9 – JUSTIN WILSON
Best qualifying position: 2nd (Milwaukee)
Best finish: 1st (Texas)
Championship position: 15th
I've said it before, but I'm going to bang this drum until someone takes notice: there probably isn't another IndyCar driver in the last couple of decades who is done such an injustice by the record book as Justin Wilson. He should be rated in the Bourdais/Power/Dixon/Franchitti league in terms of his ability on road and street courses. Ask any one of those four drivers if they still think he's right up there and they'll unequivocally say yes, not out of sympathy or because they think JWil is a good guy; it's because they know that, put into a Ganassi or Penske car, he would be a championship contender.
And now he's a winner on ovals, too. I won't get into the technical faux-pas that allowed Wilson's No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing entry to race with illegal bodywork: Some (guess who) say it made little/no difference to the car's performance, others (again, guess who) believe it gave him a small but significant advantage in terms of the downforce/drag equation. I'm not an aerodynamics expert so I won't pretend to know or cast judgment. What I do know is that from the moment IndyCar's Will Phillips altered the aero package for ovals, Wilson was going to be a contender, because from now on, they'd reflect driver skill as much as engineering expertise. A week later at Milwaukee – a track that always has always rewarded talent, Wilson qualified second. An early engine-change meant he took a 10-place grid penalty, but he carved his way through the field until his new Honda blew, too.
That's the kind of luck that held him back at many races much of the year. At Long Beach, it looked like the team's fuel strategy was wrong, but his strategy was always going to be compromised if there were long green-flag periods. Why? Because Dallara had not given Dale Coyne Racing the correct-sized fuel tank and so Wilson's tank held 18 instead of 18.5 gallons. This problem cost him a top-five finish at St. Petersburg too, when his engine died of fuel starvation as he was coming down pit road. Then, in Sao Paulo, he was put to the back of the grid when it was discovered the team hadn't fitted the ballast weight that is required by all cars not carrying onboard cameras. Gearbox problems eventually ended his race early, and I bet Wilson wishes that could have been the case two races earlier at Barber. Wilson revels in oversteer but on the sinewy Alabama track, his car handled like a rollercoaster with only the front carriage attached to the rails, this the result of minimal dry-track time pre-race between rain showers, fog and a faulty fuel-line and resultant fire.
Toronto where he qualified third but the car's engine started intermittently cutting, then cut back in just in time to push the tail of the car into a wall, bending the suspension. A misfire in qualifying at Mid-Ohio that prevented him from making it into the Firestone Fast Six, an engine-change penalty that put him near the back at Sonoma, a circuit where it's notoriously difficult to pass…. It seemed impossible for Wilson to have a straightforward weekend.
Now there's bad luck, but there were also self-induced screw-ups. In Detroit, it was Wilson's turn to make a mess of things as he hit the wall on the opening lap, and he lost a bunch of places by going off-track in Baltimore on slicks in the wet. But the team had major issues in pit lane. Off-hand, I can think of slow pit stops in Long Beach, Toronto, Mid-Ohio (twice) and Baltimore – all of them events where Wilson had either made up a lot of positions or was already in a position of prominence, but rejoined behind car/drivers with far less pace. With IndyCar's race director Beaux Barfield (correctly) leaning toward fewer yellow flag periods this year, there was far less bunching of the field than in previous seasons, therefore positions lost in errors of any sort were more costly than ever. Dale will be the first to acknowledge that in order to exploit the full talents of Wilson and his race engineer Bill Pappas, he will need a well-drilled crew next year.
And yet looking back at Wilson's season, I consider the major “what might have been” moment for Dale's team was no one's fault and came in the biggest race in the world. At Indy, with a car that got ever stronger on long runs (as in Texas), Justin had made his way up to third with just 30 laps to go and was confident that he could trouble Dixon and Franchitti. Two more full-course cautions after which Wilson showed a little more regard for restart procedures than certain rivals and his car took a while to come to life, killed his chances and he fell to seventh. But it has given the team a lot of data to work with for next year's race.
8 – JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
Best qualifying position: 2nd (Barber, Indy)
Best finish: 3rd (Long Beach and Milwaukee)
Championship position: 8th
Not sure what it is about Canadian drivers in IndyCar, but their results often seem to go south as they travel north to perform in front of their home fans. Paul Tracy, Pat Carpentier and Tagliani could tell you a few tales about that. And so, now, could James Hinchcliffe. In Toronto this year, he had a 10-place grid penalty for an engine change and then had a mechanical DNF on race day. And in Edmonton, Andretti Autosport's race day setup just wasn't in the same ballpark as Penske, Ganassi or even Rahal Letterman on race day and Hinch finished a desultory 12th.
But there weren't many days like that for Hinchcliffe, contrary to some misperceptions. As the consistent finishes that marked the first half of his season started drying up in the second half, a couple of badly formed theories crept out. One was that he was distracted by his commitments to (or recognition from) his ties to GoDaddy.com. This is nonsense: James is very serious about his racing and knows how much work it requires to be successful. Another theory was that Andretti Autosport had swung its full weight behind Hunter-Reay's title push and that Hinch and Marco Andretti were being neglected. Again, not true. Yes, there were races when James seemed to be chasing track conditions while RHR chased the leaders (Sonoma), but much of this is down to experience. Hunter-Reay first reached this level of U.S. open-wheel racing in 2003; Hinchcliffe was in his sophomore season, yet already with his second car, his second team and his second race engineer. Talk to any driver of merit, and he'll tell you of the vast importance of consistency.
So while you can point to obvious errors like fumbling restarts at Barber, using too much tire life on his warm-up lap in Indy 500 qualifying and spinning out of the race at Iowa on cold tires, let's remember that Hinchcliffe is also the guy whose natural pace made those mistakes so noticeable. He qualified second at Barber and Indy and led at Iowa – all races where he also outqualified Hunter-Reay. That accident at Iowa had less impact on the wall than on his championship points tally. Given that his teammates finished 1-2, we can only wonder if Hinchcliffe missed out on his first victory that night.
Three races later, though, Hinchcliffe turned in what was, for me, his best drive of the season, at Mid-Ohio. Having been held up by a backmarker in qualifying, he started only 15th. Knowing there was more pace in the car, the team committed to a three-stop strategy for the No. 27 car so it could run flat-out and not have to save fuel, but it was a tactic that could only work if the driver was very fast and error-free. Hinch was both. Despite there being no yellow flags, he had climbed to fifth by the end, and in the two laps where he was out front during the strategy overlap, he set the fastest leader lap. Bearing in mind the other two leaders of that race had been Power and Dixon, there was no doubt about Hinchcliffe's own contribution to that performance.
Sonoma was a wash-out for Hinchcliffe with a poor-handling car throughout the weekend; Baltimore saw him slide into a wall in a race where he could probably have been on the podium; and at Fontana, a hole in the floor from lap 60 (perhaps from running over Power's debris) lost him 300lbs of downforce. Had these three results and the Canadian races been spread more evenly throughout the year, everyone would have been talking about an excellent year for a driver in only his second season.
As it is, let's not forget two things: 1) That he was top Andretti Autosport qualifier on five occasions and outqualified his champion teammate for seven of the 15 races, or 2) that in the first seven races of the season, only a large chunk of the Belle Isle track jacking up his front wheels and pitching him into a wall spoiled the No. 27 car's run of top-six finishes.
If Michael Andretti's belief that his team will be even stronger next year is borne out, Hinchcliffe has now added enough experience to his natural speed to become a race winner in 2013.