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.DAN WHELDON
Take his runner-up finish at Indy out of the equation, and Dan's best results this year have been on a street course and a road course. Given his previous record, that's a shock, but the simple fact is that he races far better than he qualifies, so when the strategy all goes right, he looks decent.
BEST: Mixing it with the Penske and Ganassi cars on the opening day of practice at Watkins Glen.
WORST: Crossing the white line at the bottom of the track during his super-quick qualifying laps at Kansas. He got sent to the back of the grid and then spooked himself trying to charge forward in the race, resulting in a lame 15th-place finish.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Dan needs to shine again like he did in his first years with the IRL. The field is more competitive than when he was at Andretti Green and Ganassi and now he has no teammates and probably less means, so he needs to give more of himself than ever before. One-car operations will always be handicapped compared to bigger teams, but I believe he should be a contender more often than he is. Hats off for Indy, though: once more he showed how playing it smart can take you to the front even without being in the fastest car. In my opinion he needs to make it happen again before the end of the season.
Enigmatic as ever. Some days he leads the Andretti Autosport charge as at Barber (qualifying and race), Indy (qualifying), Iowa (first part of the race), and Watkins Glen (qualifying). And other days you get the impression he's brutalizing his car with no sense of the big picture.
BEST: The opening laps of a damp St. Petersburg where he made everyone else look like they were stroking.
WORST: From the moment he lost the lead at Iowa.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Marco has the fire, talent, desire – and more commitment than people think. Somehow he needs to gain consistency. It's like he's an advanced student who burned some early stages during his learning process and now lacks some of the lessons that provide mind structure that allow him to see the full picture of a race weekend. Put him in an underdog position and he will show his best, but he needs to find a way to do it every weekend.
Unlike her three teammates, Danica hasn't taken advantage of Andretti Autosport's upswing. She defeated all her teammates to take a well deserved runner-up finish at Texas, but her road and street course form, which started glimmering last year, has been extinguished once more.
BEST: Dueling for the lead with Ryan Briscoe at Texas with a weaker car.
WORST: Any road/street course qualifying session post-Sao Paulo.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: I am a true Danica fan – me and another 200 million people…A talented and hot lady! So what is it she's missing this year? I want to see her go back to the mindset of when I met her racing in the Atlantic Series. She was ready to fight all challenges that would stand in her way and was not taking anything for granted. To get the best out of you often takes searching deeper than one may imagine. It is only up to Danica to find setups that work for her. The competition is harder than ever before in her career, but if she can find her rooted DNA of a racer, she can shine again, even on road courses.
Like Marco Andretti, Raphael Matos is an enigma in that he can be strong one race, anonymous the next. But unlike Marco, Rafa has the excuse of having three fewer teammates at Dragon De Ferran. If only team co-owner Gil was in a second full-time car…
BEST: Fast all weekend at Watkins Glen and had to really use his brain and restraint to get that fourth-place finish.
WORST: Nowhere in qualifying at Long Beach, a track where he started third last year.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Zanardi, Montoya, Bourdais, Mansell, Castroneves…every Indy car rookie who shone straight away had a top teammate to learn from. It is not just speed, it's knowing what to ask from the car, engineers, mechanics, timings… Rafa is in his second year, we all want and expect more from him. With the right setup and teammate, I have no doubt he would be at the front but opportunities are not always perfectly tailored. From midseason on, he needs to make things happen. At Watkins Glen, he showed a lot of maturity and talent when he was able to maintain his fourth position while on black Firestones and everybody around him was on reds.
Who expected Meira to score his best result on a street course? It was great that it came in his comeback race from his back injury and occurred on home soil in Brazil. But other than good drives at Kansas and Iowa, A.J. Foyt Racing appears to be struggling, and there's little he can do about it.
BEST: Winning the duel with compatriot Matos for the final step on the podium in Sao Paulo.
WORST: Only qualifying 30th at Indy, a place where he normally shines.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Vitor is a truly dedicated professional and his results show that year after year. It doesn't matter if it is oval or road coarse, if there is an opportunity to shine, he will use it. I believe the team is at a crucial point where, with a bit more funding, they could be challenging the top six very often. Driving for a such big family team must have some challenges and Vitor seems to be able to handle that better than anybody else.
FAZZT's lows have been what you might expect from a rookie team, even with a swift Indy car veteran driving and equally proven talents in the staff, but the highs have exceeded expectations, especially for a one-car entry. Now Alex needs results. Toronto would be a good place to start…
BEST: Qualifying on the front row on the team's debut in Brazil, or beating a Ganassi car to fifth on the grid at Indy.
WORST: Over-ambitious maneuver at Long Beach which resulted in bent suspension and a DNF.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Tag is doing what any other driver with some years in the paddock would dream of. He has been able to put a team together, hand-picking the best guys he has worked with through his career. He has hired many names that are in my top 10 list and, once more, it shows that good brains can often overpower bigger budgets. I give him a 10 out of 10, not only for putting a great operation together but, more than anything, for being able to focus on the driving as he has. We all know how good Tag is, but we also know how intense and probably over-controlling he can be. What he is doing is not easy and yet he has been able to embarrass top teams and drivers in MANY races in FAZZT's first year of running. Bravo, Alex! Keep your hands on the wheel and let Rob Edwards handle all team operations during the season and you will be a frontrunner at all times.MARIO MORAES
The usual story for the young Brazilian: everyone knows he's fast, everyone knows he's brave…but everyone expects him to stick his car in the wall at some point over a race weekend. For a third-year driver, there are too many days where he drives like a rookie.
BEST: Handled the pressure from Castroneves at Long Beach and drove beautifully to fifth at Watkins Glen.
WORST: Complete loss of perspective at lap 1, Turn 1 in Sao Paulo.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Mario has shown signs of maturity that should give him true hope of having a professional career in racing. He is still very young but I think that after two and a half years at the top level, he needs to get better results and consistency. KV has shown a lot of confidence in him and that should be enough to fuel his focus.
For a third-year driver, there are too many days when he drives like a rookie. Sounds familiar, huh? Viso has made himself more prominent by moving from HVM to KV Racing, and he usually holds his own despite two fast teammates, but some of his incidents make you cringe.
BEST: An aggressive yet mature drive to third place in Iowa, which emulated a similarly smart performance in Texas.
WORST: Smacking the wall in Kansas cost him a possible top-five finish.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: He is a loved guy by the fans for all the right reasons – colorful, funny, talented and shorter than me! He showed his speed from his first year in the series. It is time to meditate a little and show on track the smarts he has off track. I believe he just needs one race to go his way for him to regain control of his season, but sometimes things just won't turn your way on their own. He needs to make it happen – and he can.
Better to be out there racing every race, rather than an anonymous occasional driver for Ganassi. Lloyd has turned in some excellent performances for Dale Coyne this year, without Bill Pappas as engineer and without any feedback from his teammate.
BEST: The obvious one is fourth place at Indy, but perhaps more impressive was being on the pace all night at Texas.
WORST: Dubious behavior when faster cars were trying to lap him at Long Beach.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Tough to judge his position: a rookie but not, at Dale Coyne Racing but a different DCR than last year and with no teammate. I have been there. I would say that just managing to get noticed on more than one occasion is probably as good as it can get. If he keeps digging, things will come.
Hideki will always be judged against the man he replaced at Newman/Haas, Graham Rahal. And, frankly, he doesn't stack up on road and street courses. He was robbed of a top-six finish at Kansas by a wayward backmarker, but this team deserves better than a top finish of 12th.
BEST: Qualifying ninth for the Indy 500, beating many highly touted drivers and teams.
WORST: With the notable exception of Long Beach (where he out-qualified Franchitti!) Mutoh is just a grid-filler away from the ovals.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: I was impressed with Hideki when last year I helped AGR in a couple of events. He showed me speed and smarts but this year without teammates he seems to be lost. Now he will have Graham to work with and I suspect that not only the team will find what direction to go, but also Hideki himself will raise his performance for the occasion. I expect some good showings if he finds his mojo before the end of the year.
He's turning in the performances one would expect of a driver who was good but not outstanding in Indy Lights and who only shone on ovals. Having said that, his drive at St. Petersburg in tricky wet-to-dry conditions was good.
BEST: Excellent final qualifying run on Bump Day at Indy was followed up with a superb 13th-place finish – best of the rookies.
WORST: Where was he at Barber, Long Beach and Watkins Glen?
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Miles, miles, miles: He needs them to gain consistency. I would have expected him to shine more on the non-oval races, but two rookies together is not the ideal configuration for a team to move forward.
SIMONA DE SILVESTRO
De Silvestro's pace should have put her much farther up in the championship than 20th, but she's been involved in several incidents – not all of her own making – that have kept her from fulfilling her undoubted promise. That's exacerbated the underfunded HVM team's struggles.
BEST: Tempting to say leading her first ever IndyCar race or winning Rookie of the Year at Indy, but let's go for starting in the top 15 at all road and street course events.
WORST: Throwing away good race day finishes at Barber and Watkins Glen.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: I can only express how impressed I have been with her speed and race craft – very impressive for a rookie. She is driving for a team that last year struggled and she is making them look good. Not an easy achievement for a rookie and a lady. Hats off. The competition won't make it easy for her, but she deserves a podium before the end of the season.MIKE CONWAY
How do we judge a guy who's out of action until at least mid-August? It's sad because he could have learned a lot from Dreyer & Reinbold teammate Justin Wilson and might have been a contender for podiums over the next four races.
BEST: Starting from the front row at Barber.
WORST: His pass around the outside of Matos at St. Petersburg wasn't overambitious, but closing the door so aggressively caused contact that pitched him into the wall.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Mike showed impressive speed on more than one occasion last year. I think having a teammate like Justin was a bit of a wake-up call. There is nothing better than a top driver to work with. Through my career I have witnessed many drivers coming back stronger from a big crash and his one at Indy this year was a BIG one. He will only be better on his return. The pain he goes through during recovery will only fuel his desire to become a better driver. We could see some great performances when he gets back in the cockpit.
This talented ex-F1 driver is in a fast car yet in the championship lies behind a guy who missed the last three races. Of the carnage that KV Racing has suffered this year, Sato has played a major part. While we expected that on ovals, his gaffes on street courses have been less forgivable.
BEST: Reaching the Fast Six at both Barber and Watkins Glen and coming to grips with Kansas and Iowa so quickly.
WORST: Binning it at Sao Paulo, St. Pete and chucking third place away at Iowa.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: I have met “Taku” a few times and have been impressed every time. Not only knowledgeable and professional, but extremely sharp. I have been waiting for some sort of a superb surprise performance but it seems to be not coming easy. I thought he had a great, solid showing at Watkins Glen but it looks like he lost the grasp of it toward the end of the race. I know for a fact that the team has great cars: Mid-Ohio should be a targeted effort for him.
Duno has continued to show she's not good enough to be in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Period.
BEST: Qualifying 17th at Texas – but that's more of a damning indictment of the current breed of Indy cars.
WORST: Ah, the agony of choice. Being 6.5sec slower than the next slowest car – and 11 seconds off pole – in qualifying at Watkins Glen. Scary, isn't it?
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Milka has shown her qualities – perseverance, media management and fund-finding. In my opinion, she should capitalize on them and become a team/car owner. Change the helmet for the owner hat and put a good program together with a good driver of her sponsor's liking!
It's a pity this talented Belgian missed the opening two rounds of the season. Everyone's expecting him to shine on road and street courses but, oddly, it's been the ovals where he's out-qualified teammate Romancini. Now's the time for Baguette to prove he can do it everywhere.
BEST: Getting into the field at Indy on the first day in only his second attempt at an oval race.
WORST: To be honest, he hasn't done anything worthy of condemnation.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: It's never as easy as rookies will assume from the outside. It takes a while before a rookie can really shine in the IndyCar Series and Bertrand is finding that out first hand. His past credentials speak highly of him and I am sure that, given the time, he will figure out how to get the best out of his car. He is working with a great engineer and I would think that before the end of the season we will see sparks of brilliance.
THE BEST OF THE PART TIMERS
Graham Rahal did an excellent job at St. Petersburg for Sarah Fisher Racing, at Indy for Rahal Letterman and at Iowa for Dreyer & Reinbold – and now we assume he can do the same in the six races he has with Newman/Haas Racing. Tomas Scheckter, too, shouldn't be without a seat: his performance in Texas proved that, and hopefully he'll do a similarly good job in Toronto. John Andretti shone at Kansas, Paul Tracy still has a lot to give this series, both on and off the track, Townsend Bell is one of the most underrated drivers when it comes to getting around the Brickyard fast and Adam Carroll has the talent to be a star of the future, as everyone at Andretti Autosport now knows.
ORIOL'S VERDICT: Graham disappointed me with his lack of speed when he ran for Sarah Fisher but, at the same time, he really impressed me at Indy! I believe we will find a stronger-than-ever Graham in these next races with Newman/Haas. He has always been very mature for his age and this year of bouncing around has probably made him dig deep inside and will come out with his best shots. The team is really hungry, too, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to find them at the top of the podium real soon.
Tomas is always fun to watch. He sometimes makes me wonder if he knows that races are longer than just 10 laps – but I must admit that this year he has shown more maturity than ever and has been able to get the best of his chances. John Andretti didn't seem to shine as much as I expected in Indy but we know how special and picky that race is…
Last time I saw Paul Tracy cycling this much was in 2003 when he won the Champ Car title – that says enough about his actual commitment. If he sticks to basics and listens to Jimmy Vasser, he could find himself on the podium at Toronto or Edmonton.
Townsend seems to be approaching racing like a surgeon: Comes on time and prepared for his once a year appointment and doesn't disappoint with his performance. He has put himself in a position where he can choose how and when he wants to make an appearance, and who can blame him?!
Carroll showed up in Watkins Glen and probably realized that things on this side of the Atlantic are a bit more difficult than what it looks like from Europe. He showed speed and made no mistakes, even when flirting with P.T.'s real estate!
THE REMAINDER OF THE SEASON
More of the same from the Big Five drivers, but with Andretti Autosport's aces frequently mixing it with them, Justin Wilson nailing D&R's first win in over a decade, and Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani shining on home soil in Toronto and Edmonton.
ORIOL'S PREDICTION: Power, Power and Power. I see many strong attacks at his throne from many drivers, but I think Will can handle them with more dominant performances.