6 Sebastian Saavedra
Career stats – Best championship position 25th, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
7 Sebastien Bourdais
Career stats – Best championship position 1st (Champ Car), 2004, '05, '06, '07 / Wins 31 / Poles 31
A baffling lack of pace in the final pre-season test should not be a foretelling of how the season should go for Jay Penske's team. Resident ace Sebastien Bourdais, whose experience has taught him what a great team looks like, was fairly content to stay where he was, with a genuine belief in the personnel assembled there, starting with his race engineer, the much respected Neil Fife. Much is made of Bourdais' lack of experience on ovals (he didn't do a complete season last year), but he's smart and has won on ovals in trickier cars than the DW12. He remains superb on street and road courses, as he always has been, so don't be surprised to see podium finishes in 2013.
Sebastian Saavedra has only started 20 IndyCar races spread across three seasons, and, as with his Indy Lights career, has shown flashes of excellence (Sonoma last year in an Andretti Autosport car) and also days when he “goes missing.” Those will become glaringly obvious when partnering a champ like Bourdais, and so consistency must be the prime aim for Saavedra this year. A charming guy outside the cockpit, if SS can retain his focus and learn from Bourdais, he should prove a worthwhile hire.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
9 Scott Dixon
Career stats – Best championship position 1st, 2003 + '08 / Wins 29 / Poles 18
10 Dario Franchitti
Career stats – Best championship position 1st, 2007, '09, '10, '11 / Wins 31 / Poles 29
83 Charlie Kimball
Career stats – Best championship position 19th, 2011 + '12 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
The team to beat for four years got heavily beaten last year, when the Target boys (who have six IndyCar championships between them) found Victory Lane on just three occasions. Yes, a 1-2 finish at the Indianapolis 500 is – and will always be – an impressive achievement from a field of 33, but the season-long consistency that we came to expect in previous seasons, particularly from Dario Franchitti, just wasn't there. Some of the blame can be laid at Honda's door, for there were reliability problems that cost the team at least two potential wins, and a couple more podium finishes. But Dixon made a couple of high-profile errors and Franchitti took two races to get the DW12 handling to his taste.
Now if Honda's claim that it sandbagged at the Barber test is true, and if its engines are reliable, then there's no reason why the Target cars can't win a bunch of races and contend for the title again this year. Both drivers have strengths and weaknesses but they are strong on all types of track and can never be counted out. Despite what the stats say, between rounds 3 and 15 last year, Franchitti put together what was probably his finest body of work since 2009, and looked like a man on a mission pretty much every race. As for Dixon, well, he's always looked that way – sometimes to great effect, sometimes not! – but on his best days, he can run and hide (see Detroit last year).
Charlie Kimball is never going to be at that level, for qualifying pace will always be his undoing; but he certainly has a decent racing instinct, as his drives at Sao Paulo and Toronto last year proved. He's a willing student, humble enough to listen and learn from his champion partners, and he's learning well. He's also a good ambassador for the sport; he just needs to stop being such a good guy in the cockpit!
11 Tony Kanaan
Career stats – Best championship position 1st, 2004 / Wins 15 / Poles 15
78 Simona de Silvestro
Career stats – Best championship position 19th, 2010 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
KV Racing is a complex team to try and figure out, alternately flattering to deceive or surprising us when you think all hope is lost. In a way, Tony Kanaan is this squad's ideal driver, because the old champ has an air of urgency, as well as Nigel Mansell-like tendencies for getting involved in on- and off-track dramas and in demanding a team revolve around him. And to be honest, that's fair enough if you're a proven champ who's keeping up your side of the deal.
On-track, Kanaan is Jekyll and Hyde. In qualifying on a street course, he'll drive like his steering wheel has an electric current running through it, but come the race he has a wonderfully polished wheel-to-wheel technique that sees him make great progress, and can cause other experienced drivers to look like rookies! On ovals, TK generally starts near the front anyway and remains swift during the race…but then occasionally, inexplicably, drops it (Milwaukee 2011, Fontana 2012).
He also responds badly to being beaten by a teammate. In which case, should he be worried by new arrival Simona De Silvestro? Possibly, yes. While rookie Rubens Barrichello started to outpace his KV Racing teammates in the second half of last season, De Silvestro has enough years under her wheels to put that pressure on Kanaan from the start. This fourth term in IndyCars is a huge deal for her, not because KV is substantially better than HVM – it isn't – but because for the first time she will have a teammate. As long as she doesn't get too distracted by the intra-team tussle with Tony and keeps her eye on the big picture, she may well score a podium or two.
AJ FOYT RACING
14 Takuma Sato
Career stats – Best championship position 13th, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 2
Takuma Sato has been an enigma for much of his career – fast and brave, a have-a-go hero – but with a tendency to live for the moment, and fail to see the big picture. I have no doubt that had he 1) Not had too many incidents in the first half of last year, or 2) not had the calming voice of Bobby Rahal in his ear, he'd have tried a 50/50 (at best) passing attempt on Castroneves at Edmonton last year, with the possible result being a win for eventual third-place finisher Power…. That may be an unfair assessment, but Sato's past is littered with missed opportunities and car debris.
So how will he fit in at Foyt? Actually, it should be fine. Sato can cope with being the sole driver on a team, as there are no question marks over his pace nor his intelligence in working through an engineering problem, while veteran engineer Don Halliday is never short of ideas in how to solve issues nor in how to empathize with drivers. Equally, for all the talk about A.J. Foyt's combustibility, Super Tex will love anyone who puts the No. 14 near the front, and these days Taku has the ability and experience to do that on any type of track. Plus team manager Larry Foyt is about as placid a guy as you could hope to find in the IndyCar paddock. Should tensions rise – and yes, of course they will – the younger Foyt is the one who can keep everyone focused.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
15 Graham Rahal
Career stats – Best championship position 5th (Champ Car), 2007 / Wins 1 / Poles 2
30 James Jakes
Career stats – Best championship position 22nd, 2011 + '12 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
45 Mike Conway
Career stats – Best championship position 17th, 2009 + '11 / Wins 1 / Poles 0
It's fair to say that Graham Rahal frustrates a lot of IndyCar media members. On one side, he's a thoroughly mature and reasoned youth who can handle media, sponsors and exalted company in a thoroughly classy manner that is a credit to his pop, yet he also remains interesting because he's not afraid to speak his mind. On the other side, since he reached this level, we've waited six years for him to find somewhere and someone who can tease the best out of him on a consistent basis. Rahal Jr. is never afraid and has great car control, but sometimes his technique on road and street courses is as unsubtle as his father's was smooth and easy. In IndyCar's current era, with the field so close and with the regulations pinched so tight that you can change hardly anything on the cars, it's up to the drivers to adapt their style to suit the DW12, as Marco Andretti will try to do. It's time for the other son-of-a-champion-IndyCar-driver to do the same.
On ovals it's a different matter. Graham has become quite exceptional at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing traditionally produces fine cars for the “500.” Right now, he's my dark horse for victory there this year.
James Jakes doesn't appear to be the most inspired choice in the second full-time RLLR seat, but it's not skill he lacks; it's confidence, the sort of confidence that gives you the ability to carry an ill-handling car, or wring the most out of it at crunch time in qualifying. With Eddie Jones as his engineer, I think Jakes may take a good step forward.
Talking of lack of confidence, that's what prompted Mike Conway to quit oval racing. But on roads and streets, he has the capacity to surprise, and both confident and quick in testing at Barber. Currently, Conway is down to race only Long Beach, where he won two years ago, but Bobby may well discover there are days when his part-timer is his fastest driver, and this may prompt further negotiations for more races.