RACER editor David Malsher sizes up the standout performers of this year's IZOD IndyCar Series.
For a fuller reasoning behind RACER's Top 10 drivers of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series, check out our guide of determining factors. But to confirm, this selection was all about form in the season just past, not an attempt to judge either raw talent or lifetime achievement. There would be major restructuring were either of those factors considered. The same applies if we were trying to take into account the driver's persona outside the cockpit, his or her eloquence in front of a TV camera, interaction with fans, number of Twitter followers, etc.
Also, we're choosing to ignore the canceled Las Vegas race, nor did we consider any drivers who missed more than three races, which is why next week we're going to have Justin Wilson contribute his Top 10.
OK, here goes…
10 – JR HILDEBRAND
Best finish: 2nd (x 1)
Best start: 4th (x 1)
Championship position: 14th
Everyone talked about how insanely tight the battle was from front to back in this year's championship, so to be thrown into it as a rookie and have no teammate – and therefore no data but your own to work with – is about as tough as it gets…Or so you'd think. Now bear in mind that Panther Racing is traditionally a) a one-car team, so has only half as much historical technical information as other teams and b) has built its reputation on excelling at ovals, and JR Hildebrand's learning curve at the start of 2011 was more like a vertical glass wall.
Hildebrand is a technically savvy and quick driver who quickly earned the respect of his team – but as a newbie, it's difficult to assert yourself within your new environment. That surely contributed to Hildebrand's struggle in the early road and street races to make progress over the course of a weekend: he knew what he wanted, but wasn't prepared to lay down the law in the manner of a veteran. Yet JR's pace at Barber and Mid-Ohio was genuinely impressive, as was his drive from the back at Toronto.
On the ovals he shone, and while everyone will remember his crash at the final corner of the Indy 500, it's important to remember he was fast all through the “Month” of May and it was his perfect balancing of pace and fuel-saving in that final stint of the race that got him into the position to oh-so-nearly win. A month later in Iowa, we saw another side to him, where he fought like an IndyCar veteran and beat Dario Franchitti – no easy feat.
Ultimately, for what he did with what he had in terms of experience, equipment and team, Hildebrand edges Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani out of the RACER Top 10.
BEST: Starting and finishing fourth at Iowa.
WORST: The last quarter lap of the Indy 500.
9 – MARCO ANDRETTI
Best finish: 1st (x 1)
Best start: 6th (x 1)
Championship position: 8th
It took five years, but Marco Andretti finally got the second win of his career, and if the first relied on a well-timed full course caution, this second one was as convincing as we saw from any driver this year. From 17th on the grid at Iowa, he showed incisiveness, aggression, bravery and tenacity to win that race – a man in his element. There were similar performances in both Texas Motor Speedway races (27th to sixth in Race 2, remaining ahead of Dario Franchitti throughout) and at Indy, although what most people remember of Andretti's Brickyard performance is that final qualifying run. In his off-the-pace car, his final four-lap run was perhaps second only to Paul Tracy's in terms of sphincter-twitching bravery.
That's not to give the impression of a ballsy hooligan – his drive in the rain at Sao Paulo was precision itself and only a poor strategy prevented a podium finish. But there are still occasional signs of hotheadedness – the bewildering accidents in the pits at Long Beach and Kentucky, and the misjudgment at Toronto that eliminated Oriol Servia and Justin Wilson.
Elsewhere, Andretti was – to use Robin Miller's description – maddeningly inconsistent. The No. 26 Venom Energy car was languishing around 20th on the grid at Toronto, Edmonton, Mid-Ohio and Baltimore, while teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified top eight for each. Yet at Barber and Motegi, Andretti was much quicker than Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway. Marco himself admits he can't drive Hunter-Reay's street course setups but never found an adapted version that suited his own style, which demands a more secure rear to the car. On natural road courses, Andretti's always been fast and his pace in both qualifying and race in Japan was down to finally understanding how to get the best from Firestone's compounds.
BEST: Winning duels against Franchitti and Kanaan on his way to victory at Iowa.
WORST: Throwing away a potential top-three finish at Kentucky with a pitlane collision.