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…
When Franchitti followed his Indy triumph with a sterling performance at Belle Isle, slipping through the field from 14th on the grid (blocked by a backmarker in qualifying) to finish second, you had to wonder if there might yet be a Franchitti revival, but those ideas were quickly extinguished. He went into freefall down the order at Texas with a car that spent the race trying to turn right…tail-first. At Milwaukee a squeeze from Briscoe sent him into the wall, at Iowa his engine blew on the warm-up lap (and that was a race where he could surely have fought the Andretti Autosport cars for victory) and at Toronto, Briscoe again squeezed him into the wall, although Dario himself was more to blame for that one. Having said that, he was back in the pack largely because of Race Control's decision to close the pits during the first yellow-flag period and then a fumbled a pit stop exacerbated the problem. Otherwise, Franchitti would have been battling Power for victory.
Poor results continued at Edmonton, when the Target Ganassi cars weren't in the hunt on race day and a rare error at Mid-Ohio saw the champ crumple his front wing on the back of James Hinchcliffe's car. Two races later, it seemed that nothing went right in Baltimore. But sandwiching that event were two races where we saw Dario at his finest, giving 110 percent trying to separate Ryan Hunter-Reay from his third place in Sonoma (Alex Tagliani took the less refined route) and then giving at least as much again trying to catch the better-handling car of Ed Carpenter at Fontana.
A lot went wrong for Franchitti in 2012, and much of it wasn't of his own making, and seventh place in the official championship standings doesn't do justice to a driver who turned in some performances that rank with his best. The high point of Dario's season is obvious, but more significantly, the high points of his own personal performance were high enough and frequent enough that they should provide the launch pads for a full-scale attack at the IndyCar title next year.
3 – RYAN HUNTER-REAY
Best qualifying position: 1st (Edmonton)
Best finish: 1st (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, Baltimore)
Championship position: 1st
Yeah, controversial one this, because it was fairly close between the top five drivers. But while the No. 28 team as a whole – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Michael Andretti, engineer Ray Gosselin, all the other team and crew members and Chevrolet – collectively did the best job overall, as is shown in the championship standings, I don't believe that Hunter-Reay was the best IndyCar driver in 2012. Not quite. Does that make him an unworthy champion? Hardly: this ranking is one person's opinion with one person's philosophy and one person's points-scoring system applied, and the scores were close enough that other assessors with different methodologies would put Ryan or Scott Dixon on top. In fact, I know of one – Sebastien Bourdais – and you can read his opinion of this Top 10 later this week here on RACER.com.
From the very start of the season, it was clear that, barring the ridiculous amounts of misfortune that hit him (quite literally) in the first half of 2011, that he would be a title contender. Third in St. Pete, what could have been third in Long Beach but for the penalty for spinning Sato on the last lap and a fighting second in Sao Paulo laid the foundations. Mechanical DNFs at Indy and Texas and a tepid performance in Detroit threatened to sideline the title campaign but then Hunter-Reay went on a tear.
His performance at Milwaukee had strong echoes of his drive at Loudon last year – he established himself as the man to beat, and no one could do it. And at Iowa, there was a very interesting confidence shift that might not have been there in the Hunter-Reay of a couple years ago: he went into the race with low expectations, unhappy with how his car had been handling, but he ignored his instincts, just put his head down and charged. That final stint, when he whipped past everyone in front of him and then held teammate Marco Andretti at arm's length, was the sort of performance that champions are made of.
Toronto was different, though; you can call it champion's luck if you like, but it was the team's decision to make an early pit stop, and the front runners' inability to make a pit stop due to the closed pits, that put Hunter-Reay at the front of that race. Up to that point, from qualifying seventh, he appeared to have the pace to finish fifth, maybe fourth.
The other Canadian race saw a complete reversal, where this time he qualified first and finished seventh. But his dogged refusal to give up that day in Edmonton with a balance far from being the best now looks startlingly important: in the final moments of the race, he grabbed that seventh from Briscoe and thus gained three points – the margin by which he'd win the championship.
Ryan's third mechanical DNF of the season at Mid-Ohio was a body-blow, and so too was getting punted out of third place at Sonoma. The combination might have felled a lesser driver, scrambled his mind and blurred his focus. But RHR has been through far worse in his career and has made him resilient. This latest bad luck instead just strengthened the resolve of him and everyone in the team, and gave them an obvious direction: from here on, it was win or bust.
At Baltimore, the red flag early into Hunter-Reay's Q1 session scrambled the grid and left him an unrepresentative 13th on the grid, and his fans must have wondered, “What next? What more could go wrong?” But on race day, Hunter-Reay and Andretti made all the right moves in the prevailing weather conditions, the No. 12 Penske team did not, and a remarkable victory put the No. 28 right back in the game. No, for what it's worth, I don't think Hunter-Reay's final restart at Baltimore complied with the rules, but given that the guy in P1 at that stage, Ryan Briscoe, had chosen the outside line and his push-to-pass boost wasn't working, I'm pretty sure American Ryan would have gotten past him at some point in that lap anyway.
And Fontana….well, I'm assuming you remember what happened: Hunter-Reay held onto his slow car and made it better, Power lost control of his quick car and made it wreckage. And because of that, and the fact that Ryan suffered three mechanical failures on race days while Will suffered none, I suspect the majority will say that Hunter-Reay should be ahead of Power in this list, that the championship standings are an accurate reflection of driving performance in 2012. But it's not that simple. If we ignore the Indy 500, when both drivers retired long before either had shown his potential and instead look at where they ran in the other 14 races without the influence/intervention of their respective teams or Race Control, Hunter-Reay outperformed Power at St. Pete, Milwaukee, Iowa and Fontana. And that's it. The difference between them in qualifying is even more stark: RHR was faster just three out of 15 times (Indy, Milwaukee and Edmonton).
Again, let's emphasize that I'm not denigrating Hunter-Reay nor suggesting he isn't worthy of an IndyCar title. This is a team sport, he's a vital part of Andretti Autosport and his performances relative to his teammates have effectively made him the team leader. Without him, where would Andretti Autosport be? Picking up occasional wins a la 2008, probably. And it took Hunter-Reay to prove the team is a lot better than that, by proving that he is better than many people realized. But I'd expect him to drive even better as a defending champion than as an aspiring one.
2 – SCOTT DIXON
Best qualifying result: 1st (Detroit)
Best finish: 1st (Detroit, Mid-Ohio)
Championship position: 3rd
This could have been Scott Dixon's year (I could cut 'n' paste that phrase from many season reviews over the past decade.), and while he wasn't quite as unfortunate as in 2011, you still feel that if a black cat crossed his path, it would choose to claw him rather than bring him luck. 34 more points would have put him at the top of the standings and in Race Control's weirdest error of the year, at Milwaukee, Dixon probably lost more than half of that.
On a side note, much of the condemnation of Race Control after that race centered around Scott getting penalized for a waved-off start, and yes, that was a mistake and Beaux Barfield took one for the team there. But I have an additional beef: having watched the replay many times (maybe more times than Race Control did) I wouldn't have called Dixon on it even if the restart had been green-flagged, especially in the context of several double file restarts this year which were random at best – either strung out from the third row back, or turning quadruple-file before the green flag had even waved.
Anyway, it ruined a great charge from the two-time champion who would have finished on the podium – at the very least – in that race, and there were more top-three finishes that went missing through no fault of his own. At Sao Paulo, he didn't look a match for Power and Franchitti in the early stages, but Mike Hull had a good strategic alternative that got his guy to the front, and it was on the brink of working when an ill-timed caution flag bunched everyone up. Following the pit stop, he was mired in the pack for the festival of misjudgment and overambition at Turn 1 for the restart. Cue a 17th-place finish, as frustrating as the mechanical DNF that cost him a top-five finish at Long Beach two weeks earlier.
The two second places in St. Petersburg and Barber – where, as a driver, he really could have done nothing more – had left Dixon reasonably content, but runner-up in the Indy 500 pissed him off mightily. With everyone drafting up the straights, the leader was rarely the guy in the catbird seat, and Scott is pretty certain that if Sato had held on to his car and not brought out that final yellow on the last lap, the No. 9 car had a strong shot at passing both the Japanese driver and teammate Franchitti in the remaining 2.5 miles. His reasoning seems sound, because without question the first- and second-placed cars would have been compromising each other's speed… Whatever, it would have been good to see him take a shot at it, and witnessed the closest green-flag 1-2-3 finish in Indy 500 history.
Maybe that lit a fire under Dixon, because a week later at Detroit, from the moment he found a good setup – not until qualifying, incidentally – it was clear that he was on that special level, the one he regularly reaches at Mid-Ohio and used to reach at Watkins Glen. Basically, no one was going to beat him. And for much of the Texas race five days later, he remained the man to beat, the new aero rules playing well into the hands of a guy who loves oversteer. Will Power, following him in second, spoke in wonder of watching him at work. “Old Dixie loves a loose car, doesn't he? Seeing how his car was set up, I think he did an amazing job to hang onto it for as long as he did!” Nonetheless, Dixon's spin into the wall at three-quarter distance was his major dropped catch of the season
On the other side of the Milwaukee farce, there was a fourth place in Iowa on a night where the No. 9 Target car seemed to be the fastest car for the start and middle of a stint but used up its tires slightly quicker than the best of the opposition, making it vulnerable in the closing stages of the race. Nonetheless, with Power failing to finish, Dixon headed north of the border just 15 points off the championship lead – and then suddenly everything unraveled again. A lap four engine blow-up in Toronto was the beginning of the end of his title run, not only for what it did to his chances there, but also because it meant he would start the Edmonton race with a 10-place grid penalty. Given that he was having trouble with his anti-stall device – which kicked in every time he went through Edmonton's two hairpins – that meant qualifying eighth and starting 18th. Recurrence of this issue on race day, and in a race where there were no yellows, he had little hope of making an impression, and he finished the race a disappointed 10th.
Here's a question: how often does a driver following Will Power not only keep pace with him but also save as much as fuel as him? Not often, right. But that's exactly what Dixon did at Mid-Ohio. When they pitted together, on lap 57 of the 85-lap race, Power's more awkward pit entry was the fractional delay that the No. 9 crew needed to get their boy out ahead, and thereafter Dixon took total control to score his fourth win there in six years.
By contrast there was Sonoma where it seemed that, after qualifying fifth, nothing could go right for the No. 9 car. Spun by Helio Castroneves on the opening lap, he went off strategy and came up to fifth, but with a damaged front wing, he went off-course while trying to pass Hunter-Reay. As if that wasn't enough salt for his wound, the pit stop for repairs went horribly wrong, as he ran over a hose and thus had to serve a drive-through penalty. After trailing in a disappointed 13th, Dixon muttered, “Even with a car as good as ours, it's tough to have a good day when you're forced to make six pit stops,” which kind of summed it up perfectly.
At Baltimore he qualified third and looked set for a strong day, but the Ganassi team – like everyone, it seems, except Michael Andretti – predicted more rain, and put Dixon onto wets. From there he was playing catch-up and fourth was a reasonable result, as was third in the finale at Fontana with another oversteering monster of a car. Great to watch, not so fun to drive.
So why is Dixon ahead of Hunter-Reay in this assessment? I ranked the pair exactly equal in terms of qualifying – which, considering the total mark was out of 150, is kind of freaky coincidence. But Dixon's superior consistency of performance on race days, whether his car was good, bad or indifferent, whether it was road, street or oval, gave him the best race score of anyone in the series, edging even our No. 1 in fact. Some slightly disappointing qualifying performances – and Power's scarily consistent brilliance in that area – is what decided who was No. 1.
1 – WILL POWER
Best qualifying position: 1st (St. Pete, Sao Paulo, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Baltimore)
Best finishing position: 1st (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo)
Championship position: 2nd
Will Power experienced a truly bizarre year of great driving but occasional errors, great strategies but occasional miscues – and then also some pretty poor luck, especially when predicting how Race Control would react to certain situations with regards to pits opening or closing under full-course cautions. But despite all these ups and downs, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series title was there for the taking for the Verizon Team Penske squad.
In two of the final three races there were occasions when Team Penske was scrupulously fair to Ryan Briscoe, to the detriment of the championship quest. Not a single IndyCar participant seems 100 percent sure what the deal is regarding imposing team orders on drivers – as in all forms of racing, it seems to be a very gray area – but a phantom pit stop for Briscoe before the final restart at Baltimore would have not only have elevated Power one position, it would have put the highly ambitious and fired-up Pagenaud alongside the similarly aggressive Hunter-Reay when the green flag waved, and put Power alongside Dixon and given him a chance to go for third place. Considering the mood he was in ever since his strategy had gone awry at the first pit stop, I'm not sure he'd have stopped there, either.… But even a fourth-place finish, as things transpired, would have been enough for Power to win the championship.
The race before was an even more stark example of the team choosing sentiment over title-hunting. Power had the Sonoma race in the bag until a very slow final pit stop put him behind backmarkers who were driving at two-thirds speed under the yellow-flag conditions. This allowed Briscoe to emerge from his pit stop ahead of the Verizon car.
Now, I know that it's tough to ask a driver who hasn't won in two-and-a-half seasons to give up a win to his teammate, I know that the No. 2 car's crew needed a win as much as their driver, I know there's an obligation for Team Penske to keep all its sponsors happy, including Hitachi, and I know that with Hunter-Reay not only being spun out but also serving a drive-through penalty, Power was still going to leave Sonoma with a 36-point lead. But at the time, I recall thinking that effectively sacrificing 10 points could prove expensive in what had been a hugely unpredictable season. In that particular situation I'd have had no hesitation in telling Briscoe to let Power through. Had it been Ryan rather than Will who'd dominated the race then yeah, OK, I'd have thought twice about it – but I'd probably still have “done a Ferrari” and ordered the switcharound. I guess I'm just not as benevolent as Roger Penske.
Still, after these two races, a 17-point lead heading into the finale should have been enough for Power, especially against a driver whose car was nothing like a front-runner that night in Fontana. There are various versions of why he didn't just stay a few car lengths behind Hunter-Reay rather than make a pass, but the actual error was Will's and Will's alone – especially as he deliberately drove over the seam that sent the car into its lazy spin! (as he explained here). And that was certainly not the only mistake from Power this year. At Iowa, he didn't hear his spotter say “inside” and thus pinched down on Viso, causing a collision that ended both of their races. He lost a probable win at Texas when he got a drive-through penalty for blocking Tony Kanaan. He made a bad situation (not of his or the team's doing) worse at Toronto by clipping the rear tire of Josef Newgarden and damaging his front wing, sending him to the pits for repairs. And his tentative drive to 12th at Milwaukee was reminiscent of his performance at Kansas two years ago – far too cautious.
Some of that caution was also evident in the season opener at St. Petersburg where Will proved quicker than his opposition in the early stages, but the team's strategy worked terribly with the way the yellows happened to fall – not helped by the pits closing when a car ground to a halt in the pit lane entrance. On one of the restarts, the No. 12 car seemed to allow half the city's population drive past, so desperate was its occupant to stay out of harm's way. Power had a lot of work to do in the final stint, then, but then he came alive, laying down fast laps and passing cars left and right on his way up to seventh.
That was suitable preparation for the next two races where he came from ninth and 12th on the grid to win on a couple of tracks where you supposedly can't pass. And then finally, in Brazil, he was able to do what we've come to expect from him: dominate from the front.
Indy was a disaster, wiped out when A.J. Foyt Racing sent Mike Conway out with a broken front wing; when it completely let go, Power, running in an easy eighth place, had nowhere to go. Detroit could have been better, but the restart rules – everyone had to use a fresh set of tires of the type they'd been using when the race was halted –of course militated against those on the primaries, and played into the hands of all those on reds, who could not only get up to temp faster but also ultimately had more grip. In the circumstances, fourth place wasn't bad, and was a lot better than Toronto. There, the fast guys got hosed by the pit closing under yellow; Power, leading at the time, thus rejoined in a gaggle of cars. The mistake he then made was minimal – he didn't even know he'd tapped Newgarden's tire until he next tried to turn for a corner – and was an error that all the front-runners made at some point in the course of the year; from a DW12's cockpit, it's impossible to see the car's front-wing endplates. But in light of the fact that Newgarden rose as high as third in the closing stages, it was clearly an expensive error: Power should have finished on the podium.
In Edmonton, apart from the “Doh!” moment in qualifying where the track dried quickly after Will thought his Q2 time was safe, his and the team's performance was impeccable. With an engine-change-related 10-place grid penalty to add to his seventh fastest quali time snafu, Power was aiming for a top-five finish. Yet without the aid of any yellow flags, he rose from 17th on the grid to finish third.
At Mid-Ohio, he played it smart like a title contender should. After dominating the first two thirds of the race from pole and getting beaten out of the pits by Dixon, he acknowledged that it's virtually impossible to pass a car of similar performance on that track and so he went straight into fuel-save mode, waiting for a double-file restart to look for an opportunity to get around the Ganassi car. Sadly for him, it was another caution-free race. C'est la vie.
Sonoma and Fontana, we've covered already, but Baltimore was another One That Got Away, for had Power and his strategist Tim Cindric not miscommunicated regarding the wet/dry tire dilemma, they'd likely have won the race and would now be champions. Will had been quickest with slicks in the wet before the yellow flag; ideally what the Verizon team needed to do was just cover any move (or lack thereof) made by its sole title rivals, the No. 28 Andretti Autosport team. But “ideal,” in those circumstances, wasn't possible: if you're in the lead, the best you can do is second-guess your opponents' pit strategy. And get reliable weather forecasts…
And so Power is IndyCar runner-up for the third straight year. You may be wondering why he's not runner-up in this list, too – especially when the points I've awarded to Dixon for each race reach a total slightly higher than Power's race tally. And the answer lies in their relative qualifying performances, in which Will remains peerless over the course of a season.
As he tried to right a wrong in that final stint in Baltimore, Power's closing rate on the Ganassi cars ahead was, on average, one second a lap, but that shouldn't surprise us. His pole position the day before was almost 0.6sec faster than the second quickest driver.
Others, too, had days like that in 2012 – Franchitti's pole-winning run at Milwaukee, Dixon's speed on primary tires in the final laps at Detroit, Bourdais' drive to ninth in the Lotus-powered Dragon Racing entry at Barber – but Power produces them more regularly. In qualifying on road and street courses, he was often around half a second quicker than his teammates or indeed, any other Chevrolet-engined driver; and for those who think he doesn't “get” ovals, he was a top-six qualifier at all of them this year (ignoring engine-change penalties), and faster than at least one of his teammates at all but Iowa.
Power is also the guy who, after the crew botched a tire-stop in Texas, forcing him to do a slow lap and return for a check-up, emerged from the pits in 20th and carved through to the lead. With ovals becoming a driver's – rather than an engineer's – formula, Will's performance that night at TMS resembled so many of his road course displays, going quicker and preserving his tires better than his rivals.
Does he have things to learn? Of course – in particular, how to race more aggressively on the short ovals and on all oval restarts. Maybe Tony Kanaan can take Power for a ride in IndyCar's two-seater at Milwaukee next year. But, facetiousness aside, here's a genuine reason for believing it's vital that he throttles back on the Rick Mears method and instead dials up the Tom Sneva approach to oval racing: Power's significant errors on any type of track almost invariably occur not when he's pushing to the limit, but when he's trying too hard to take it easy. Peculiar but true.
Will is right to never underestimate his opposition, because I can think of two – possibly three – IndyCar drivers who are capable of his top-class drives in the races at Barber, Sao Paulo, Edmonton and Sonoma this past year. Those were also weekends when Cindric, race engineer Dave Faustino and Billy Vincent and his crew played vital roles not only in their work during the race, but throughout the weekend, plotting, fixing and refining. But Power's performance in Long Beach from 12th on the grid – going fast and pulling off passes while saving enough fuel to make a two-stop strategy work – showed the full extent of his talent, as did qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Baltimore.
An IndyCar title is overdue for Will Power and long overdue for Team Penske: it's time for two rights to make a right.