DALE COYNE RACING
18 Justin Wilson
Career stats – Best championship position 2nd (Champ Car), 2006 + '07 / Wins 7 / Poles 9
19 Ana Beatriz
Career stats – Best championship position 21st, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
A message to all who love IndyCar racing and who intend to pass this same love on to kids and grandkids in decades to come: make sure you hammer home this point to your descendants, that Justin Wilson was up in the same league as the most successful IndyCar drivers of his era. Unfortunately, it seems the record books will never do him justice, and he will forever be consigned to fighting a rearguard battle, picking up the occasional win against the odds. This year, as last, he has on his side the enthusiasm of team owner Dale Coyne and the talents of race engineer Bill Pappas and the others on car No. 18. This year, as last, working against him is the fact that Dale is largely funding this team out of his own pocket, and is therefore unable to apply the resources of a big team, such as extensive wind tunnel work or employing a teammate of similar experience and pace.
While the win at Texas last year was an obvious highlight, Wilson also showed race-winning pace at both Long Beach and Milwaukee, and theoretically the locked down rules should keep the Andretti/Penske/Ganassi hordes in sight for the less well-endowed teams in 2013. But I'd be surprised if the Wilson/Pappas/DCR combo got that many chances to win again, so it's vital that they execute every time out.
Ana Beatriz was dealt a poor hand (literally, come to think of it) in her first full season of IndyCar competition, two years ago, and in terms of raw talent, she's far better than she's shown at this level. Don't forget that four years ago she finished third in the Indy Lights series, when it was somewhat deeper than the puddle it is now. But Beatriz needs track time in the DW12 and that's not something the series allows much of in terms of testing. She's a plucky lady and won't give up, but she's not going to have enough practice time to shine anywhere but Indy.
ED CARPENTER RACING
20 Ed Carpenter
Career stats – Best championship position 12th, 2009 / Wins 2 / Poles 1
His victory at the 2012 season finale in Fontana was somewhat overshadowed by Hunter-Reay's championship-winning performance, but Ed Carpenter's drive that night was strong, and his final-stint pace left Ganassi duo Franchitti and Dixon gasping in his wake. It also reminded everyone that Carpenter is a brave driver – his fight with Alex Tagliani had some alarming moments – nor was it the only time that the Indianapolis native shone. For example, his run to eighth at Iowa was smooth and classy, and when his car's handling was compromised by damage at Indy, he drove it like a dirt car, until finally it got away from him while he lay fifth.
I still believe that, despite his progress on road and street tracks, Ed would better serve his own team and its sponsors by relinquishing the cockpit at any track that involves right turns – especially when Ryan Briscoe, Mike Conway and Alex Lloyd are available. But on ovals, he's undoubtedly got a chance to win races again this year.
SCHMIDT HAMILTON RACING / SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS
55 Tristan Vautier
Career stats – rookie
77 Simon Pagenaud
Career stats – Best championship position 5th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
A “Vive la France!” mood is sweeping through Sam Schmidt's team in 2013, as super-sophomore Simon Pagenaud is joined by compatriot and (we expect) a super-rookie in Tristan Vautier. Pagenaud shook up the underperformers in the IndyCar field last year by posting four podium finishes on his way to fifth in the championship, blending great race pace with a smart attitude to ovals and other unfamiliar tracks. He admits that inexperience of the red (softer, grippier) tires, combined with a lack of teammate with whom to pool data, caused him to occasionally get a little lost in directing his team regarding optimum qualifying setups, but there were few road and street tracks where he wasn't a factor last year. Overall, he could scarcely have impressed more in terms of his extreme maturity and he and the team are expected to win races this year. It's a sign of their ambition that they were disappointed not to do so last year!
While an additional car should undoubtedly increase the rate of team progress over the course of a race weekend, it will be interesting to watch how Pagenaud responds to having a highly competitive teammate. Vautier, who won the 2011 Star Mazda title and last year's Indy Lights series, showed immense speed in his tests with the team, and is clearly not intimidated by the “big cars”. In previous series he's also shown an ability to remain level-headed and, like his new teammate, rarely makes risky passes. Given that he's the only rookie on the grid, Vautier is guaranteed the Rookie of the Year title, but behind the friendly personality, there's steely ambition and I suspect that his targets will be set high.
SARAH FISHER HARTMAN RACING
67 Josef Newgarden
Career stats – Best championship position 23rd, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
When you look at his natural talent and the Sarah Fisher Hartman team's ability to punch above its weight, there's no excuse for Josef Newgarden to have languished in 23rd in last year's points table with a best finish of only 12th. Mistakes are easily forgiven in a rookie, especially one with a winning personality and great turn of pace like Newgarden, but it's important that this year he minimizes the number and scale of his wilder moments, forgoes the distractions of a series desperately trying to use him to promote itself to “the kids” and starts to exploit the talent that saw him win the 2011 Indy Lights series. His progress will again be hindered by not having a teammate, but Newgarden can still shine if he channels his natural born enthusiasm into a natural born killer instinct.
BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
98 Alex Tagliani
Career stats – Best championship position 7th, 2004 + '05 / Wins 1 / Poles 7
It's hard to know what to say about Alex Tagliani other than this: if desire and 24/7 endeavor were their own reward, he'd have been IndyCar champion years ago. Life ain't like that though, and so he's still waiting on the deserved results of his 13 years of talent and commitment. Will those results arrive in 2013? Honestly, so long as Honda has brought its A-game, there's no reason why not. Tagliani is possibly faster than ever, he's surrounded by people he likes and respects and who reciprocate those sentiments, and he's so convinced that Barracuda-BHA Racing is on its way up that he's not fearful to take risks. He's no longer thinking, “This podium finish may be my best chance all year, I'll settle for that.” No, he's now of the mindset to keep on keeping on, pushing hard. He had the pace to win Iowa, Edmonton and Fontana last year.
It also helps that he's surround by level-headed people like race engineer Todd Malloy, as well as team co-owners Bryan Herta and Steve Newey. They resisted the temptation to add a second car with a pay driver, and swiftly dismissed the idea of replacing Tag with a pay driver. Herta and Newey want to emulate Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, so are in IndyCar to excel, not just exist. Right now, they see Tagliani as the best way to do that, and the mutual faith and strong work ethic that permeates BHA makes it a happy place to be.