8 – TONY KANAAN
KV Racing Technology
Best finish: 2nd (x 1)
Best start: 1st (x 1) [But also 1st through lottery for second Texas race]
Championship position: 5th
A breathless start to Tony Kanaan's championship campaign – he didn't know if he'd be driving until just a few days before the season started – seemed to bring the best out of the veteran. He immediately reinvigorated KV Racing and that was desperately needed after the team's bruising 2010 campaign when its drivers appeared magnetically drawn to concrete walls or other cars. Kanaan showed there was a better way: controlled aggression. After third place in the season opener and a couple more top-eight finishes, TK lay third in the championship and over the course of the season, he'd only briefly drop outside the top five – a sharp lesson to teammates Takuma Sato and EJ Viso who often outqualified him but rarely finished ahead.
What makes this all the more impressive is that on road and street courses, he was usually doing it from far back. While Kanaan undoubtedly was a good influence on Sato's improved consistency and oval technique, so that favor was reciprocated; often the 2004 champion would get lost while trying to find setups in qualifying, and would eventually revert to Taku's on race day. KV Racing's midseason release of Kanaan's race engineer Michael Cannon certainly wasn't the answer to the problem – TK was thrashing as much in Sonoma and Motegi in late summer as he had been in Barber and Sao Paulo in spring.
In between these came the majority of the oval races, where Kanaan was one of the major stars with fourth at Indy, a fifth at Texas and a second at Iowa. Unfortunately, a major opportunity slipped from his grasp at Milwaukee when he crashed out, and while it's doubtful whether he (or anyone) could have beaten Franchitti that day, a top-three finish was definitely feasible.
Overall, though, it was a season that proved Kanaan's ride should never have been in jeopardy; he remains a fine asset to his team and the series.
BEST: Surviving a huge shunt in Baltimore's Sunday morning warm up, and coming through from the back of the field to finish third.
WORST: Dropping it at Milwaukee.
7 – RYAN HUNTER-REAY
Best finish: 1st (x 1)
Best start: 2nd (x 2)
Championship position: 7th
Eight races into the 2011 season – four ovals, four road/street courses – Ryan Hunter-Reay lay just 21st in the point standings. It was cruelly unrepresentative of the pace that had put him on the front row in both Long Beach and Sao Paulo, for example. That former circuit, we all know, is one of his strongest, and this year he demonstrated it again. He and teammate Mike Conway may have lined up second and third on the grid, but RH-R was a full half-second quicker than the eventual winner, and less than 0.1sec from Will Power. In the end, a gear selection issue put him out of the race.
You can argue that Hunter-Reay had a hand in his own lousy fortunes, too: his clash with Ryan Briscoe at Barber earned him a drive-through penalty when he looked to be heading for a top-five finish. And his first-lap crash at Milwaukee was his major blunder of the year. But he carried little blame in his failure to qualify at Indy… nor in his clumsily handled reinstatement, under the “Buy Out Bruno Junqueira's Ride” rule, previously seen in 2009.
In the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay's fortunes took a major upswing. His misjudged passing attempts on Graham Rahal at Toronto and Takuma Sato at Edmonton showed the frustration that lurks within on occasion, but karma visited Baltimore, as the No. 28 was flicked out of a podium finish by a clumsy move from Briscoe.
In between, Hunter-Reay's slick run to third at Mid-Ohio was followed by a win at Loudon, and both results were well earned, whatever one might say about Race Control's attempts at a final restart in the latter event.
BEST: His performance throughout the Long Beach weekend
WORST: Anonymous weekend at Sonoma – or that Milwaukee crash.
6 – JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
Best finish: 4th (x 3)
Best start: 3rd (x 1)
Championship position: 12th
Every now and again, a rookie comes along who immediately looks comfortable in his new environment; James Hinchcliffe is one such. In the junior ranks, he was very good, but there would always be someone who'd beat him to the championship. Yet from the first time he tested an IndyCar, “Hinch” looked like he belonged. His humility and eagerness to learn made him the perfect candidate for a ride with a quality team like Newman/Haas Racing, especially when paired with a quick and technically adept veteran like Oriol Servia. In short, James could have had no better schooling in the “big cars,” and he took full advantage of it; he deserved that Rookie of the Year title, especially considering he missed the opening race of the season as the finances were sorted between the team and investor Sprott.
Hinchcliffe qualified eighth on his race debut in Barber while at Long Beach he finished fourth. If it seemed like things were coming almost too easy, the accident at Indy and the team's struggles at Texas Motor Speedway were a bit of a reality check. But nothing seemed to dent his confidence. Second-row starts at Loudon and Kentucky were converted into fourth-place finishes and some of his passes at Milwaukee looked edgy, but he made them work.
Of the nine road/street courses they both drove on the calendar (since Hinch missed St. Petersburg), Hinch outqualified Servia at four of them, which says a heck of a lot about his basic pace – as did his third-row starts at Sonoma and Motegi. And his composure and pace while leading (admittedly, through strategy) at Mid-Ohio brought him to the attention of those who never look beyond the series' biggest names for their stories.
Occasionally, Hinchcliffe's practice times flattered to deceive come qualifying – for example, at Toronto and Baltimore – and that may be down to he or the car being particularly sensitive to balance changes caused by switching from harder compound black tires to the softer-compound red wall tires. Whatever, it's hard to call it a fault; more likely, it's an experience issue.
Looking back over the season as a whole, he could hardly have done more to impress.
BEST: Qualifying fifth at Motegi.
WORST: Throwing away a potential top-four finish at Mid-Ohio.