DON'T BE A MAVERICK…
These rankings are supposed to provoke discussion and entertain but primarily they should enlighten. So there's no excuse to be deliberately controversial. Bear in mind even your genuine feelings are likely to annoy or enrage a few, so you don't need to poke the hornet's nest by being willfully obtuse. Should you do so, your future work will be treated with extreme skepticism – and with good reason.
Decades ago, a guy by the name of Keith Botsford wrote a book called Champions of Formula 1. It may not have been his fault that the title was so misleading – publishers often overrule in these matters – and it was very well written. But within the first few pages he'd laid out his reasoning for dismissing every F1 champion up to Jackie Stewart. Seriously. The great works of Alberto Ascari, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Jimmy Clark were not seen as being accomplished in the so-called “professional era” so were treated as less meaningful than what Stewart, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti had achieved. I already had a keen sense of motorsport's heritage, and read the remainder of the book in disgust, regularly seething at what I saw as attempts to regularly make me seethe! (I took my reading very seriously.) For all I know, Botsford's pithy and unfavorable commentary on Colin Chapman had validity, but after the author described an incident in which he was being driven by Chapman and the Lotus boss ordered him to leave the vehicle, I couldn't help wishing it had been traveling at 100mph.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, while you don't want to slavishly follow a results table, there has to be logic to your argument if the driver who finished 18th in the championship is your number one. (Sorry, Mr. Viso, that's not going to happen here.)
…BUT DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE HONEST
Most drivers won't hold it against you if your rankings don't match up to their own opinion of themselves. Last year, in my IndyCar Top 10 of the season, I ranked Dario Franchitti second, behind Will Power. Once I had justified my choice, it really didn't come across as the world's most controversial decision, so I didn't expect a problem with the three-time champ. Sure enough, Franchitti's subsequent behavior toward myself and RACER has borne that out. In every dealing we've had with him over the past 12 months, be it a pre-arranged interview or a media conference, face to face or over the phone, Franchitti has been helpful, courteous, thoughtful and eloquent. His description of driving Indy, as told to John Oreovicz (see June issue), is one of the most absorbing features we've had in RACER this year.
Then again, let's have a reality check here. Every feature writer needs to play through their mind on a constant loop the following lines – Why the hell should the driver care? Your opinion is not the be all and end all! If Dario had come up and hit me with an IndyCar stat book, pointed at the results and yelled “Ha!” then I'd have to take it. We are opinionated and well-informed writers in the lucky position of having our voice transmitted by a respected magazine and website. But we can't argue with the record book, no matter how much we add context.
I was amused (or perhaps, “bemused” is more appropriate) when I heard a journalist describe how he had slammed one particular driver in a story he'd written, yet hadn't had a problem with him thereafter. It seemed not to have occurred to this writer that (a) the driver may not have read the story, (b) the driver may have read this story but thought the writer was an idiot whose opinion didn't matter, or (c) the driver was self confident enough to really not give a damn about what was written about him by anyone. [In this instance, it was (c).]
Ah, we're all human, and to a lesser or greater extent, we all seek validation at some point or in some area of our lives. But, as journalists, it's worth remembering there's real truth in what Ron Dennis of McLaren pompously, tactlessly and unwisely told one press member many years ago: “We make history. You just write about it.”
DO YOUR RESEARCH
That doesn't just mean fact checking, although obviously an error in your stats can severely devalue anything you have to say. It means going behind the scenes, asking team managers and race engineers for their opinions – you can never have too much information. However, don't be naïve. Check if these extra sources can be trusted or if they have a hidden agenda and therefore a very good reason to say what they say, be it positive or negative. And if they talk in bland generalizations, ignore them.
Under this category, let's emphasize that you should also examine the whole season. The most recent races are naturally the ones freshest in your mind but, for example, the improvements made by Charlie Kimball and James Jakes should not distort the fact that they were distinctly underwhelming in the first seven or eight races of 2011.
SET RULES AND STICK BY THEM
A dilemma I've faced in the past is whether to judge the driver purely on his or her form in that season, or to build in at least a percentage of how I rate their talent overall. If you're an adherent to the philosophy of “form is temporary, class is permanent,” then you can find yourself giving too much credit to someone who has still got the speed, but over the past season has flaked when the pressure is on. Those people are damn annoying to assess.
And then there is a set of circumstances these drivers find themselves in. For example, if – and I stress the if – you were to rate the Newman/Haas duo, James Hinchcliffe and Oriol Servia, as being on a par this season, do you take into account the fact that Hinch is a rookie and Servia is a veteran and therefore rank the Canadian higher than the Catalan? And what about JR Hildebrand, when he has no teammate as a point of comparison?
Whatever you decide, be consistent, and apply the same rules to all.
Confession time. Within a couple of weeks of publishing my top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2010, I wanted to make a minor adjustment. Because I'm the argumentative sort, I could still make a good case for how I left it, but there is one niggle in there that I'd love to tweak. So once you've made your list, check, re-check and re-re-check that you're content with it and can justify it for all time. Because if you can't convince yourself that it's right, you can't hope to convince the readers.
Which is why, although I'll have a tentative Top 10 IndyCar driver list formed by this Sunday evening, I'm going to stew on it, tinker with it, rethink it, and maybe even rip it up and start again before it goes onto RACER.com some eight days later.
But at least if you disagree with any or all of it, I can just point you in the direction of this column, which I'll be using as my guide. Or I'll take the easy route and simply blame Justin for being a bad influence.