SCHMIDT HAMILTON RACING
Best result: 2nd
There's no one in RACER's employ who doubted the quality of Simon Pagenaud's driving talent, and although he's in a one-car team, we had every confidence that his technical savvy and car sorting ability would help compensate for the deficit of data due to this being a one-car team. But (pre-grid penalty) qualifying sixth at St. Petersburg – a track he'd never driven before in an IndyCar – was still startling, as was finishing second at Long Beach and qualifying fourth at Detroit. His second trip to the podium was well deserved.
And he hasn't been daunted by his first taste of ovals, either. A measured approach to Indy served him well and qualifying inside the top 10 for both Texas and Milwaukee suggests he's climbing the nursery slopes with ease.
He's destined for more podium visits in the seven confirmed races ahead. If there's an eighth and it's at Road America or Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, don't be shocked to see him in the top three all weekend.
Best result: 2nd
The results may not always show it, but Tony Kanaan is probably driving better than ever. The haunted look of his latter days at Andretti Autosport has gone, there's a sense of responsibility in particular to help Rubens Barrichello, and yet he no longer feels the burden of being the only driver on the team who can bring the car home in one piece.
Sure, Kanaan's qualifying laps still give you the impression that his steering wheel is an electric eel, but that style seems to be a little more effective with the DW12 than with the last car and – much like last year – if he finds himself starting near the back on a road or street course, he drives through the field very calmly, very cleanly. And that same arms-and-elbows style is what made him run strongly in both Texas and Milwaukee. In the former, the result didn't reflect that because Power blocked him, but in the latter, he got the podium finish. And let's not forget he was top Chevy finisher at Indy, with a stirring drive in the closing stages.
EJ Viso's new-found calmness has also been impressive. Many attribute that to team co-owner Jimmy Vasser being the guy on his radio this year, others to the necessity to prove to CITGO top people that he/KV/IndyCar in general are worthy of their dollars. But whatever, it's been good to see at last and getting through to the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying at Detroit while his teammates languished near the back was particularly admirable.
Barrichello has not delivered the results that some expected of him – but those “some” were massively underestimating how different IndyCar is from Formula 1. Of far more importance is that he hasn't been hurling his car at the scenery while learning: that achieves nothing, as it robs the driver of confidence and laps, and the team of money and human resources. Instead, the charming Brazilian has built up slowly, learning the tracks, learning how to drive with delicacy a car that doesn't have power steering, learning how to do rolling restarts, and learning ovals. In the latter category, he's been quite exceptional, with a top-class rookie performance at Indy (qualifying and race) and a phenomenal qualifying effort at Milwaukee. Yeah: this rookie's got what it takes…
Best result: 4th
Oriol Servia, from the calamitous early days of the season with a Lotus behind his ears, has reached the top 10 in the championship thanks to two fourths and a fifth place over the past four races. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team, in its switch to Chevrolet power, has also gained a partnership with Panther Racing; hence the new nomenclature. Right now it seems that both teams are benefiting from the alliance, as you'd expect. Servia and JR Hildebrand are accomplished drivers on all types of circuit, and the teams' strengths should complement one another.
Hildebrand has scored fifth places in Long Beach and Texas – the latter despite a crazy-loose setup in the first stint – and Servia seems able to mount charges from the back of the grid. But now it's time for podium finishes…and that usually (but not always) requires starting from near the front. If Panther DRR continues working as one team, it has the drivers to capitalize on strengths and improve on weaknesses and the teams together will learn all the nuances and finer points of the DW12.
DALE COYNE RACING
And what a win it was! I've wondered in the past whether Justin Wilson's bravery and ability to steer the rear on the throttle at high speed might punish his rear tires too much. Well, that certainly wasn't the case in Texas a couple weeks ago: only two other drivers maintained such an even pace over the course of a stint and thus avoided the huge grip drop-off before pit stops. And both those drivers took care of themselves, whereas Wilson was error-free. Error-free, I should add, despite the frustration of restarting at the back of the field after having another driver (unintentionally) sabotage one of his pit stops!
An engine change following that race, of course, penalized him on the starting grid for Milwaukee – and ultimately, the new motor lunched itself – but the Dale Coyne Racing car's pace around the Mile on both qualifying and raceday was probably stronger than any other. Come to think of it, JWil was only a late restart away from finishing third at Indy…
So has Coyne's combination of Wilson, engineer Bill Pappas and Honda engines pulled the team into the top rank? Despite horrible fortunes in the early races – see Justin's blogs – there's no reason to assume Wilson's customary excellence on road and street courses won't now have a chance to shine on every type of circuit. Podiums are probable, but another win isn't out of the question, either.
In light of his teammate's talent, James Jakes is likely to be overshadowed more often than not. There are still days when you think “Whoa, where did he come from?” but the progress we saw toward the end of last year seems to have plateaued in his sophomore season. However, Sebastien Bourdais was impressed with Jakes last year, and Wilson's opinion follows similar lines. One good result could be all JJ needs to start that onward and upward progress once more.