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.
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.
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.
2 – DARIO FRANCHITTI
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x 4)
Best start: 1st (x 2)
Championship position: 1st
It's hard to believe that, once upon a time, Dario Franchitti wasn't comfortable as an oval racer. For the past couple seasons, the left-turn only tracks have formed the foundation of his championship challenge.
This year, there were seven oval races, and the reigning champion racked up finishes of 12th, 1st, 7th, 1st, 5th, DNF, and 2nd, respectively. Of the ones he didn't win, the positions could have been vastly improved at most, but he needed a yellow at Indy to make his final-stint fuel load last 36 laps and it didn't fall that way, forcing him to pit with one lap to go. In the second Texas race, he climbed from 28th to seventh. And at Loudon he was involved in one of the more bizarre accidents of the year, on a lap 119 restart. It looked 50-50 in that he came down on Takuma Sato on the straight, but in Dario's defense, Sato was probably in his blind spot because he was almost a car length ahead. Whatever, it was an unfortunate outcome, as was his drawing of grid slot 28 in the lottery for the second Texas race.
However, putting “unfortunate” into a sentence that involves Franchitti's race form is a rare occurrence. He's very good at staying out of trouble, yes, but he's also extraordinarily lucky in comparison with his main rivals. At Long Beach, Dario was running seventh until Castroneves gift-wrapped a podium finish for him by taking Power, Servia, Dixon and himself out of the equation. In Brazil, the No. 10 spun gently into the tires, and though it took an age for him to get going again, it coincided with Alex Tagliani's spin elsewhere on the track, causing a full course caution. Franchitti had ample time to pit in the caution period and lost just four places!
And as for Toronto…Well, where do you start? The No. 10 team's pit stop strategy meshed perfectly with Castroneves causing a full course caution and thus vaulted Franchitti ahead of Power and Dixon. When Will repassed him, Dario's retaliation went very wrong – or very right, depending on your perspective. More shocking than the champion's blunder, though, which saw Power spun back to 18th, was that he went unpunished for it. (Was there a “Gone. Back in 2 hours” sign on Race Control's door that day?). Nor did Dario receive a penalty from the stewards for a similar error at Motegi that took Rahal, Kimball and Briscoe out of the running for third place (although at least in that instance Franchitti appeared to be trying to back out of the maneuver).
Some would say that Franchitti's role as IndyCar's Teflon Don is further endorsed by the lack of censure for clipping Power's tires as he entered his pit box at Milwaukee. However, from our perspective, that was a pretty minor infraction and anything other than a Franchitti win that weekend would have been a joke. Equally, there was nothing anyone could do about the No. 10 car at Loudon until his clash with Sato. In the season opener, at St. Petersburg, he beat polesitter Power to the win, albeit with his rival suffering a damaged car. At Kentucky, an amazing first pit stop vaulted Franchitti into the lead, and he was just 0.0098sec shy of beating Ed Carpenter to the checkered flag. And in the two Texas races, Dario proved he could not only dominate but also flawlessly claw his way through the pack.
To be honest, there are several qualities to Dario Franchitti, racecar driver, which can all too easily get overlooked. The first is that there's no flakiness apparent in his performance over the course of a year: he is always there, in a way you could never attribute to a Briscoe or a Castroneves. Secondly, he never lets his head drop if a poor qualifying session has left him further down the grid than he expects. Thirdly, he's still on it, every weekend; anyone who outqualifies Dixon at places as diverse as Long Beach, Milwaukee, Loudon and Sonoma clearly still has winning pace, and if he's outpaced, it's certainly never because he's not trying hard enough.
But while these qualities – plus having vastly superior luck to his two principal title rivals – won him a fourth IndyCar Series crown, they're not enough to put him top of this assessment of the best drivers of 2011.
BEST: Milwaukee – both his pole lap and his racecraft.
WORST: Motegi, particularly given that Ganassi had a clear advantage that weekend.
1 – WILL POWER
Best finish: 1st (x 6)
Best start: 1st (x 8)
Championship position: 2nd
For a second straight year, Will Power won more races and scored more poles than any of his IndyCar rivals. For the second straight year, he came up short in the championship, largely through bad luck and just a little through inexperience. (Hmmm…11 wins and 16 poles accrued in just two seasons and yet no title to show for it: these sound like Michael Andretti-type stats.)
What's more remarkable still is that Power also makes fewer mistakes than any of his rivals. He beat himself up over qualifying at Edmonton and Motegi, where little errors on his quickest runs in Q3 allowed poles to slip away by 0.05sec and 0.03sec, respectively. And it will gnaw at him that at Mid-Ohio, a scrappy final turn on his hot lap allowed one of his Penske teammates (Briscoe) to outqualify him for only the second time in their 22 road/street course races together. But none of those were game-changers, none of them accounted for his 18-point deficit to Franchitti in the final standings.
If you're harsh enough to call it a mistake, in hindsight it's easy to say Power should have parked it at Iowa after he was released from his pit box into the side of Charlie Kimball. Despite his steering and front wing being knocked out of shape, he felt he must continue, and a smashed car and mild concussion were the result. Then again, no other IndyCar ace would have made a different decision.
Inexperience, rather than error, led to Power's setups for Milwaukee and Loudon being too on-a-knife-edge. He hadn't raced on the Milwaukee Mile since '08 (when he was with KV Racing and none of those ex-Champ Car teams had a handle on the Dallaras) and he had never raced at the New Hampshire track. By the time he realized how the fastest guys were getting their speed, it was too late to do much about it. But at all the other ovals, the Verizon No. 12 car was fastest of the Penske trio, at least in qualifying.
So those gaps in Power's armor are being filled, year on year. However, unlike in 2010, Penske rarely had a car advantage over Ganassi this past season. Roger's cars definitely had the edge at Sonoma, probably at Barber, and maybe in Baltimore, too; Will duly took full advantage with 53 points from each – pole, victory and most laps led. At Kentucky, as well, Power's Penske had a definite advantage. But by my unscientific calculations, Ganassi was top team at seven events, Penske at four and at the remainder, the teams were about evenly matched.
That wasn't the deciding factor in the way the championship resolved itself, though. No, what appeared to happen was that Power's genuine good fortune was used up in that lottery for the second race at Texas, where he drew grid slot No. 3, Franchitti drew No. 28, and Will went on to score his first oval win. Lady Luck would throw no other scraps the Australian's way this year.
Castroneves' error at Long Beach cost Power a definite second, and a probable win. Even if Ryan Hunter-Reay (his only true opposition that day) had beaten him to Victory Lane, the points for finishing second would have been enough to make Power this year's champion. At Indy he was sent out of the pits with only three wheels attached – although in terms of pace, Ganassi (as well as Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Newman/Haas Racing) had Penske handled that day. Iowa we've already discussed, but Toronto was another game-changer, where 53 points turned into 15 through no fault of his own (see Dario Franchitti section, above). Third at Mid-Ohio behind the dominant Ganassi cars was easily within his grasp until a yellow fell while he and Briscoe were stretching their fuel mileage to try and jump Franchitti after his final pit stop. The pits closed, and the Aussies finished 14th and 16th. And then of course there was Kentucky, where Ana Beatriz was sent out of the Dreyer & Reinbold pit into the side of the hitherto dominant No. 12 Penske.
Yup, in terms of potential points lost, Power's 2011 season is right up there with Michael Andretti's 1992 season (see – another parallel with the '91 champ!).
Given that he did so much right and so little wrong in 2011, Power was an easy choice for No. 1 slot in this list. More people are coming to agree that IndyCar's fastest driver is now also the best overall – and so long as Will continues never to assume either of those assessments to be true, he'll remain top dingo.
Who knows? One day, that may be enough to bring him and Penske a championship…
BEST: Baltimore, when he had to lay down 10 straight “qualifying” laps before a pit stop to avoid getting jumped by the off-strategy guys.
WORST: Qualifying 17th at Milwaukee after a wild slide on his first lap.