Halfway through the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, there have already been moments of joy and despair, surprise frontrunners, one shocking winner and some excellent racing on all types of circuit. RACER editor David Malsher assesses the teams' performances so far.
TARGET CHIP GANASSI RACING
The reigning champs continue to prove why they have held that position since 2008. Any rivals who hoped Chip had stretched his team too thin by setting up a second two-car stable have had a reality check. The Target team isn't perfect – look how it imploded at Indy in both Fast Nine qualifying and race – but they're a damn sight closer to perfection than any other team out there.
It also appears that the No. 9 and 10 cars now have an edge on Penske on ovals. It's not a huge advantage, but it is discernible. It means if they start at or near the front, they appear to be running minimal downforce and it's essential for the drivers to make great starts and stay out in clean air. Hence Dario Franchitti's urgency to re-pass Marco Andretti at Iowa and, hence his car appearing to have the directional stability of Bambi on ice once he fell behind Andretti, Kanaan and teammate Scott Dixon.
Franchitti himself (LEFT) just keeps rolling in typically fine form – quick when he needs to be, assertive when he needs to be, keeping mistakes to a minimum, and minimizing the effects of the ones he does make (Sao Paulo race day is the only obvious one). The reasons why Dario is a three-time IndyCar champ are largely the reasons why he leads the 2011 standings at the halfway point.
Scott Dixon has been very unlucky this year. In terms of competitiveness, he's right up there each time out. He didn't help himself by qualifying near the back at Iowa, but recovered beautifully to finish third, and in the rains of Sao Paulo, he messed up. Other than that, it's been a case of misfortune for the 2003 and '08 champ, with Castroneves removing him from serious contention at both St. Pete and Long Beach, and his team failing to give him enough fuel in his final pit stop at Indy. No one should underestimate Dixon's ability to catch up with the top two in the championship standings.
A good first half to the season, but not an outstanding one by the standards of Roger Penske's legendary team.
Will Power (LEFT) has won three of the nine races and would probably have won Long Beach, too, had he not been spun by teammate Helio Castroneves. Power remains king of the road and street courses and he now has an oval win as well, from the second Texas race. However, he's still annoyed that his tail slide in qualifying at Milwaukee didn't allow him to start where he expected (that is to say, on the front row with Dario Franchitti), and backing into the wall at Iowa was a painful blow in the championship standings. The screw-ups in the No. 12 Verizon car's pits at Indy and Iowa make you wonder whether all the right people are working on the only Penske entry with a realistic shot at the title.
Ryan Briscoe is still fast but needs to match it with consistency. The front-row starter at Barber shouldn't be starting from 12th at Long Beach, for instance. Briscoe also needs to avoid being taken out as he was at St. Petersburg, Barber, Indy and nearly twice at Milwaukee! Part of the problem is that he's sometimes racing more wayward drivers because he's not always at the smart end of the field, but other times he's just been plain unlucky. He remains a potential winner at every track.
Castroneves has had the season from hell. When he hasn't been making high-profile misjudgments on street tracks, he's been unlucky on ovals. Both Milwaukee and Iowa might have gone his way if not for punctures. More worrying is whether he can recapture his road/street course form of 2010. He hasn't yet qualified within half a second of Power this year.
Overall, you've got to say Penske is a team of high-quality drivers, high-quality engineers and high-quality cars. But operationally, when the pressure is on come race day, there are some pieces missing. And unless these gaps are filled, Ganassi will march to a fourth consecutive IndyCar championship.
What a bizarre season for the team – and we're only halfway through. Consider the agonies of being woefully off the pace in Indy 500 qualifying and the ludicrous amount of bad luck that befell them at St. Petersburg on race day, and yet also the highs of winning in Long Beach and Iowa.
OK, so you could argue that Michael's team had two wins at this point last year, too, and at the same venues. But there's an air of positivity about the team in 2011. For one thing, Mike Conway's (RIGHT) arrival means that, together with Ryan Hunter-Reay, there are now two AA cars near the front on street courses, and there will be three if Marco Andretti can find that last tweak that makes him as confident in his car in qualifying as he is in race trim. For a second thing, Andretti's win at Iowa means that anyone outside or inside the team who needed convincing that the kid holds that seat on merit now has hard evidence. Thirdly, all three of them are potential winners on natural road courses, if the cars are right. Fourthly, Allen McDonald is back so there's an increased chance of the cars being right pretty much anywhere.
On the other hand…Ryan Hunter-Reay – a potential winner at Long Beach and potential podium finisher at St. Pete and Barber – needs to turn his season around asap. Apart from his embarrassing first-lap Doh! moment at Milwaukee, he's done little wrong and a lot right, so to see him 20th in the point standings is quite heartbreaking. He should be great this weekend.
As for Danica Patrick, she's done an adequate job, has stayed out of trouble and gotten a front-row start at Iowa, but unlike her teammates, you never expect to see her mixing it with the Ganassi or Penske boys, certainly not if right turns are required. Whatever happened to the driver who qualified seventh at Watkins Glen two years ago?
BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
Touched by the hand of Allen McDonald and driven by a former Indy winner and brave, brave oval driver, the BHA No. 98 entry at this year's Indianapolis 500 was always going to be a contender. But who, aside from Bryan Herta, Steve Newey and Dan Wheldon knew the depth of quality of this team? There were no pit screw-ups or lame strategies on race day, and so Wheldon was able to remain in the top six throughout the race, and that capped two whole weeks of going fast and knowing how to adjust the car for every type of track condition. It was as if this team had been one cohesive unit for a number of years, whereas Bryan's boys won their second ever IndyCar start. It just happened to be at the biggest race on Earth.
It would be great for the series as a whole if this driver or team – or both – could squeeze in some more races this year between their commitments to testing the 2012 IndyCar.
It didn't take much to get this team firing on all cylinders again: money and two good drivers did the trick. The core of the Newman/Haas Racing team that has 107 wins and 109 poles to its name still existed. It just needed drivers who could push the limits of the NHR cars and in Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe, that is exactly what it now has. In turn, both drivers have proven that all they needed was an outlet to remind everyone of their talents. Servia, veteran of 158 IndyCar/Champ Car starts, seems as quick as ever he was, and a hell of a smart racer, too. Hinchcliffe, veteran of five years in the next rung down (Atlantics and, more recently, Indy Lights) has been a revelation as a rookie. There is strong harmony between the drivers, and there is strong feedback, too, so that their engineers Craig Hampson (Hinchcliffe) and Bruno Couprie (Servia) can pool their information and each benefit the other.
It's a bit sad that Servia's front-row grid slot at Indy (and the fact that he led 18 laps of the race) has been the most media attention-grabbing performance of NHR's year, because as well as the third and sixth that he and Hinch scored at Milwaukee, there has also been a top-three finish lost for Servia at Iowa (disastrous pit stop) and maybe a potential win lost for him at Long Beach (disastrous driving from Castroneves). That four-car incident helped give Hinchcliffe his best result of the year, but, in fact, he's impressed no less at other circuits. Expect both NHR cars to be prominent at Toronto this weekend.
The combination of Tony Kanaan (LEFT) and race engineer Michael Cannon has given this team a natural leading entity in 2011, and it was much needed. There is a lot of work still to be done, but give TK half a chance and he'll wring its neck, and Cannon is the man to give him more than half a chance. Given the finishes at St. Petersburg and Iowa and strong performances at Texas and Milwaukee, no one is going to be surprised to see car No. 82 find its way to Victory Lane this year, almost certainly on an oval. Kanaan can make errors (Milwaukee was a painful one), and more than once at the start of the year he had to use teammate Takuma Sato's setup, but his competitive spirit has been the adrenaline shot the team needed.
Sato and EJ Viso are no less competitive in terms of motivation, but they're both still prone to too many errors in the heat of the moment. Sato's a smart guy who has flashes of brilliance in cockpit: he was the only genuine match for Power on a rain-soaked Sao Paulo track. But will his temperament and/or natural exuberance forever condemn him to shining brightly for less than the length of a complete race? If it's frustrating for his fans to see Taku's talent flicker then extinguish itself, you can only imagine how it is for team co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser.
As for Viso, it's difficult to see where he's made progress over the last three and a half years in IndyCar racing. On his day, he's still genuinely quick – it wouldn't be a surprise to see him out-qualify both his teammates this weekend, for example. And all smirking aside, not all the shunts at the start of the year were his fault. But his first race win seems as far away as it did when he was driving for an under-financed HVM team in 2008. In light of how well Tomas Scheckter performed in a one-off deal with a fourth KV car at Indy, it's tempting to wonder how much better the No. 59 car would run on ovals if the car was shared between the two drivers.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
Talent will shine through in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and Graham Rahal has scored three top-three finishes in the opening nine races in this start-up team. OK, OK, the Service Central and Novo Nordisk cars have the might of Ganassi behind them, but this team isn't at the level of its Target-sponsored sister.
That difference has been most notable on the ovals where, Rahal's 12th place grid position at Milwaukee aside, he and teammate Charlie Kimball haven't yet started higher than 20th. Rahal's top results have largely been a result of his dexterity in the cockpit, and some reliable pit work. His excellent drive to second to split the Penskes at Sao Paulo was a good indicator of how much potential Bobby's son has and it was also great to see his pace and overtaking smarts at Indy rewarded with a strong result. He sure looks like someone who could win that race in years ahead – and from the front.
Kimball has had a tougher time of it and, being a rookie in a new team and thrown into the toughest Champ/IndyCar field since 1999, that's no surprise. As we predicted preseason, CK has played himself in carefully and made few errors. However, so the reasoning goes, if you're not making errors, you're not taking it to the limit enough. OK, so there are plenty of drivers who'd dispute that (Franchitti and Power spring to mind!) but still there is the feeling that this smart guy is driving within himself. If so, now is the time for Kimball to cut loose and show us what he's got in qualifying, and show some of the attitude that made him a front-runner in Firestone Indy Lights and British Formula 3. We think there's more to come.
A lot of people have a lot of faith in JR Hildebrand and it was awful at the start of the year to see him wrestling a recalcitrant car around the streets of St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Sao Paulo. When Hildebrand was out-qualified by more than 0.4sec on a 70sec lap by a driver with both a lesser pedigree and a broken wrist, then something was majorly amiss. Driving on road and street courses for a one-car team whose fame is built purely on its oval prowess was never going to be easy for any driver, never mind a rookie, and so it proved. Having a second car driven by a Servia, Power or Justin Wilson would make the world of difference to this team – and its driver.
It was important for Hildebrand's (and the team's) morale therefore to take full advantage of their oval-track savvy, and that has been a more successful quest. Sure, the last turn of the 2011 Indy 500 will play through JR's mind until the day he gets his face on the Borg-Warner, but if any rookie can mentally handle such a high-profile dropped catch, it's him. Some classless ignoramuses tried to get on his case when he had a similar Turn 4 incident at Milwaukee, so it was sweet revenge at Iowa when he ended both qualifying and the race in fourth place. Not only that, it was the manner of his race result that mattered: he ran with the present-day oval masters all night, was clearly not intimidated by Kanaan's dubious on-track manners and he beat the reigning champ Franchitti.
Hildebrand will be desperately hoping that the team has been able to throw some resources behind their street course setups, though, or there's more pain on the way.
SAM SCHMIDT MOTORSPORTS
For Hunter-Reay and Servia in 2011, read Alex Tagliani – blatantly obvious potential and speed but apparently drove over a few black cats in the off-season. The pole-winner at Indy – and let's not forget Texas – has the speed to qualify on the front row at street courses, too, and despite losing McDonald to Andretti Autosport, his replacement Nick Snyder is reputed to be excellent, too, and SSM has strength in depth. Tagliani still kicks himself over his wall-brush during qualifying at Sao Paulo – he's certain he'd have been a top-four starter there – but his pace at St. Pete and Long Beach proves he can still take the fight to the biggest teams. Alex is also hell of an analyst of car behavior, and his feedback is vital to improving the car through practice and qualifying.
Rob Edwards is managing quite a diamond at SSM, and it's to be hoped that team owner Sam Schmidt realizes quite how many assets he has there. His choice of Wade Cunningham for a second car at Texas seemed weird in light of who he was passing over – namely, Wheldon and Townsend Bell, who we recall had done quite well in Schmidt/Schmidt-related cars at the previous round. And let's hope that Thursday's announcement of an alliance with Gary Peterson's AFS Racing leads to the return of Raphael Matos to partner Tag. Some of the other names that have been connected with that No. 17 car seat would add little if anything to the team other than repair bills.
A.J. FOYT RACING
Vitor Meira shrugged off his reputation as an oval specialist by qualifying 13th and finishing eighth at St. Petersburg. He also qualified 13th at Long Beach, and finished eighth in the first Texas race. And those have been the highlights of this team's season. It's unfair to judge either team or driver by this – we don't know how good Meira is because he has no teammate, we don't know how much Foyt's team is held back (or boosted) by its driver. What we do know is that there's nothing in the recent history of either to suggest that the combination is strong enough to rise above its current anonymity.
Having said that, look who Meira leads in the championship…
DREYER & REINBOLD RACING
There probably isn't a set of fans more gutted by the way this season has gone than those of Justin Wilson. And there can't be many teams who have had so many expectations crushed in 2011. In each of the opening four rounds, Wilson qualified in the top eight, yet had incidents, be it with other cars, tire walls or on his own. Not all were his fault, but some were and that's unusual for him.
A pretty hopeless Indy 500 race day performance for all four D&R cars prompted some engineering shuffles, and it wasn't until Milwaukee that the team's off-season focus on oval setups looked like it was starting to show promise. At the Mile, Wilson and teammate Ana Beatriz qualified 13th and 11th, respectively, and the Brit finished 10th. Then at Iowa, he qualified and finished 12th, and on the lead lap. It remains to be seen whether the later ovals in the season show that momentum building, but in the mean time, there are three street/road races for Wilson to boost himself up the championship table. Remember, he took a dominant pole at Toronto last year.
His full-time teammate Beatriz just needs laps, laps and more laps to gain confidence. There's a spark there, we think – but not as big a spark as we saw when Simon Pagenaud subbed for her at Barber.
It would be understandable if Simona de Silvestro has lost some confidence on ovals. They have served her badly this year, starting with that huge shunt in practice at Indy that wrote off the team's primary car. That she had the talent and bravery to get in her old dog of a backup car and put it in the show that first weekend spoke volumes about her faith in her own talents and those of her HVM crew. It's been downhill since then, however, culminating in the Milwaukee practice crash that led to de Silvestro missing Iowa altogether with a concussion. The road and street courses can't come soon enough for this team, and we expect to see both Simona and Keith Wiggins' team back to something like their best. Could they even match their St. Pete performance, which yielded a fourth-place finish?
Like de Silvestro, Sebastian Saavedra appears to be suffering from a loss of confidence on the oval tracks. Failing to make the field at Indy was a reality check – especially considering one-race-only teammate Pippa Mann did so. Not only was it Mann's very first IndyCar race, she finished it, too. That's something Saavedra failed to do at Milwaukee and Iowa, and laps are what he desperately needs, before the snowball effect takes real hold. That also triggers another snowball: It would be massively helpful to Eric Bachelart and his team if they had the money to run a second car with an experienced driver. That would give themselves – and Saavedra – a reliable baseline to work from. Yet every time car No. 34 hits the wall, the possibility of that second car gets further away as money gets spent on repairs.
Hopefully, Saavedra's raw talent and the team's decent setup for the Toronto track can help trigger at least a minor resurgence for this beleaguered team.
DALE COYNE RACING
It took Sebastien Bourdais a while to accept that a Dallara IndyCar is never going to handle like a Panoz Champ Car, and his team worked hard to flush out those preconceptions and get the four-time Champ Car champ to start from base camp. It is a hell of a mountain he's got to climb, and with the IZOD IndyCar Series field as deep in driver talent and strong cars as it is in 2011, it will take a miracle of strategy to get that No. 19 car to finish in the top five on the road and street courses. It will take even more than that for its oval-track custodian Alex Lloyd to put it in similar positions. If only they could work together as teammates. Lloyd is a fine driver on road and street courses, too, and it's sad to see his talents lie idle for 10 of this year's races.
The other car's permanent tenant, the rookie James Jakes, has done OK. There's no question, though, that he'd have benefited from a season of Indy Lights, so that it was just the car he was learning, not the tracks and style of racing (especially on ovals).
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing did an excellent job with Bertrand Baguette at Indy, and Jay Howard was a comfortable qualifier, too. Pippa Mann will be hoping that momentum continues in her three outings for the team at New Hampshire, Kentucky and Las Vegas.
Jay Penske's Dragon Racing had a difficult time at Long Beach as Paul Tracy made his much anticipated return, then they lost him to D&R for Indy, and so tried in vain to make the show with two IndyCar virgins, Scott Speed and Ho-Pin Tung. Then P.T. returned and gave a couple of eye-catching performances at Texas, and he could do the same in these next two Canadian races.
Ed Carpenter's Indy 500 performance for Sarah Fisher Racing, especially in qualifying, was heartwarming. Their struggles together at Milwaukee were troubling. Look for them to shine bright at Kentucky and Vegas.
AFS Racing had an excellent inaugural IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, thanks to Matos, but since the DNQ at Indy, Peterson's team hasn't been seen. As mentioned earlier, the Sam Schmidt Motorsports tie-up could go either way, depending on who's driving.
Next week: Al Unser Jr. on what to expect in the second half of the IZOD IndyCar Series season.