A team-by-team breakdown of the contenders in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series, which opens this weekend in St. Petersburg.
1/28 Ryan Hunter-Reay
Career stats – Best championship position 1st, 2012 / Wins 9 / Poles 2
5 EJ Viso
Career stats – Best championship position 17th, 2010 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
25 Marco Andretti
Career stats – Best championship position 7th, 2006 + '08 / Wins 2 / Poles 2
27 James Hinchcliffe
Career stats – Best championship position 8th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Andretti Autosport has looked fast in testing, carrying on the momentum from 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay scored four wins on his way to the IZOD IndyCar Series title. For RHR, the idea is to do much the same again, but he's definitely due a change of fortune at Indianapolis: since winning the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 2008, anything that could go wrong has gone wrong for him at the Speedway. Hunter-Reay has vowed to be as aggressive and canny as he was last year; combined with the subconscious boost in confidence that comes with winning a title, he's likely to be an even stronger competitor in 2013. Which of course means a potential champion.
James Hinchcliffe looked as fast as his title-winning leader for much of last year, but suffered some bad luck and occasionally his inexperience showed, in particular on restarts. Now in his third season, however, “Hinch” has enough race smarts to add to his speed and aggression, and he's reunited with ex-Newman/Haas Racing Craig Hampson, who helped get the best out of the Canadian in his rookie season of 2011. It's very feasible that the Mayor of Hinchtown could wind up in Victory Lane, and there would be few more popular race winners.
Their 2013 teammates have much to prove. Marco Andretti has decided to completely revise his driving style for road/street courses, in order to iron out his inconsistencies, which have revolved around his over-aggression on corner entry. He's still an ace on ovals, but Marco has realized that to finish in the top 10 in the championship requires competitiveness on right turns, too. His car control is superb, as seen whenever it rains, but his abrupt steering inputs punish the tires in the dry. Eliminate that, boost the confidence and his natural talent will do much (though not all) of the rest.
Keith Wiggins' HVM Racing will run Andretti Autosport's fourth car, which is to be driven by EJ Viso, who spent his first two IndyCar seasons with HVM. He will also be reunited with Michael Cannon, his engineer from those times, and if anyone can explain and then resolve Viso's bizarre up-and-down pace variations, it's Cannon. Expect to see No. 5 nearer the front more often this season. Whether it can remain there comes down to Viso's own mind management.
2 AJ Allmendinger
Career stats – Best championship position 3rd (Champ Car) 2006 / Wins 5 / Poles 2
3 Helio Castroneves
Career stats – Best championship position 2nd, 2002 + '08 / Wins 27 / Poles 37
12 Will Power
Career stats – Best championship position 2nd, 2010, '11, '12 / Wins 18 / Poles 29
Hard to believe that Roger's men haven't won an IndyCar title since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.), for in the six seasons since, the team has accumulated 33 wins and, since '08, there has always been a Penske driver in the top three in the championship at season's end. It's trite to say that Team Penske's mission must be do to do the same only a little bit better, but basically that's exactly what's required.
Helio Castroneves rebounded from an awful 2011 to give himself an outside shot at the 2012 title right up to the penultimate race. He goes about trying to win the championship by accumulating points and then pouncing on victory chances when the opportunity arises, but always there are a couple of inexplicable performances that puncture his title hopes. With longtime race engineer Ron Ruzewski being promoted to Penske's technical director, and Jonathan Diuguid replacing him as Castroneves' right-hand man, it's possible that could be the key for Helio to score his fourth Indy 500 victory, but it's increasingly hard to envisage him as champion.
Helio long ago became the winningest driver in the 100-year history of Indy car racing to not have a championship to his name. Next on that list, believe it or not, is his teammate Will Power, whose extraordinary speed, misfortune and occasional lapses of his own have been too well chronicled to bear repeating here. Last season, he attempted the smart softly-softly approach to racing, as practiced successfully in the past by the likes of Al Unsers Sr. and Jr., and Dario Franchitti…but because that wasn't his style, he ended up involved in stupid accidents. If he drives like Michael Andretti or Tom Sneva, he'll win his first IndyCar championship. And it should go without saying that, more often than not, he's the man to beat on road and street courses.
AJ Allmendinger, who once had Power-like speed in an open-wheel car, has a hard road ahead to recapture that form after six years in stock cars. But if eventually he can be guaranteed more than just the Barber race (round 2) and the Indy 500, he's going to blow off more and more rust with every race, and recapture his former instincts. It's great to have him back, but no one involved intends for this to be a mere publicity stunt.
4 JR Hildebrand
Career stats – Best championship position 11th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
22 Oriol Servia
Career stats – Best championship position 2nd, 2005 / Wins 1 / Poles 1
There were signs last year that the abrupt and late wedding between Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing wasn't working as well as it should. Following D&R's dropping of the lamentable Lotus engine after four rounds, the team needed to swiftly regain lost ground to other Chevrolet runners, and a partnership with another single-car team seemed a smart way to go about it. However, the cross-flow of information between the two sides was not everything it should be, and if each party looks inwardly, they can each assume a little blame.
Working together, there's no obvious reason why they shouldn't be regularly finishing in the top five – something they managed six times in the 15 races of 2012. Oriol Servia is a veteran entering his 13th year at this level, and though he sometimes overdrives in qualifying on street courses, to the detriment of his lap time, he's one of the most consistent racers and one of the smartest engineering-oriented drivers in the series. JR Hildebrand (BELOW) is entering his third year, and although he is blessed with car control from the angels, he's sometimes too ethical when trying to make up ground on raceday having qualified mid-grid.
But that, truly, is the heart of the matter: at the moment, both drivers have too much work to do on race day. Finding those last few tenths in qualifying should be No. 1 priority, and will come easiest if these two halves make a whole.