5 – GRAHAM RAHAL
Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 2nd (x 2)
Best start: 2nd (x 2)
Championship position: 9th
Year on year, you can watch Graham Rahal up his game. It comes with maturity, it comes with experience, but it originates with his work ethic – to always make the most of his talent and thus broaden its scope. This year's steps forward? 1) A major reduction in errors, big and small. 2) Proving his ability to carve through the pack. 3) Establishing himself as a potential frontrunner on any type of circuit.
The first of these is a clear case of like father, like son. (Was there a champion in IndyCar history who made fewer mistakes than Bobby Rahal?) In a Ganassi car, one that benefited from the information passed down from the Target branch of the team, Graham was able to fine-tune a basically competitive car, and so he stopped over-driving. Watch him on a qualifying lap on a road course these days, and you'd never guess he was laying down a hot run…until the timing monitor proves it. Plus, someone who's all arms and elbows could never have turned in the performance he did on race day at Sao Paulo this year, given the soaking track and the very hard compound tires. Two or three years ago, he'd probably have binned it; the 2011-era Rahal brought it home second, beating a Penske and another Ganassi driver in the process.
At Indy, it wasn't just the number of eye-catching passes that deserved everyone's praise, but also his ability to think things through and therefore time his maneuvers that earned him that third-place finish. (A similarly adroit performance at Milwaukee three weeks later resulted in a second place.) Rahal has always been fast around the Speedway, but on his fourth trip it seemed everything clicked. It should surprise nobody if he's drinking the milk next May.
As for the ability to be a threat on all types of circuits, that became glaringly apparent at the end of the year. In the final three races, Rahal qualified second, third and second, on a street course, road course, and an oval, respectively. The fact that this coincided with a period where his strategist appeared to have been drinking anti-freeze and his most senior teammate had a touch of the jitters is Graham's great misfortune. In those three races alone, around 110 points were lost and those would have comfortably left him fourth in the championship…
BEST: Beating all his teammates and two Penskes to the front row at Baltimore.
WORST: Anonymous weekend at Long Beach.
4 – ORIOL SERVIA
Best finish: 2nd (x 2)
Best start: 2nd (x 1)
Championship position: 4th
Best of the ex-Champ Car transition drivers in the 2008 IndyCar season, part-timer in '09, without a ride in 2010…and fourth in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011. Life is unpredictable when you're Oriol Servia, that's for sure. The fact that his career has shown little logical pattern over the past half-decade is nothing to do with him, rather everything to do with strange decisions made by people with more vested interests than brain cells.
The fact is, Oriol Servia's combination of pace, technical smarts and consistency would be an asset to any team, and such was the case when he returned to what he and others always considered his natural home – Newman/Haas Racing. Early in the season, he spoke of his bewilderment that, despite focusing on trying to get race wins, his ability to rack up top-five finishes was proving his strongest asset. There should have been more at Long Beach (he's convinced he could have won that race, in fact), Toronto and Indy, where Servia was the only driver consistently able to threaten the Ganassi pairing who dominated the event.
Then throw in the fact that he guided Newman/Haas Racing and proved the perfect mentor for James Hinchcliffe, and here was a guy who thoroughly deserved to have his best year since 2005, both in terms of final result and respect earned. What it also proved is that, while he remains this good, Servia should never be left without a ride in IndyCar.
BEST: Those four flying laps at Indy that earned him a front row start.
WORST: Uncharacteristically failing to find even a mediocre setup at Edmonton.
3 – SCOTT DIXON
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x 2)
Best start: 1st (x 2)
Championship position: 3rd
Maybe one day we'll believe the old lie that “you make your own luck,” but that day's a long way off if you're Scott Dixon. As his strategist and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing manager Mike Hull remarked, “We've had everything except been hit by a meteorite this year.” Even as Dixon trampled the opposition underfoot at Mid-Ohio, you kept waiting for a giant boot to descend from the sky, Monty Python-like, and squish the No. 9 car before the checkered flag fell.
Who else but Dixon could have his race ruined by Helio Castroneves errors twice in three races? Who else but Dixon could have his team fail to give him enough fuel for the 21 remaining laps of the Indy 500 when he appeared headed for victory? Who else but Dixon would get hit in pit lane at Milwaukee by Sato? Who else but Dixon would be in the way when EJ Viso suffered brain fade on a restart at Edmonton? And who else but Dixon would have gotten both rear tires punctured by two different cars when he stopped in the traffic jam at Baltimore's hairpin?
This was the year that the 2003 and '08 champ proved equal to Franchitti, although each has his strengths. Dixon's weekend-long dominance at the natural road courses of Mid-Ohio and Motegi was matched by Dario's peerless pace at the short ovals of Milwaukee and Loudon. Of the 16 races where pace decided the grid slots (so, excluding the second Texas race), each of the Target boys prevailed eight times. In the 10 road/street races, Dixon was ahead of Franchitti in qualifying 6-4.
This is not to say that Scott was faultless. Spinning out in the wet of Sao Paulo, qualifying only 23rd at Iowa, and crashing out in practice at Baltimore all hampered his efforts to be kingpin in Chip's top team. And, as we said last year, when your most precise measuring stick is a driver of Franchitti's quality, you can't afford to make mistakes or fail to take advantage of every opportunity. But whereas in 2010, the 55-point gap between Dixon and his teammate was down to Franchitti having an edge on track a few more times than vice versa, an identical gap existed in 2011 largely because of Scott's appalling luck.
BEST: Mid-Ohio – he was unmatchable.
WORST: That 30mph race-ending spin into the wall in Brazil.