RACER editor David Malsher sizes up the standout performers of this year's IZOD IndyCar Series.
This isn't all about results; if it were, then I could have taken the coward's route of arranging this top 10 as per the championship standings. Nor is it about what I perceive to be the driver's level of raw talent: if that were the case, there would be some major reshuffling and I'd also feel able to consider a part-timer like Graham Rahal for inclusion.
No, this is simply about drivers' 2010 performances as a whole, over 17 rounds of the IZOD IndyCar Series, taking into consideration what the drivers did with the equipment they were given. Despite that caveat – or perhaps, because of it – I expect many will disagree.
10 – Marco Andretti
Best finish: 3rd (x2)
Best start: 3rd
Championship position: 8th
As readers of his blogs here on RACER.com will know, Marco isn't about to give himself or his team any prizes for 2010. However, he can take heart from some of his improved performances on road courses, and he remains astoundingly brave on the ovals. He still occasionally loses the plot (Sonoma) and his oval race setups sometimes flatter to deceive, in that they work for one stint but then fade (Kansas and Iowa, for examples). But over the course of the season, the Venom Energy driver was Andretti Autosport's top qualifier seven times – more than any of his teammates.
BEST: Opening laps at St. Pete, where in damp conditions in the early laps, he went from sixth into the lead.
WORST: His slide from the lead back to 15th at Iowa.
9 – Alex Tagliani
FAZZT Race Team
Best finish: 4th
Best start: 2nd
Championship position: 13th
Lots of drivers will tell you a one-car team is a struggle and that they like to have their viewpoints corroborated or countered by a teammate, but Alex has proven he's fine either way. The responsibility of carrying the whole Bower & Wilkins-sponsored team's hopes – a start-up team, remember – didn't faze him at all, and being surrounded by people he hugely respects brought him as close to serenity as he's ever likely to get. If FAZZT's best race performances and best fortunes had come on the same weekends as their best qualifying performances, there would have been a fistful of podiums for Tag this year, and he'd have been well inside the top 10 in the championship standings rather than 13th, which given the strength of the IZOD IndyCar Series field, is amazing.
BEST: Out-qualifying a Ganassi car to qualify fifth for the Indy 500, or qualifying fourth at Sonoma, a circuit Alex had never raced or even tested on.
WORST: Overambitious passing attempt at Long Beach that ended his race.
8 – Tony Kanaan
Best finish: 1st
Best start: 2nd
Championship position: 6th
In some ways, this was a better season for Tony than 2009 – he at least got a win and, in Ryan Hunter-Reay, he found a teammate with whom to share ideas and setups. Both said many times that they were as one when it came to setting up the car. That being so, Hunter-Reay's arrival also highlighted that Kanaan needs to up his game in qualifying. Sometimes – as at Edmonton, Mid-Ohio and Kentucky – it would be a major mistake that left him near the back and it made you wonder if he was putting himself under too much pressure rather than letting it all flow. Other times Tony was simply outperformed, and for a man who stuck his car on the front row at St. Petersburg, that seemed strange. Whenever he missed the setup on an oval, however, the 7-Eleven car's charges from nowhere into contention often became the focal point of a race. It's safe to say Kanaan's fighting instincts remain intact.
BEST: It's tempting to say his Iowa win from 15th on the grid, but his similar charge to third behind the dominant Ganassi cars at Kansas was no less impressive.
WORST: Crashing on his out-lap in qualifying at Edmonton.
7 – Ryan Briscoe
Best finish: 1st
Best start: 1st (x3)
Championship position: 5th
It was a tough year for Ryan, one in which his confidence took more than a few knocks. Failing to make the Firestone Fast Six at five of the nine road and street courses on the calendar wouldn't have been so bad had teammate Power not been usually taking pole. Then there were race day errors, too – major ones in the case of Sao Paulo and Indianapolis. Ryan is as brave as they get on ovals, as his fights with Dario Franchitti at Motegi and Homestead proved, and his victory at Texas was well deserved. But for a driver considered one of the fastest in the series on any type of course, there were too many days when he struggled to match Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, let alone Power. Personally, I have a (hardly original) theory that mistakes led to Ryan losing confidence in certain circumstances, and bringing home a safe points haul became his priority. Whatever the reason, he will expect more of himself next year.
BEST: Pole and victory at Texas.
WORST: Crashing while leading in Brazil.
6 – Ryan Hunter-Reay
Best finish: 1st
Best start: 2nd
Championship position: 7th
Back in the February issue of RACER magazine, I wrote that no one had seen the best of Ryan Hunter-Reay yet because since his rookie season in Champ Car partnering Jimmy Vasser, he'd never found himself the happy combination of both a consistent environment and being partners with a strong teammate. It had been impossible for any of us fans and media to put him into context, and Ryan himself was desperate to prove to others what he already knew of his own abilities. So forgive me for feeling smug that Michael Andretti's choice of Ryan has been thoroughly vindicated. On the road and street courses, RH-R's IZOD No. 37 car was the one you expected to see leading the Andretti Autosport attack, and his victory at Long Beach, under pressure from Justin Wilson and Will Power, was no more than he deserved. If the team sorts out its consistency issues, Ryan can win them more races in 2011. And now, everyone knows that.
BEST: The Long Beach weekend as a whole: out-qualified everyone but Power, outraced everyone, period.
WORST: Crashing in qualifying at Kentucky.
5 – Justin Wilson
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Best finish: 2nd (x2)
Best start: 1st
Championship position: 11th
If this top 10 was based on raw talent alone, Justin would be higher. But it's not and thus things like his dropped catch at Toronto and his as yet unproven skills on ovals drag him down to No. 5. In terms of the ovals, there's no doubt he's improving – the Chicago and Kentucky races are evidence of that. So, too, is his excellent performance at Indy, where he led and finished seventh. But elsewhere there were struggles and whether the fault lay with the team or the driver depends on which side you ask. Perhaps both parties overestimated how far up the learning curve Justin is, or perhaps one or other underperformed. As of October 2010, there's no definitive answer…at least, on the record.
On road and street courses, of course, Wilson has little to learn. The stunning pole that he carved at Toronto was followed up by a perfect race drive…up until that final restart. Both he and the team were mortified by his tiny misjudgment of grip level that led to the Z-line Designs car falling down the field but Justin was apologetic, and his crew stoically sucked it up. And so the runner-up finishes achieved in St. Petersburg and Long Beach would remain the No. 22 machine's best results of the year. Frustrating, yes, but as one of his rivals pointed out, “When Wilson finishes a race, you know that car couldn't have been driven any quicker.”
BEST: Keeping the pressure on Power and beating the other two Penskes at St. Petersburg.
WORST: It's obvious isn't it? Spinning away a potential victory at Toronto.
4 – Scott Dixon
Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x3)
Best start: 2nd (x3)
Championship position: 3rd
For the second year in succession, Scott was beaten to the championship by his teammate Dario Franchitti. Given that TCGR has been his home for nine years, that must hurt, even if Dixon admits that being partnered with the Scot has made him a better driver.
However, it wasn't the walkover that some assumed. Sure, when the Target No. 9 team missed on setup, particularly on ovals, they missed by a larger margin than their in-house rivals: Dixon looked like an also-ran at Chicago and Motegi, for example. But the main hindrance to his title quest were incidents – atypical mistakes at St. Petersburg, and 50/50 clashes with Castroneves at Watkins Glen and Hunter-Reay at Toronto. On the nine road and street courses, the Ganassi drivers were as evenly matched as possible in qualifying (5-4 to Franchitti), but Dixon didn't always capitalize on that like he did at Long Beach, Barber and Edmonton. When you're being directly compared to a driver of Franchitti's quality, every opportunity must be grabbed especially when his crew is the most consistently fast and reliable in pit lane.
It wasn't a terrible year: Scott's wins at Kansas and Homestead were strong, and he remains one of the top five drivers in the series. At the age of 30 there are several more wins in him. But avoiding 2010-type troubles will be easier in the future if he can nail a setup early on in a weekend in order to qualify higher – ahead of the potential trouble spots. Should he achieve this, there should also be more IZOD IndyCar Series titles in him – whoever his teammate is.
BEST: The final race of the year: when he was cut free of wing man duties for Franchitti at Homestead, there was no other likely winner.
WORST: Race day errors at St. Pete.
3 - Helio Castroneves
Best finish: 1st (x3)
Best start: 1st (x2)
Championship position: 4th
In my opinion, Helio appeared to push himself harder this year than at any time since the 2000-'01 period, his first two seasons at Penske. From being roughly equal with Briscoe in pace over the previous two seasons, Castroneves stepped it up this year to try and match Will Power and frequently cast Ryan into the role of third Penske driver on road and street courses.
OK, so Castroneves was out-qualified by teammate Power at every road and street course venue, but the scary commitment he showed in Edmonton qualifying to get within a tenth of Will was remarkable. At the age of 36, with a comfortable lifestyle and a beautiful family, he could be forgiven for stroking it. The fact that this performance came right after his spooky accident at Toronto made it all the more commendable.
On the other hand…that Toronto clash with Vitor Meira was the result of a misjudgment by Helio and, at the risk of aggravating both Castroneves and Tim Cindric, I'd say his choice to drive down the right-hand side of the pit straight to hold off Power at Edmonton's final restart was an error, too. Yes, the IndyCar Series' rule regarding blocking, particularly on a circuit as wide as Edmonton's runways, is unnecessary. For a driver to hold the inside line – i.e.,not the racing line – in order to make his pursuer go the long way around seems entirely reasonable to me. And as Cindric suggests, forbidding this also makes the leader a sitting duck on every restart!
However, this rule does exist, and if Helio didn't like it, he should have raised an objection in the pre-race drivers meeting, not on lap 92 of 95. He took a risk and got bitten by it, regardless of whether others pulled the same stunt earlier in the race. For those who still think that Castroneves was hard done by at Edmonton, note this: he only had the lead because Power had strictly adhered to this no-blocking rule on lap 78. Power was balked by the lapped car of Tomas Scheckter, so Helio caught up with him and drafted him up the pit straight. No. 12 took the conventional line, and car No. 3 easily slipped down the inside and into the lead. Thus when positions were reversed, Power hung on and hung on behind Castroneves expecting the same treatment until eventually Will felt compelled to try a late move around the outside instead. The result was that Penske handed a win to Ganassi. Sorry to belabor the point, but it got overlooked in the anti-Brian Barnhart tsunami that swept the Internet in the aftermath.
Helio would be the first to admit that the Kentucky win – and his Barber Motorsports Park victory – owed much to Cindric's brave tactics, but his Motegi triumph was as dominant a performance as anyone turned in this year. So as a racing fan, first and foremost, I'm relieved Power didn't get past Franchitti. Had he done so, dominant race leader Castroneves might have been ordered to back off and let Power win. That would have been unpleasant for all involved: Helio deserved the win, Will would have hated his first oval victory to have been a gift, and spectators would have felt cheated because there would have been no subtle way of manufacturing that result, such was the No. 3 car's lead.
Castroneves' problem in mounting a championship challenge continues to be his inconsistency. There are too many weekends when he becomes anonymous and/or makes little mistakes with big consequences.
BEST: Motegi. The event couldn't have had a more deserving pole-sitter or winner.
WORST: That Toronto misjudgment, or slipping back in the pack at Texas, making himself vulnerable to backmarkers.
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.