario Franchitti
Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x3)
Best start: 1st (x2)
Championship position: 1st
And so Dario has won three championships in his last three attempts at the IZOD IndyCar Series and, as a triple title holder, it means his name is etched in the history books along with Louis Meyer, Ted Horn, Earl Cooper and Al Unser. It's a remarkable achievement yet one that Franchitti, an avid fan of the history of the sport, appears keen to play down.
This was a curious championship campaign for the Scot in that, the Indianapolis 500 apart, there wasn't a race where he dominated, or even looked superior to his rivals. A large part of this was because the Penskes were often faster. By my (admittedly undefinitive) reckoning, Penske had the best cars seven times, Ganassi four times, and they were roughly equal in the other six. In that context, the fact that Franchitti led more laps than anyone has to be regarded as a major plus point. And who knows what might have happened at Iowa had his car's gearbox not failed? He was fighting Kanaan and Castroneves for the win and that highly unusual mechanical failure perhaps cost him 38 points that day.
But there can be no question that the Target No. 10 team played a huge role in two of Dario's three wins this year. In Chicago, he was running ninth when the pack came into the pits under a full-course caution, and engineer Chris Simmons made the decision to boost him up the order by giving him a fuel-only stop. That still might not have been enough to win him the race had Power's crew gotten all the fuel necessary into Penske No. 12.
Two races earlier, Franchitti's crew had gotten him ahead of Power at the first pit stops and Mid-Ohio is notoriously difficult to pass. Dario was faultless under pressure to the checker, but it's reasonable to assume that Will would also have been had he remained ahead. Yet again, though, there had been no errors in the No. 10 camp.
The Indy 500 couldn't have been more different: there, Franchitti simply drove around the outside of the Penskes on the opening lap, didn't miss his marks in the pits, saved fuel when he needed to and won the race. And, apart from the end result, that was typical of Dario's year; he usually did everything right and nothing wrong.
Sure, at St. Petersburg, he crashed in qualifying and then spun to the back of the field at the start of the race, but his efforts in the closing laps, when he picked off car after car to grab fifth almost made up for that. (Made for great viewing as well, by the way). Two races later, at Long Beach, he – or the No. 10 car – was bizarrely off-cam, and he started and finished 12th. But, overall, you'd have to say it was his multiple top-five finishes that earned Franchitti his third IndyCar crown, in contrast to last year where he won more races than anyone else.
There's no shame in being Captain Consistent: Al Unser's 1983 and '85 Indy car titles were won in similar fashion, and no one criticized him for it. Why? Because it's a sharp reminder that motorsport is a team sport, and a large role in a team's performance is down to the driver doing his duty both in and out of the cockpit. The irony is that Unser's '83 and '85 titles were won with Penske. Two and a half decades later, those same tactics defeated Roger's squad. Yet now, as then, the best team won.
Franchitti, you have to conclude, is as strong as ever. I made the mistake of wondering whether his foray into NASCAR in 2008 would have blunted his open-wheel racing skills, and at his very first race back in an IndyCar – the non-championship event in Surfers Paradise at the end of that year – he embarrassed me by qualifying fourth. Since then, none of his achievements have surprised me. Like most IndyCar fans, I've learned that we underestimate Dario at our peril.
The interesting part now is what the Scot might summon up next year. Given we're the same age, I'm especially keen to say that Dario has several years of operating at this level ahead of him. Yes, as Kanaan has observed, the IndyCar talent pool may have finally returned to the depth it was in the late '90s, but you can be sure that Franchitti has too much pride to ever allow himself to sink below the surface. So for as long as he says he wants to continue, the rest of us – and his rivals in particular – better beware. IndyCar title No. 4 may be coming soon.
BEST: Either the Indy 500, which he controlled from lap 2 to 200, or his second place at Motegi, which Dario himself rates as one of his top five performances in an Indy car.
WORST: Being an also-ran at Long Beach where he won a year earlier.
1 – Will Power
Best finish: 1st (x5)
Best start: 1st (x8)
Championship position: 2nd
How come Franchitti scored his third championship rather than Power his first? The difference was that the Ganassi No. 10 combo consistently racked up good scores on the days when the car wasn't the best, while the Penske No. 12 band didn't take enough advantage of the days when the fastest driver was equipped with the fastest car.
To say the title loss was down to Power's error in the season finale in Homestead is highly misleading. Yes, he hit the wall, but he did it while driving out of his skin in a Penske that was no match for the Ganassi cars that night. Some say Power should have learned by now that no driver can carry a car on an oval, but what choice did he have? Franchitti had the points for pole, for most laps led, and he was still leading! The title was destined for the Ganassi driver already; Power had to keep on keeping on.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear the Homestead race was a championship decider only in terms of pre-race publicity speak; the title was lost in previous events. Power's oval learning curve was steep – how could it not be when he was being compared to proven masters like Franchitti, Dixon, Briscoe and Castroneves? – but it's a travesty that he finished only ninth in the A.J. Foyt Oval Racing Trophy points. At Indy, Power qualified second and the Verizon car was so fast in the middle stint that Will asked Dave Faustino, his engineer, whether his push to pass was jammed on. Ironically, the opposite was true – it wasn't working for the first half of the race, which was a limitation as he fought back from his crew's pit stop blunder and subsequent black flag. Otherwise, he'd likely have finished at least second to Franchitti.
At Texas, Power's only opposition in terms of pace was Briscoe, but Will had to make an unscheduled pit stop for repairs after his car ate part of Simona de Silvestro's broken suspension following her crash. A compensatory switch to different tactics by strategist Clive Howell would have worked with three more laps of yellow. As it was, a late splash 'n dash consigned him to 14th. At Iowa, Power took pole and led the first 35 laps. When he felt the car go tail-happy as the rear tires lost grip, he kept his head, kept the car off the wall and eventually finished fifth. At Chicago, he was at the front with Franchitti and Wheldon, with more push-to-pass boosts than either, when he learned he hadn't received enough fuel at what should have been his final pit stop. More splash-'n-dashed hopes. That left him 16th.
After leading 83 laps at Kentucky, Power lost a couple of positions during a slightly tardy pit stop, spent too many laps trying to achieve an unattainable fuel mileage and then lost more positions when a backmarker sent him up within an inch of the wall. At Twin Ring Motegi, a track he'd never seen before, Power played himself in cautiously, qualifying third – the only time this year where he started behind both teammates – and on race day, he dropped initially to sixth, learning about grip levels and dirty air at this egg-shaped track. Given the superlative performance of his revised pit crew that day, he might have gotten into fourth at the first pit stop, made further progress at the next stop, and so on. But a phantom yellow was called by his spotter when Alex Lloyd's car ground to a halt, and Penske No. 12 was promptly passed by four cars before the full-course caution actually emerged. A combination of improved confidence and faultless and fast crew eventually saw him finish third.
Power's only sub-par performance was Kansas: The first oval race of the year was also his first for nine months and frankly it showed. He missed his pit box marks, compounding the fact that on track he was way too cautious. Like Franchitti at Long Beach, he trailed in a desultory 12th.
Homestead apart, Power's only true error of note was his crash in practice at Mid-Ohio – and he prevented any long-term consequences from that by taking pole! That qualifying superiority was something we grew used to seeing the Verizon No. 12 car on road and street circuits: Power was consistently a step ahead of his title rivals – and sometimes his margin of superiority over his teammates in qualifying was embarrassing. On race days, too, Power was unbeaten by either Castroneves or Briscoe, with the exception of Barber, where Cindric's pit stop strategy for Helio meshed perfectly with the full-course caution periods, and Howell's for Will did not.
Edmonton we've already discussed at length, and finishing second rather than first at Mid-Ohio race was a result of Ganassi's No. 10 crew being faster than Penske's No. 12 crew. But it all came right for Power at Infineon. A scruffy pole lap – his eighth pole of the season – was followed by his most sublime race day performance yet. Not only did he control it from the front, he did it while nursing his red tires better than any of his rivals. After Franchitti passed Castroneves for second place on lap 18 there were 10 laps before the first round of pit stops. Following a fairly natural pattern of tire degradation, Will's lap times went from low 1min20secs to high 1m21s over this 10-lap period, yet his lead over Dario went from three seconds to 15! All but Power had seen their grip levels fall off a cliff face. That laid the foundation for victory on the anniversary of his back-breaking shunt at the same circuit.
It's subjective, but while I'd say Franchitti is still a better oval driver than Power, when you take the whole season into consideration, Will's margin of superiority on road and street courses in 2010 was greater. Even more subjectively, I choose to analyze a driver's season and give him or her marks out of 10 for each race. By my reckoning, Power would get a 9 or 10 at a dozen of the 17 events, Franchitti at six. The combination of Power and Penske truly raised the bar in 2010. That's what makes him number one in this ranking.
BEST: Driving like a master at Infineon.
WORST: Driving like a granny at Kansas.