RACER editor David Malsher sizes up the standout performers of this year's IZOD IndyCar Series. After the order from 10 to 6 was revealed yesterday, here's the top five.
5 – SIMON PAGENAUD
Best qualifying position: 3rd (Mid-Ohio)
Best finish: 2nd (Long Beach)
Championship position: 5th
Last year at the Baltimore IndyCar race, a member of one of the middle-rank teams beckoned me over. “Saw that story you wrote on Mr. Pagenaud. You think he's gonna get a ride next year?” Yeah, I said, I think so. “Good,” came the reply. “I know the times look close, but there are still some lazy wankers in this field, and some of them are in pretty good cars, too. Someone like Pagenaud would scare the crap out of them.”
Well, this year there were hardly any IndyCar drivers who didn't deserve a place there, and still Pagenaud had the effect of a piranha in your fish pond, gobbling up the defenseless and nibbling at the big guys. I tried to recall the last time an Indy car rookie made such a huge impression in a series so deep in talent, and I think it was probably Scott Dixon with PacWest in CART, 11 years ago.
What marks out Pagenaud from so many other rookies is the relative absence of mistakes, and you can put this down to the maturity he acquired in other racing categories, particularly sports cars. When you have the might of Peugeot in Europe or Acura in the U.S. behind you, and all the expectations that brings, it forces you to either man up to the responsibilities or be crushed. In Pagenaud's case, he's held in very high regard by both companies because of his inherent sense of discipline.
And that's why Pagenaud rarely seemed to be overreaching himself in his first full season – which is absolutely ideal for a guy new to oval racing. It's as if he had already absorbed everything Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford or his team owner Sam Schmidt had ever said about not carrying an ill-handling car on an oval. To paraphrase, ‘If it isn't handling right, use your cockpit tools. If they don't sort it, get it worked on in pit lane. And don't stick it in the wall!'
But if you can't carry a bad car on an oval, at least IndyCar's latest aero package allows a good driver to make a difference, and Monsieur Pagenaud took to left-turn-only racing quite superbly. At Indy he played it cautious but smart throughout the Month of May. At Texas he had some less-than-amusing moments in pit lane, but charged into the fray from the rear of the field to finish sixth. At Milwaukee, there was another pit lane miscue from the driver, and this one hurt because he appeared to have the pace to finish in the top five at the very least. An engine change and a bad-handling car put Pagenaud at the back from the very start of the Iowa race but again, he pulled off some slick passes, seemed capable of using the whole track, and sliced through to fifth. He might have been able to do the same again in Fontana, but we'll never know because he had to nurse his overheating car to the finish, four laps down on the leader. But again, no driving errors at a track on which he admitted he didn't feel at ease.
Of course, his more natural environment were the road and street courses. Pagenaud's three outings for Dreyer & Reinbold and HVM Racing last season were excellent efforts in difficult circumstances, but ultimately they were inconclusive. Some of us – including Simon himself, actually – wondered if sports car racing may have eroded those vital three tenths of a second needed for qualifying, taken away some of the willingness to drive right on the ragged edge. After all, endurance racers rarely wish to risk their all for pole when they know they have three or four hours and countless pit stops in which to pass their rivals.
But qualifying for IndyCar's 2012 season opener at St. Petersburg removed that worry: Simon put the Schmidt Hamilton Racing car into the Firestone Fast Six! Indeed, had the team not already received a 10-place grid penalty for blowing a Honda, it would have been interesting to see where he could have ultimately qualified. Instead, the team wisely saved a fresh set of red alternate compound tires for the race and sent the No. 77 Hewlett Packard car out on blacks. Getting within 0.8sec of pole was a great effort. And on race day, from 16th on the grid, he worked his way back up to where he should have started.
Like others, he was caught off guard by the red flag in Q2 at Barber, but he muscled his way up to fifth in the race, and at Long Beach he was remarkable. Not in qualifying where, frankly, he couldn't find a good balance, but in methodically working with race engineers Ben Bretzman and Nick Snyder and team manager Rob Edwards overnight so that he could take full advantage of the fact that the Chevrolet-engined drivers had all been docked 10 places on the grid. With a three-stop strategy, Pagenaud was able to run flat-out and by the checkered flag, he was within a second of his two-stopping former teammate Will Power.
At Detroit, he was beaten only by the Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo; at Mid-Ohio he fought and won an entertaining duel with compatriot and occasional Peugeot teammate Sebastien Bourdais for another third place; and at Baltimore there was yet another podium finish (and an unforgettable mid-race restart!).
Disappointments? In general, there were days when the No. 77 car's pace in practice didn't quite translate into similarly impressive qualifying positions, although it's hard to know whether that's down to team or driver. I suspect it's just a matter of the driver needing a little more experience; as I keep having to remind myself, we are talking about a rookie here, even if he did have a year of Champ Car five seasons ago.
In terms of specifics, Pagenaud's only black marks came in Toronto, where he seemed to have a magnetic attraction to Power's car in practice that seemed to upset his own equilibrium more than Power's. On race day, armed with a brave pit strategy and with his rear wing laid low for straightline speed to make passes, Simon got into the lead following the closed-pit caution period, and seemed to have the measure of all around him. But following his next pit stop, a battle with Josef Newgarden ended with the youngster in the wall and stalled, and Pagenaud with a drive-through penalty for blocking.
But in the context of him being a rookie with no teammate and the team being just three years old, a 15-race stretch that contained just one wild weekend but several podium finishes and and a handful of smart-but-fast oval performances has to be regarded as a brilliant hit rate by Pagenaud. It's going to be fascinating to watch his progress next year, especially if more funding and a teammate can be added. Either way, I'd expect Simon and Schmidt Hamilton Racing to find Victory Lane…and more than once.
4 – DARIO FRANCHITTI
Best qualifying: 1st (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto)
Best finish: 1st (Indy 500)
Championship position: 7th
So Frankie Four-Time has finally been toppled from the IZOD IndyCar Series throne, and as he saw his chances of a fifth crown slipping away – quite early on, if we're realistic about it – you might have expected the guy who has little left to prove to back down a touch, maybe slip into cruise control. But there was none of that, and for that reason alone, Dario Franchitti deserves some kind of badge of honor.
But there's more. While adding up my (highly unofficial) points for this year – marks out of 10 for qualifying at each round, marks out of 20 for each race day performance – I discovered that the reigning champion was my pick for second-best qualifier of the year, behind only the inevitable Mr. Power. Now bear in mind that Franchitti was lost at sea with the new DW12's setup at the first two events of the year, qualifying a mediocre 10th at St. Pete and a calamitous 18th at Barber, and you'll appreciate just how strong he became thereafter. His first pole of the season, at Milwaukee, was brilliant though expected: Dario could qualify a Target shopping cart in the first couple of rows at the Mile. At Iowa, he treated his heat race – a misnomer because there was nothing heated about those dreary affairs – like a shopping trip with grandma and won easily to take pole for the main event. But the P1 that grabbed a lot of people's attention was his effort at Toronto, beating Power and eclipsing all others as he had done at that same track three years earlier during his comeback season.
Chevy, of course, gifted all the Honda runners a grid boost at Long Beach, but Dario had been fastest of the Honda-powered cars, and there were further front-row starts at circuits as diverse as Sao Paulo, Texas, Edmonton and Mid-Ohio. By season's end, he'd outqualified teammate Scott Dixon 9-5, and if I seem to be dwelling on Franchitti's qualifying performances it's because there's very little luck involved in qualifying, far fewer outside forces than on race day. It's motorsports in its purest form – a driver, a car and a stopwatch – and in terms of speed, Dario was one of the absolute best through most of 2012.
That's something you might not have expected had you watched him in action through the first couple of races. But actually, the second round, the race at Barber, was the turning point. From that hopeless grid position, Franchitti didn't do a whole lot for the first half of the race, but came on increasingly strong in the second half. OK, so he still got beaten to the checkered flag by a Lotus-powered car (Bourdais at his greatest), but a lot had been learned. I would love to see the notes that Dario and race engineer Chris Simmons compiled through that weekend, to see the sheer breadth of what was learned by Sunday evening. Because from this “eureka!” moment, the No. 10 team never looked back…in terms of pace, at least. Things still kept going wrong on race day; overboost retardations caused Franchitti to lose places on every restart at Long Beach and he got taken out of serious contention in Brazil by an errant Mike Conway.
But, you know what? I doubt if Dario gives a damn, not since May 27, when he entered the three-time Indianapolis 500 winners club. Having been spun in pit lane by E.J. Viso, it may have crossed his mind that this was just one of those years. But the calm, methodical way he made his way to the front made it clear that, hang on, it might be one of those years. If so, then he was right. Elements of the Brickyard crowd booed Franchitti on his slow-down lap but I will always argue that he did nothing wrong to Takuma Sato at the start of the final lap. He took the best combination of a defensive line and a fast line, and intimidated his opponent. What he did not do was run Sato out of track. Had he gotten further alongside, Taku could have been the guy who dictated the pair's trajectory through the corner by moving up an inch or two and sending the Target car on a wider line. Then again, maybe in that scenario, it would have been Dixon who emerged on top…