I delayed this column until we'd heard the new rules for 2013 and seen a couple more driver-team combinations confirmed or at least come closer to a meeting of minds and bank accounts. And much of what has been revealed so far, in both areas, makes sense albeit with one or two anomalies and one or two question marks hovering over certain areas. Why, for instance, does last year's polesitter at Long Beach and Indy have no confirmed ride for 2013? Why are there more championship points on offer at Iowa than at any other race bar the Indy 500? Why has it all gone quiet regarding bodykits in 2014?
That last point is one we'll deal with as part of a later column. First off, let's talk about what matters most to the majority of fans of any race series: its participants.
TEAMS AND DRIVERS
I'm willing to bet that Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive even better in 2013 than he did last year, because while he may not have lacked self-confidence before, subconsciously drivers find a new level once they've proven themselves to their rivals, their fans and their detractors. Engineer Ray Gosselin is someone with his head screwed on correctly, too, and he's not afraid to be ambitious.
That being the case, I hope Andretti Autosport has continued making technical progress in the off-season, so that the champ can put up a strong defense of the crown. IndyCar as a whole needs more than just two teams battling at the front, and the revival of Michael's team over the past three seasons has attracted big-name sponsors that will demand to be seen among the leading contenders at all races.
I hope too that RHR's incumbent teammates Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe can add to the team's trophy collection. Andretti Jr. Jr. has been an uneven performer for the past five years, but last season's disaster has caused him to completely rethink his driving techniques; he'll endeavor to be gentler on his car and tires, while remaining aggressive in race situations. That's a tricky balancing act, but I've believed in his raw talent for a long time and remain hopeful it can bloom. Hinchcliffe is already a very polished performer both on and off the track, and in his third year at this level, I hope he'll find his way to Victory Lane. Would it be too much to hope for that to occur in Toronto? It would be no more than he and the Canadian fans deserve.
EJ Viso will eventually be confirmed at AA and though this causes whispers of “pay driver,” that's not entirely fair because the Venezuelan has shown flashes of promise throughout his IndyCar career and on all types of track. So long as long as Andretti Autosport hasn't bitten off more than it can chew by re-expanding to four cars, there's no reason why he and inestimable race engineer Michael Cannon can't crack the top five on a regular basis.
Team Penske needs to remain firing on all cylinders given the increased strength of the opposition, and I hope Helio Castroneves can continue with the race-smart outlook he employed in 2012, which resulted in a couple of wins and fourth in the championship. As for Will Power, he needs to wring the neck of his car on the ovals and not expect points-scoring consistency to win him the title. Driving cautiously is not his style, and leaves him vulnerable to the wilder, nothing-to-lose drivers. Power, like the Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, can be expected to score poles and wins on a regular basis. All three were hit by misfortune at various times in 2012, all three made some costly errors, all three will surely be fighting for the title into the closing rounds of the '13 season. Anything less would be odd.
Surely everyone hopes to again see some surprising race winners, as we did in 2012 with Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing at Texas and Ed Carpenter and his team at Fontana. In fact, seeing personable underdogs like these two win again is the sort of story that IndyCar should revel in. And were Graham Rahal to find success with his father's team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, it would arguably provide the series with even more storylines…especially if it came at the “500” where both driver and team have shown huge pace in the past. Wins for Alex Tagliani and Barracuda Racing/Bryan Herta Autosport is no less than the combo deserves, considering that in 2012, they fulfilled all Victory Lane requirements other than being lucky. KV Racing's pairing of two fan favorites, Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro, needs to be more than that: I hope to not be surprised by seeing these two playing prominent roles in races: I, like all concerned, want to expect it.
Josef Newgarden possesses an easy natural talent, so I hope off-track distractions caused by his eminent promotability don't detract from his campaign to regularly get himself and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing into the top 10. The image is one of a driver who's quick in qualifying but fails to capitalize on that come the race, and while not all of No. 67's problems last year can be laid at Newgarden's feet – the loss of a podium at Toronto, for instance, was not his fault – naturally, errors from a sophomore are less readily forgiven than from a rookie.
Josef's compatriot JR Hildebrand, is blessed with beautiful car control, but there's no question that the partnership between Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing needs to be very close for the Californian to benefit from the wisdom of semi-teammate Oriol Servia's experience. One of the keys to the success of Ganassi and Penske over the years has been continuity with the significant personnel and while the Panther DRR amalgam possesses that now, so too it needs to emulate Chip's and Roger's teams in terms of total transparency between both halves of the alliance.
When Simon Pagenaud scores his first win, it will surprise very few IndyCar observers; in a Penske or Ganassi car, he'd probably be capable of fighting for the championship this year. But I also believe that Sam Schmidt's team – now called Schmidt Peterson Racing, in deference to Sam's new partner, Ric Peterson – has the strength in depth to be title contenders by 2014. Reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier is very much from the same mold as his teammate – impressively quick but also very smart – and so it wouldn't surprise me to see him finish in the Top 12 in the championship, and score a podium finish or two.
As the latest rookie to stand on the victory podium at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I hope Charlie Kimball's increasing confidence will pay off at Chip Ganassi Racing. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's newest recruit James Jakes is another slow-burner who continues to show progress, year on year, and who, like Kimball, makes admirably few errors.
By contrast, ex-RLLR star Takuma Sato, who this year joins A.J. Foyt Racing, has tended to oscillate between gung-ho and gun-shy, depending on whether his exuberance caused an accident at the previous race. Last year, in events when Bobby Rahal could impose his commonsense approach on his driver, Sato produced strong results, and I hope A.J. and Larry Foyt can keep Taku's head pointed straight. If they can, and if they listen to their highly experienced and intelligent driver, he could be the guy to unlock the team's potential which has lain dormant for too long. If not, I'm surely not the only one who'd love to see a year-long reality show based on this partnership….
Dragon Racing's re-hiring of Sebastien Bourdais is a major coup, and the four-time Champ Car champ showed a healthy dose of realism by signing up as soon as Jay Penske made him a serious offer. Many drivers down the years have held off, taken the chance of something better coming along only to be left without a ride when their market value doesn't match their self-regard. And Seabass is not merely clinging to a life raft here: on or off the record, he'll tell you that although there's much to be done, he's genuinely impressed with Jay's team. I hope their faith in each other is rewarded.
When Jay's father registered a third car for Team Penske, it triggered a lot of speculation, because the general understanding – a loose term to cover a combination of knowledge, assumption and gossip – was that Penske would be down to two cars this year. Team president Tim Cindric recently commented on this site that “we hope to add another entry at some of the events throughout the season,” but history points toward the fact that it's a long time since Penske gave a ride to a rookie, so who'd be driving? It's appealing to think it would be AJ Allmendinger but since he himself has expressed little enthusiasm for the idea, and Penske hasn't even hinted at it, this would be a fairly shocking turn of events.
No, to my mind, the most likely third driver for Penske would be the same guy who's been driving for Roger since 2007 in sports cars and 2008 in IndyCar, Ryan Briscoe. He took a win and two poles last season so there are many teams who'd benefit from his pace and experience, he'd doubtless have some useful setup knowledge that could benefit any other team…which is why I think RP may keep him on the books. Briscoe would also be a fine barometer by which a team owner could judge the potential of his or her team and its incumbent drivers.
Speaking of third drivers, it's good to see Mike Conway not only getting an RLL ride at Long Beach, where he won in 2011, but also negotiating for more events. He deserved better than to be remembered for an ignominious departure having decided oval racing wasn't for him. Wouldn't it be great if Bobby Rahal could find the money to run a third car full time, with Conway on the road and street courses and, say, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy or Bryan Clauson for the ovals?
Remember, this piece is about hope, not expectation.