Nine down eight to go – that's as near halfway as we can get. The IZOD IndyCar Series has enjoyed an exciting season overall, and Randy Bernard's decision to initiate the Mario Andretti Road Course Championship and the A.J. Foyt Oval Course Championship divisions has added an extra element of surprise. The fact that one driver is unlikely to scoop both awards this year highlights the diversity of requirements in this series.
While we would normally prepare these sorts of features on a team-by-team basis, we like to make the drivers take responsibility for their actions, so that's what we've done here, presenting their cases in the order of their current championship standings together with the highs and lows of their seasons so far. Oriol Servia is a switched-on expert who kindly agreed to add his verdict – but, of course, we'd really like to have included him in this as a driver. Certain team owners out there need to wise up…
Watching races from the couch is not easy. It makes me wonder how come I haven't won more races! It looks so obvious sitting on the bench! So, from that perspective allow my frustrated desire to get in a car to express bold judgments on my respected colleagues.
Anyway, here goes:
The man to beat whenever a track involves right as well as left turns, he's learning on ovals, too, and only miscue and misfortune prevented him from fighting for victory at Indianapolis and Texas, respectively.
BEST: Watkins Glen victory where he had to drive hard enough in the turns to make up for the fact that he was saving fuel, but also without killing the tires. Throw in the fact that he twice had to pass his teammate, and it may be the best of his seven wins in Indy cars.
WORST: Kansas – bad restarts and overshot his pits, putting him a lap down.ORIOL'S VERDICT:
Many years of preparing for an opportunity like this one and he will not let it slip. People only counted him on road courses but I bet on him for the overall championship. He is very, very good and accumulating good results is only making him more confident. I thought he was the only one out there with real speed to challenge Dario at Indy and it was very impressive. With this Power-Dave Faustino [race engineer] package, I don't see any team having the opportunity to put a crack in their plans to go after the title.
The reigning champion is doing a fine job defending his title, and though one win from nine races looks below par, a) it was the biggest victory in motorsport, and b) he's usually not at fault when things go amiss – the Iowa gearbox failure is one striking example.
BEST: The outside pass and comprehensive demolition job on the opposition at Indy was Franchitti at his finest.
WORST: The mistake in qualifying at St. Pete that necessitated his great comeback drive on race day. He should have been able to fight with Power and Justin Wilson up front.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Since the unification, I believe that many past accomplished drivers have had a wake-up call but cannot find the fire to succeed again. I think that Dario's trip to NASCAR land reopened the appetite of the talented Scot and the rest of the field is feeling it. Solid and magical when he needs to be, he will be the biggest threat to Power for the championship.
Again, one win in nine races, but it was a decisive one (Kansas). Notable errors at St. Pete and Watkins Glen on race day have been partly caused by the Ganassi cars not being quick enough in qualifying on road and street courses, leaving their drivers with too much to do come the race.
BEST: Either the victory in Kansas or the defeat of two of the three Penskes at Barber.
WORST: St. Pete – smashing his wing on Mario Moraes' car and then crashing on his own toward the end of the race.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: When Scott “knows” that he is going to win, nothing stops him. For me his biggest strength through his career has been how ice-cold he can be in the car during high-pressure situations. If he wants to challenge Will and Dario for the championship, he needs to “know” again that he is going for it. He never disappoints. Expect an impressive second half of the season from him. He will be challenging for the Championship once more.
Still fast and getting better at making the best of a situation if he can't win. Problem is, high-profile shunts – while leading at Sao Paulo and when destined for second place at Indy – show there's still too much tension in his driving.
BEST: The win at Texas was well executed and badly needed but his pole position at Kansas was out of this world.
WORST: Hitting the tire wall in Brazil while under pressure from Ryan Hunter-Reay.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Ryan needs to regain his cool…easy to say from home. Top teams come with their pressures. He has shown many times how hungry and talented he is so he should be able to regain control of his season soon. I expect him to be challenging for victories at every event until the last race.
The Brazilian star is rising to the challenge of Power's full-time place at Penske, and while Castroneves' win at Barber owed much to Tim Cindric's smart strategy, he turned in excellent drives at Kansas and Iowa and was very close to Power in Watkins Glen qualifying.
BEST: That pole lap at Indy – or, come the race, avoiding Ana Beatriz's spinning car. The onboard footage is heart-stopping.
WORST: Losing ground so badly at Texas as to be anywhere near Mario Moraes.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Helio is very, very good but we already knew that. He is showing his maturity while not panicking in front of the Power dominance. He is doing what he has to – keeping focus and staying close in case Will has a hiccup on the way. However, that may not happen: Helio may need to dig deeper over the winter if he wants to challenge Will in the future.
It's hard to call this man a revelation, but his well-documented interaction with Tony Kanaan appears to have been one of the cornerstones for Andretti Autosport's revival. It's only right that he's the man benefiting most from it.
BEST: The top-class win at Long Beach or the patience he showed remonstrating with Milka Duno at Watkins Glen.
WORST: It's nit-picking, but the clumsy pit stop at Iowa which probably cost him a podium.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Ryan has worked really hard for this opportunity and he is capitalizing on it. I always knew he was fast but this year he is showing the consistency and solid race craft of a champion. Last winter, I worked really hard to get that seat, I couldn't come up with the money but at least I am glad it went to somebody who deserves it and makes the most of it.
There hasn't been a more popular win this year than Kanaan's at Iowa. Not only was it the result of a great drive through the field, it had been a crying shame to see this man out of Victory Lane for the previous 24 months of racing. Now he appears as rejuvenated as this team.
BEST: Iowa race – in particular, for not being daunted by poor grid position and just going for it.
WORST: His attempts to qualify for Indy. The Brickyard owes him big in 2011.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: TK has gone through some changes and it is showing. After athletes have had a good level of success it usually is quite difficult to change the way they do things. In the last couple of years Tony didn't get the results we all expected from him. Somehow he has found a way to change how to approach racing again and, by going back to the basics, has reinvented himself. When I went to help him last year, I found a driver with the bravery to look himself face to face in the mirror. Now he is starting to enjoy the fruits of it. We will have TK running at the front for many years.
Justin's switch from Dale Coyne to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was vindicated in the opening four rounds of the season, where he nailed two runner-up finishes. D&R's setup appears to favor street circuits rather than pure road courses. Justin himself is a megastar on both.
BEST: St. Pete, where he kept Power on his toes all the way to the checkers while beating the other two Penskes.
WORST: Lap 1 accident at Iowa. Since he started racing in the U.S. back in 2004, this may have been the first time he was at fault in a two-car wreck and even then it was because of poor downforce levels.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Do you know that typical crazy dog that will bite you and not let go of your jeans? This is what Justin does to your rear tire! That is why, in '08, myself and Will Power nicknamed Justin “The Wild Dog”. Justin has many qualities but I believe his best is his ability to run close to the car in front of him and deal with the inevitable loss of downforce. Believe me, he is the last guy you want in your mirrors! He will get strong results again in the non-ovals but he needs to show the paddock that he can do it on the ovals, too. I know he can.