7 – ALEX TAGLIANI
Best qualifying position: 1st (Texas)
Best finish: 5th (Edmonton)
Championship position: 17th
In every full season since he reached the top of U.S. open-wheel racing back in 2000, Alex Tagliani has finished higher in the championship than he did this year. But I swear he has never driven better than he did in 2012.
Previously, whenever bad luck or errors caused him to have a couple of poor results in consecutive races, Tagliani's desperation to reverse the trend could reveal itself in three ways. 1) He'd overdrive the car in qualifying. 2) During the races he'd grasp at half-chances which, by their very nature, would only work half the time. Or 3) He'd have a strong race, get into the top four and then drive over-conservatively, trying to consolidate his position and bank points. When any of these things occurred, it meant we weren't seeing the very best of Tagliani.
This year, we did, and if it seems bizarre to describe a 13-year veteran of Indy car racing as a revelation, there's no doubt that's how many regarded him. Much of that came from the team environment. Bryan Herta, a sensitive and introspective soul, was always a driver who needed to feel he had the confidence of his team owner in order to give his best on track. While those circumstances didn't happen often enough in his driving career, like the child of a troubled marriage, he at least learned how not to be once it was his turn to be the man of the house. Tagliani, arriving from Sam Schmidt Motorsports, appreciated being valued.
Solidarity in the face of adversity laid the foundation of this relationship between veteran driver and rookie team. As it became clear that the Lotus engine was never going to reach Chevrolet/Honda level, Herta and co-owner Steve Newey started to explore their options while Tagliani and underrated race engineer Todd Malloy just made the most of what they had. The No. 98 Barracuda Networks car was fastest of the Lotus contingent at St. Petersburg qualifying 17th and finishing 15th. But at Barber the car ground to a halt on the opening lap, at Long Beach it tried doing the same thing and so the team elected not to waste money traveling to Brazil just to be humiliated. A Honda contract was signed in time for the Month of May, and Tagliani qualified 11th with four laps that required more courage than when he took pole there the previous season. The car's handling still wasn't where he wanted it for race day, and unfamiliarity with the Honda version of the pit lane speed limiter meant he got a drive-through penalty after his first stop, but still he finished 12th and on the lead lap.
Then came Detroit and, armed with a competitive car, he did an amazing job to qualify third, beaten only by Dixon and Power. An electrical glitch on the warm-up lap meant he started from pit lane, but he carved his way up to fifth as he, like Graham Rahal, proved you can pass at Belle Isle. The yellow flag and race stoppage worked badly with BHA's strategy, so that he restarted 19th, but within the remaining 15 laps, he climbed to 10th!
At Texas, Tagliani was on pole, like last year, but after leading the first 20 laps, he faded. At Milwaukee he went in the opposite direction, from lowly qualifying pace to finish seventh and at Iowa…. Well, who knows what he might have achieved that night had he not spun on the warm-up lap and stalled? From two laps down, he went flat-out and, with the aid of smart strategy, got back onto the lead lap. Convincingly the fastest driver out there, his engine blew in the race's final quarter, costing him 10 places at the next race, Toronto. There, again he got into the Firestone Fast Six, again he made progress through the field, again he ran out of luck when he lost top gear, again he worked miracles to record another top 10.
Edmonton? That was another win that went missing, this time through no fault of his own. After passing Franchitti on the opening lap, Tagliani led the first 50 laps (pit stops aside) but a faulty shock absorber ruined the car's handling from the second pit stop onward, and he slipped back to fifth. Mid-Ohio yielded fourth fastest qualifying time but there was another 10-place grid penalty, legacy of the unit blown a week earlier during Barracuda-BHA's only in-season road course test. A mid-race switch to a three-stop strategy yielded another top 10 finish. Perhaps using those tactics from the start, as Andretti Autosport did with Hinchcliffe, might have yielded more.
At Sonoma, Tagliani failed to reach the Fast Six for the first time since acquiring the Honda engine, but eighth on the grid was hardly a disaster and he looked combative from the start. Passing Franchitti for fourth after a restart, he outbraked himself and knocked Hunter-Reay into a spin. It was a blunder, yes, but hardly deserving of the post-race berating he received from the future champion, who'd done the very same thing to another driver just a few laps later! Though it wasn't until race day that he found a setup he liked at Baltimore, he salvaged eighth. And the at Fontana, the season-closer, Tagliani was the class of the field when everyone was on older tires and seemed set to win until his engine expired with 20 laps to go.
I've labored this Tagliani write-up because many people will be incredulous that a guy whose best race result was fifth is ranked ahead of race winners and podium finishers. But this year Alex made only two significant mistakes yet had the pace to contend for victories and podiums on several occasions. He and Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosport – despite a shoestring budget, despite hardly any testing, despite the team being in only its first full season, despite having feedback from just one car, despite having wasted the first quarter of the season with a recalcitrant engine – spent the bulk of the season shaming most teams who had none of those disadvantages.
6 – HELIO CASTRONEVES
Best qualifying position: 1st (Barber)
Best finish: 1st (St. Petersburg and Edmonton)
Championship position: 4th
Back from the wilderness in 2012 was Helio Castroneves, and that was good to see. As one of IndyCar's most charismatic and therefore popular drivers, it had been awkward watching the error-riddled and hesitant version of the three-time Indy 500 winner in action in 2011. For one thing, it had been inexplicable, considering the fine-but-flawed campaign he'd put together in 2010. For another, it's always hard to take seriously a guy performing to the camera off-track when he's not producing results on track.
There was no such embarrassment this year. From the moment he tested the DW12, Castroneves was fired up, intrigued and thoroughly enthusiastic – the smiles were genuine, the pace was back to the level of two years ago, and he was a serious competitor once more. If anyone had forgotten how much natural talent this guy has demonstrated since karting in Brazil and since racing Formula 3 in the UK, this year was a sharp reminder. The old saying, “Form is temporary, class is permanent” was very appropriate for Castroneves in 2012.
His pass on Dixon for the win in the season opener at St. Petersburg was first class, his defense of third place from Rahal at Barber was masterful – not once did he block, but instead maintained a clean line and gave his young opponent no openings worth forcing. And rising from 18th on the grid in Sao Paulo to take fourth place has to be seen as a success. There were still errors – seriously, what is Helio's problem with that final hairpin at Long Beach? – but from a strong foundation, he hung on in the top four in the championship all season. Even after a mediocre Indy 500, he left the Brickyard lying second in the points table.
Off-strategy in Milwaukee, Castroneves led 50 laps, and had the yellows fallen differently, he'd have at least finished on the podium; the same was true in Iowa where he led 133 of the 250 laps despite some puzzling vibration from the tires. In both races he took sixth, in both races he deserved better. But his sixth place in Toronto was genuinely remarkable for two reasons. One, it was his best result ever at this track, and two (which is kind of connected), he earned it by surviving carnage, rather than causing it.
As if this was a sign of him shaking off his traditional Canadian blues, Helio then went on to win in Edmonton. It was an excellent performance, especially as he won in the Al Unser Sr. style –not by decimating the opposition but by winning at the lowest possible speed, staying just out of range of any attacks by runner-up Takuma Sato. But this short-term glory had a longer term effect. He, like teammate Power, had access to the latest Chevrolet engine at that race but, unlike Power, elected not to take it – and the subsequent grid penalty – until Mid-Ohio. Given that you can overtake in Edmonton about 20 times easier than you can in Mid-Ohio, this choice seemed a little curious. He could argue from Victory Lane that it paid off. But when you qualify only 13th and therefore start 23rd at Mid-Ohio – and then the race runs caution-free – there may be pangs of regret.
That hot afternoon, and suffering from a heavy cold, Helio could rise no higher than 16th and that was the beginning of the end for his championship hopes. He drove a nail into the coffin when he hit Dixon in the early laps at Sonoma and earned a drive-through penalty. A scrappy performance in a messy race in Baltimore was followed by a decent drive to fifth in the Fontana finale, but I wonder whether he might have finished higher had he not stopped for fresh rubber before the final shootout.
Still, this was a year when Castroneves looked strong again, where he and strategist John Erickson appeared to work in harmony, when Helio…drove like Helio again. There will always be days when he's not in the same ZIP code as Power in terms of outright pace, but he's come to accept that in a way that I'm not sure their teammate Briscoe has. Far from demoralized or desperate, Helio spent 2012 giving his best and usually drove in the composed and consistent manner you'd expect of a veteran. The silly mistakes were far fewer and less costly than in 2011: 12 top-10 finishes in the 15 races are testament to that.
Can he ever be champion? Probably not. Does he have the pace to win several more races before he retires? Unquestionably.
Part 2, for drivers ranked 5 through 1 will appear tomorrow.