Sebastien Bourdais, hero of the Dragon Racing team in 2012, drove like the Bourdais we all loved to watch back in his Champ Car days, when he and Newman/Haas Racing strode to four consecutive championships, 2004-'07. From giant to giant-killer is a role switch that came remarkably easy to him, and his commitment in the cockpit was unwavering. However, by missing four races – more than 25 percent of the IndyCar schedule, he wasn't eligible for our top 10. So instead we asked him for an objective driver's view on how he'd modify our rankings. There were some crucial changes…starting at the very top! - David Malsher
It's so hard to bring it back down to the driver alone. Justin Wilson is usually easy to put in there because he's always capable of outperforming his racecar! But with the others it's hard because you can't judge how good the car is. If you see drivers directly compared in the same team and one of them is a driver whose abilities you already know, you can judge the teammates. But between teams, it's definitely a tough one, even this year when everyone started again with the Dallara DW12.
It's super-difficult to put the drivers in a specific order but, that said, Ryan Hunter-Reay did everything he had to and didn't make any major mistakes. That's why he won the championship, that's why he should be your No. 1 for this season. The fact that Will Power has lost the championship three seasons in a row is just crazy.
Things happen, I recognize that, but you can't just let it slip away – particularly this time when all he had to do was shadow Hunter-Reay in that final race. He just had to stick in there, collect a few points, and put it in the truck in one piece.
Scott Dixon did an excellent job this year and he was again faster than Dario Franchitti, but you look at the number of engine failures he's had, and you have to think, “Wow, poor guy!” It's tough to put Scott ahead of the two other guys and that is the nature of these top 10 lists, but in my opinion, given less terrible luck, he'd probably have been the champion.
Dario won the Indy 500 after a very slow start to the season and he came back to life in the second half, and Simon Pagenaud proved a lot with his consistency, his speed and by being smart.
He was able to carry a single-car entry on his rookie shoulders, which I think is quite cool but not a big surprise to me because I know him quite well. He was very happy with his engineering staff, had a great relationship with them, and had a well-structured test program preseason, getting as much as testing as the top teams.
So it was pretty clear Simon was going to be strong, and the only question mark was about how he would adapt to the ovals. Obviously, he dealt with them pretty well and, like you said in your story, he didn't make any mistakes. That, in my opinion, is the greatest trademark of Simon. He's a very solid driver. But like you, I don't think I could put him further up because Dario won the 500.
Helio was fighting for the championship until the last couple of races so I think it's right to have him where you put him [6th]. There are always consistent performers in IndyCar that generally you can rely on to be right in there, winning one or two races, and he's usually one of those. He's been doing that for 12 years, actually, and that in itself is a very hard thing to achieve, that motivation.
I have to agree with you about Alex Tagliani. He has done a tremendous job in terms of how to turn a season around after the team's early-season engine problems. And he's been one of the few drivers to be in the Firestone Fast Six in all but two races, which is unbelievable to me. So for me, Alex has been the biggest surprise of the season, extremely consistent in terms of pace: he and Todd Malloy proved they were capable of achieving all that with virtually no testing. Very impressive.
If you'd done this classification at midseason, you'd have to put James Hinchcliffe really high up….but then he had a very disappointing end to the season for reasons that I don't know. He was super solid at first – but then, of course, back then it was the Chevy Show, so maybe that helped. Then it leveled out between Chevrolet and Honda and it became much tougher in the middle of the season – and then I think Chevrolet got the upper hand again a bit.
But if you don't know all the circumstances for each driver, it's so difficult to rate them. If you look at Justin Wilson's season, there have been a few ups – very high ups – but there have been a lot of downs, and it's all related to who you're working with and who you're racing for and sometimes just being fortunate or unfortunate.
A big change I would make to your Top 10 is that I wouldn't put Tony Kanaan in there. His qualifying speed is just too poor. He benefits from solid races, luck and strategy. I like TK, he's a great guy, and I realize that with racing you're talking about the whole package including the team, and his team isn't great. But I don't think he showed enough speed, and for him to be outqualified a few times by a rookie teammate, even of Rubens Barrichello's quality, wasn't very impressive.
So who would I put in there instead? I think it has to be Ryan Briscoe: I think he did a better job than Kanaan, for sure, although again obviously it's hard to compare because it's not the same team and certainly not the same car, really! But yeah, Briscoe is the only obvious alternative.
If IndyCar held a couple of races that were 495 miles long, Takuma Sato would probably be in our top three, right?! Taku is so intense and so wanting to do well in everything that he can't seem to keep it on the track. That's a shame. The day he learns how to keep all that energy focused in one direction, he'll be a super-strong driver.
Oriol Servia was pretty disappointing to me in qualifying, although he raced very well and that has always been his trademark.
Graham Rahal has probably had the most disappointing season in terms of expectations compared with results. Obviously things didn't jell over there but still, they tested plenty of times so they should have been able to do better than that, but I don't know what his situation is and I don't think anyone outside of the team really knows.
But anyway, he wouldn't deserve to be in a Top 10 this year, and neither does JR Hildebrand. He scored quite a few points at the start of the season, but like I say, initially the season was all about Chevrolet and he was one of quite a few guys to capitalize on that. Afterward, he just kind of disappeared until Fontana.
PUSHING THE DRAGON
Compiling a Top 10 is so difficult that I don't even know where I'd have rated us at Dragon Racing! It was never the plan for me to just run on street and road courses – not even last year with Dale Coyne – and that was widely misunderstood. It wasn't that I didn't want to do the ovals, although I wasn't a big fan of pack racing, and I'm super happy that IndyCar has moved away from that and the ovals have provided so much better racing this year.
They are a vital part of the series, an integral part of the championship, and I'm definitely willing to run them. I've had plenty of good times on ovals in Champ Car – once we got Milwaukee figured out back in 2006, we just ran away with it. But you do need a good car – a bad car on an oval can give you the most miserable day ever!
And again, this year at Dragon, it was never the plan for me to not run ovals, but we usually had just the one car – just the one engine lease – so Katherine [Legge] and I had to share it. She certainly looked fast enough at Fontana, so I think our oval performance could have been good.
But for me, I regard it as one of the most unsuccessful or frustrating seasons I've had in a long time, because every time we could have done something good, something went wrong! At Mid-Ohio, we could have been on the podium if I hadn't screwed up right at the end. We just had one attack of bad luck after another – qualifying really well and being really strong in the races, but we could never make it stick. Always we seemed to have something that prevented us scoring the best result.
Still, I think we were able to demonstrate what we could do. We didn't have enough structure to begin with, but with Neil Fife – and also my old Newman/Haas engineer Craig Hampson, initially (RIGHT) – we discovered what would make me happy in the car and we sorted out the chassis from very early on. We missed a little bit when we first got the Chevrolet – there were some consequences from the engine switch – but then we got things figured out.
Although we didn't have the fastest car, we started getting into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying which is always an achievement when you're fighting against two very strong Ganassi cars, three Penskes, three Andretti cars, Simon, Justin, and so on. So I definitely showed that I have not disintegrated as a driver – I'm still the same guy who was successful in open-wheel before. But obviously you need all the pieces of the equation to make it happen, and if we'd got them altogether, we could definitely get good results.
So hopefully we've used up all the bad luck in this season and can have a better one next year. There is definitely a lot of potential at Dragon Racing, and we're still working through things but I hope we'll sign soon. Of course, to win the championship, you've got to beat some very strong contenders but to be strong at least some of the time and win a few races, you don't need a huge budget. The 2012 season has proved that. You just need to have mechanics who leave nothing on the table in terms of effort, the right engineer with the right driver, and you can make things happen.
I like that about IndyCar so much. Given enough work and enough commitment, there is nothing you can't overcome. There is no reason why this cannot continue into next season, because development on this car is limited by the series so you can't do a lot by just having money. So to be with an underdog team is very appealing and very motivating – a challenge I really enjoy.