RACER editor David Malsher sizes up the standout performers of this year's IZOD IndyCar Series.
Many smart people in racing have said that it's almost impossible to separate the driver from the rest of the team when passing judgments like this and I see their point; this is a team sport. But that would mean results were the be all and end all and that has never been how I've seen it. With all due respect to Joe Leonard, the final standings will tell you he was the best Indy car driver of 1971 and '72 – and comprehensively so – but I'd argue that Al Unser was better in '71, Bobby Unser was better in '72. By the same token, Big Al won the IndyCar title in 1985, but would he honestly say he drove better than Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal that year? Context is vital, and in a series that is very nearly spec and thus emphasizes a driver's contribution to success (and failure), it remains important to evaluate the guy in the cockpit.
But it got a lot harder in 2012. IndyCar's switch to the Dallara DW12 had its desired effect – to return everyone to base camp, keep a tight rein on the areas of potential development and allow the have-nots a greater chance to keep up with the haves. The series has never been closer and with the margins between teams compressed and therefore the power swings between teams, between drivers and between engine manufacturers becoming ever more subtle, this task of ranking the Top 10 drivers has become a minefield.
Last year I wrote about all the things taken into consideration when assembling a top 10 but, relatively speaking, it was much easier then. This year was too close to call to rely on gut instinct, and the engine-change penalties made things even more complicated. So I devised a relatively simple formula, awarding a driver marks out of 10 for their performance in each qualifying session, and marks out of 20 for each race, then added them together and came up with a grand total for each driver.
There were some surprises, but I swiftly whittled my top 15 to a top 11. However, I was puzzled that the guy on the outside had visited Victory Lane this year yet I had included a driver whose best finish this year was a mere fifth. So I went through them all again, three more times. I tried it when I was feeling benevolent, tried it when I was merely on the level, and tried it while in a foul mood; everyone's scores rose and fell accordingly, but the order did not shift.
Before going any further, realize that: 1) This is purely about 2012, not about raw talent. 2) This takes into account qualifying pace, not just starting position… 3) …but a driver's performance in recovering (or floundering) following an engine-change grid penalty is of course taken into account. 4) Performance relative to teammates is a vital part of the equation – as is not having a teammate, a major hurdle in a year when everyone had a brand-new car. 5) Errors and DNFs that were the driver's fault are taken into account. 6) What will not pull the drivers' scores down are crew errors such as slow pit stops, manufacturer errors such as engine detonations or team errors such as signing with Lotus.
Finally… minor details
- Sebastien Bourdais missed more than 25 percent of the races and was therefore ineligible for this assessment. However, Seabass got an early look at my Top 10, and has put forward views of his own which you can read in a separate story here on RACER.com in a few days' time.
- The Barracuda Racing/Bryan Herta Autosport team missed the Sao Paulo race altogether, and Tagliani retired on the first lap of the race at Barber Motorsports Park. Therefore the points I awarded to him for those two events are the average of what he achieved in the other two races in which BHA had towed the Lotus anchor.
- Franchitti, polesitter at Iowa, had his engine blow up on the warm-up lap. The points awarded him for that race are the average he achieved over the other four oval races.
And yes, this would be a far easier deal if they were just listed in championship order.
THE 11TH MAN
I couldn't include Ryan Briscoe in the Top 10, despite the stat book showing he scored two poles, one win and finished sixth in the championship. He produces too many anonymous race day performances, ones where you wonder what a Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, Oriol Servia or Alex Tagliani could do with the people and equipment available at Team Penske. The frustrating part (presumably for all concerned) is that Briscoe is fast; based on my scoring, he was sixth-best qualifier of the season, for example. But the way he qualified at Long Beach and raced at Baltimore just served to highlight the could/should-do-better days in Detroit, Toronto, Edmonton and Mid-Ohio.
Preseason, Ryan talked about how he was going to quit worrying about what Team Penske teammate Will Power was doing and focus on himself. With Jonathan Diuguid being promoted from his data acquisition engineer to his race engineer (replacing Eric Cowdin), maybe this would be a fresh start. Quarter of a second off Power in qualifying for the season opener at St. Petersburg was decent; outqualifying him in Long Beach was rather more than that. But in between these two events was a disastrous race at Barber. Penske's Aussie drivers had their qualifying Q2 sessions ruined by a badly timed red flag for Power and a gearbox malady for Briscoe, and the pair of them lined up 9th and 12th on race day. At the green flag on Sunday, they went their separate ways, Power to Victory Lane, Briscoe to 14th.
And you couldn't pin down Ryan's issues to certain types of track, either. He was good at Indy, Iowa and Fontana, and very good at Texas. But his setup at Milwaukee was so poor that the team had to change his rear wing mid-race. He drove very well at Sonoma, but he wouldn't have been in Victory Lane had he not been as lucky with his pit stop as Power was unlucky with his.
If it's the races that drag down Briscoe's score, ironically, the man who edges him for 10th spot had the opposite attribute/problem, and is the driver now working with Mr. Cowdin.
10 – TONY KANAAN
Best qualifying position: 6th (Barber)
Best finish: 2nd (Milwaukee)
Championship position: 9th
Forget all the hyperbole about Tony Kanaan being king of restarts. They are one of his strong points, no question about it, but he's certainly not a one-trick pony. If the past few years have proven anything about TK, it's that he's a hugely adept racer. OK, so in previous seasons oval races, there were times when I thought he fleetingly overstepped the boundaries of what is and isn't fair while dueling. And there have also been times when Kanaan's oval racing has been more reliant on heart and reflexes rather than forethought and strategy. At one stage in his career, that paid off more often than not, but as the chances to run near the front have decreased as his cars have become less competitive, the missed opportunities have felt more costly and hurt him more.
But on road and street courses, race-ending accidents have been few and far between for Kanaan and that's ideal given the swing from old-school IRL schedule of 80 percent flat-out ovals to IndyCar's 75 percent street and road courses. The guy has exceptional judgment when dueling, in terms of knowing what's possible and what isn't; you do not see TK blow things with a rash move, nor be unethical with his opponent.
This year for example, as Will Power was charging through the field at Barber, he encountered Kanaan's KV Racing car on the primary tires, while the No. 12 Penske machine was on the alternates. On a track where it's easy to block, Kanaan could have been bloody-minded about it, but when the faster car with grippier tires started drawing alongside, TK defended hard but totally fair: for the next few corners, he made it as difficult as possible for Power but never once chopped across his opponent or ran him off the road. The following race, it was Kanaan who came through the field, and now in attack mode, again he was clean, precise, gave his rivals room as he passed them, but also gave them no opportunity to fight back. A very smart drive.
The problem of course, is that Kanaan so often has to put in those drives to earn a respectable result. His sometimes lamentable performances in qualifying are partly a result of his dubious developmental skills. As one former teammate said, “Tony could often drive my setup better than I could! The problem was, he couldn't have found that setup on his own.”
The combination of a new car and being teamed with drivers who couldn't help him exacerbated this flaw in Kanaan's armory. KV Racing is no Ganassi in terms of budget or technical resources, but equally, Kanaan is no Franchitti in terms of finding a setup that suits his driving style.
The other point is, a lot of ex-IRL drivers have found it hard to deal with the fact that the closeness of the field, since Champ Car drivers started learning the old Dallara, has meant every mistake is severely punished. A couple of years ago, Kanaan told me: “At Mid-Ohio this year, we had 20 cars within one second in qualifying. In the past, if you had a top-three car in qualifying and you made a mistake at one corner, you'd start seventh. Now that same mistake will leave you 16th…There's no place to hide.” Well, two years on, the same is true only more so, and Kanaan is a scruffy driver when he's on the edge during qualifying, especially on street courses, as if his car's suspension isn't supple enough to deal with the scrappy surface. You'll see him occasionally locking up under braking here, taking two bites at the apex on slow corners there and quite clearly wrestling the car more than you'd expect. It looks fast, but it's rarely quick.
And so ovals have become TK's strong suit, places where he usually qualifies as well as he races. At Indy, he was the best of the Chevrolet runners by the end of the race, and to be honest, that was the most he could expect and he was very worthy of that third place. Texas he may consider the great opportunity that went missing, because that race would likely have turned into a Power vs Kanaan duel (with Rahal and Wilson joining in later) had Power not moved across to block his rival. It was an uncharacteristically unethical move on Power's part and caught Kanaan off-guard so much that he clipped the back of the Penske and broke his front wing. Power was, of course, punished with a drive-through penalty, but that didn't restore Tony's race-winning chances. Milwaukee, a track where the No. 11 KV car thumped the wall last season, saw a great performance from Kanaan this year, beaten only by Ryan Hunter-Reay. In Iowa's final stint he kept his tires alive longer than those with superior cars and finished third. And at Fontana…he was fine until the last stint when, pushing hard, he dropped it with 10 laps to go.
Kanaan turns 38 on New Year's Eve, and has scored only one win in the last four seasons, but this doesn't seem to affect his motivation. Until he wins the Indy 500 – or runs out of competitive opportunities there – I don't see TK walking away, and for that, IndyCar should be grateful.