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.
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.
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.