IndyCar 2013 Season Preview - We rank the drivers
That might be hard to imagine. After all, it's been six long, seemingly interminable months since American Ryan Hunter-Reay was crowned Izod IndyCar Series Champion at Fontana. Further, since that dramatic 2012 finale, we've seen little if any promotion of the charismatic, good-looking Hunter-Reay. We've heard little to nothing about Hunter-Reay's unique journey of perseverance in elevating to the top of the sport. Nor have we heard much about any of the other drivers in the series.
On the contrary, endless rumors about the series being sold, the unceremonious ouster of a popular CEO, and more recently the details of an internal business review of IndyCar's parent company Hulman and Co., leaked to the public, have dominated the headlines.
Thankfully, in 13 days, the 2013 Izod IndyCar Series season will commence in St. Petersburg, Florida. And while IndyCar faces numerous issues going forward, that have been and will continue to be addressed in this space, there will at long last, be action and news being made on the race track. Amen!
Today, AutoRacing1.com will preview the 2013 Izod IndyCar Series Championship, placing our very own Vegas-style championship odds on the 25 drivers expected to contest the full schedule. Enjoy.
The Elite: Odds are the 2013 IndyCar Champion will be one of the following four individuals.
Scott Dixon, 5/2:
No surprise here. I've long argued Dixon is not merely one of the best drivers of this era, but an all-time Indy Car great, who at 32 years of age, has arguably yet to even enter his prime. http://www.autoracing1.com/article.asp?id=3671.
Dixon also has been amazingly consistent over the years, winning at least one race in each of the last eight seasons, and finishing no lower than fourth in the series standings over the last seven years. Last season, Dixon won two races, and could have easily won more. Overall, Dixon is fast, great at managing fuel mileage, excellent in qualifying, and capable of winning on all types of circuits. In short, you have to really nitpick to find a weakness with Dixon. Nevertheless, nitpick I will.
Changes to the IndyCar schedule in recent years have not been kind to Dixon. Since 2008, six tracks in which the smooth Kiwi scored multiple race wins (Richmond, Kansas, Nashville, Watkins Glen, and now Edmonton), have fallen off the schedule. Also, something that may surprise people is that Dixon's win last season at Belle Isle was his first on a street course. Thus one could argue the street course doubleheaders at Houston, Detroit, and Toronto may not benefit Dixon as they may some of his closest rivals.
Of course, such discussion is nitpicking. Dixon is one of the best drivers, on one of the best teams. He will, at minimum, contend for the championship.
Dixon wins the title if: Last year's outstanding form combines with a little better luck.
Will Power, 3/1
It would be hard to find anyone who would say Power hasn't been the best driver on the circuit the last 3 seasons. The fast Aussie has posted a series best 21 poles and 14 race wins since the start of the 2010 season. Of course, that outstanding record has yet to net a championship, as power has finished second in the standings each of the past three seasons.
Sadly, in each of the three campaigns, one could attribute Power's failure to lift the championship trophy to one of two issues: poor results on the ovals and/or failures on pit road.
Power has only three podium finishes on ovals since the start of the 2010 season, and last season his best finish was 8th. Also, the list of Power mishaps on pit road is very, very long, and cost him dearly each of the past three seasons.
Power wins the title if: Team Penske can solve his pit road woes and/or Power can get better results out of the oval races.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, 4/1:
Last season, RHR captured his first series title, something I admittedly did not see coming http://www.autoracing1.com/article.asp?id=3756. Nevertheless, Hunter-Reay has clearly found a home at Andretti Autosport, and last season distinguished himself as the team's de facto #1 driver. Also, having turned 32 years old in December, it is reasonable to think RHR, like Dixon, may actually be entering his prime. However, I see two things that can potentially derail an RHR repeat: qualifying and hungry teammates looking to find victory lane.
Yes, despite his many strengths, Hunter-Reay is not a great qualifier, having scored only two career pole positions. In fact, I would argue, RHR is the weakest qualifier in recent memory to win a series championship, having scored a mere two career poles in 132 Indy car starts. By comparison, Power has 28 career poles in 102 starts.
Also, RHR enjoyed clear number 1 status in the Andretti camp last year, which he will certainly maintain. However, team owner Michael Andretti has made clear he intends to improve son Marco's program. Further, rising star James Hinchcliffe showed great promise early in 2012, before fading during the season's second half, as RHR's title campaign picked up. Should Hinchcliffe and young Andretti take a step forward, that will inevitably compromise RHR's repeat effort. We also do not know whether adding a 4th car to the stable in EJ Viso will dilute the team's focus.
RHR wins the title if: He can improve his qualifying form, and keep his hungry teammates at bay.
Dario Franchitti, 5/1:
A lot of people argued that Franchitti didn't adapt well to the new DW12 last season. While Franchitti may have been slower to adapt than others, the four-time series champ won three pole positions (actually started from pole 5 times due to the silly 10 grid-spot engine rule), won his third Indianapolis 500, probably should have won Fontana, and who knows what would have happened at Iowa, where he won pole, and blew an engine before the green flag. Also, his late race charge to second at an impossible to overtake Belle Isle Detroit, would seem to indicate Franchitti still has what it takes to win a fifth series title.
Franchitti wins the title if: He can win the inter-team battle at Ganassi with Dixon, and reclaim the good fortune of 2009-2011.
Aspiring Elites: The following two drivers are the best candidates to break into the elite class above.
Helio Castroneves, 10/1:
2012 was a strong rebound year for the Brazilian, after a disappointing 2011, as Castroneves won at Edmonton and St. Petersburg, and finished fourth in the championship.
However, what derailed a title charge for Castroneves, was he managed to score only one other podium in addition to his two wins (3rd, Barber). Also, Castroneves, who boasts 15 career oval wins, has struggled on the ovals in the last two seasons, failing to reach the podium.
Castroneves will win the title if: He can somehow distinguish himself from Power within Team Penske by rediscovering his once dominant oval form. Also, Castroneves has long reminded me of countryman Emerson Fittipaldi. He is outstanding, virtually unbeatable on his day, but often does not salvage results on days when he does not have a dominant car.
Simon Pagenaud, 12/1:
People knew Pagenaud was fast when he signed on with Sam Schmidt prior to the 2012 season. However, by any measure the likable Frenchman surpassed expectations with three podium finishes and fifth place in the championship. Plus, The addition of talented countryman Tristan Vautier to the Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports stable will only help in move the program forward.
Pagenaud will win the title if: He won't. This is a growing team which is probably a year away from a legitimate title run. However, Pagenaud capturing a victory or two, and finishing in the top-3 of the championship is more than plausible.
Aspiring Insiders: The following four drivers may win a race, and will likely score podium finishes. However, a top-5 in the championship would be a good season.
Graham Rahal, 15/1:
For a variety of reasons, I've long found young Rahal to be a rather difficult case study http://www.autoracing1.com/article.asp?id=3902. And by his own admission, Rahal endured a rough 2012 with a mere one podium finish (2nd, Texas).
However, Rahal will benefit from the very favorable surroundings with a move to father Bobby's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and clear number one driver status, something he did not enjoy with the Ganassi-B team the past two seasons.
Prospects for Rahal: Top-8 in the championship, about three podiums, and possibly a win.
Sebastien Bourdais, 20/1:
It's probably hard to believe that Bourdais has the same number of career wins as Franchitti (31), and more wins than Dixon (29) and Castroneves (27), particularly when you consider Bourdais has made more than 100 fewer career starts than each. And for my money, the four-time CART/Champ Car Champion is still the best guy out there.
Nevertheless, its hard to imagine Bourdais and the still improving Dragon Racing closing the gap to Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti. Certainly, Bourdais will run at the front, and benefit from starting 2013 with a Chevrolet engine.
Prospects for Bourdais: A top-5 finish in the championship would be good. However a few podiums, and maybe a return to victory lane, is not out of the question.
Tony Kanaan, 22/1:
My relatively low rating for the recently-hitched Kanaan (congrats, TK) is more indicative of my less than favorable view of KV Racing Technology (still no wins since Will Power won the last Champ Car race in Long Beach in 2008), than Kanaan. Clearly, TK needs to improve his qualifying on road and street courses, as he has only two top-5 road and street course qualifying efforts since 2009.
However, I believe Kanaan may benefit immensely from Simona de Silvestro's move to KV. De Silvestro has always been strong on road and street courses, and should provide the best data reference Kanaan has had at KV. Also, as witnessed by numerous events last season (e.g. Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Iowa), Kanaan can make a charge on race day with the best of them.
Prospects for Kanaan: A top-10 championship finish is a certainty, and possibly an oval win.
James Hinchcliffe, 25/1:
Through two seasons, the charismatic Hinchcliffe has shown himself to be marketable, heady, and more than capable of competing at the top-level. However, we have yet to see the pure speed necessary to challenge the upper echelon of drivers, and contend for a championship.
Prospects for Hinchcliffe: The Mayor will take another step forward in 2013, possibly visit victory lane, and contend for a top-5 spot in the standings. However, a legitimate championship run is another year or two down the road.
Championship long shots: The following three have potential. However, as things stand now, there are simply too many good competitors in front of them. A top-10 championship effort from these drivers would be a good season.
Tristan Vautier, 35/1:
Anyone who watches Indy Lights knows the young French ace is super-fast. A win in his rookie season with the ever-growing Schmidt operation is by no means, far fetched.
Simona de Silvestro, 40/1:
A lot has been made of Simona's move to KV being a saving grace for the talented Swiss driver. However, de Silvestro will help KV in the area it has been weakest over the past few years: qualifying on road and street courses. And for de Silvestro a podium finish or two on a road/street course, is in the cards.
Marco Andretti, 50/1:
Young Andretti endured a miserable 2012. He's hoping a new number and new approach will change his fortunes. While Marco is dynamite on the ovals, his road/street course qualifying has been abysmal in recent years. And until this improves, a top-10 championship finish will be very difficult.
The Middle of the Pack: There are some real good drivers in this group. However, with one exception I don't see any of the following having the team behind them to be contend for anything more than a top-12 spot in the standings.
Justin Wilson, 60/1:
Back with Dale Coyne Racing, Wilson is one of the more talented drivers in the series. However, aside from the Texas win, 2012 was largely forgettable for the lanky Brit, as Wilson's next best finish was a seventh at Indianapolis.
Overall, it's hard to really forecast much more than a podium or two, and possibly a fortuitous win for Wilson and DCR, but they are improving and could surprise.
Alex Tagliani, 70/1:
So far, I've mentioned numerous drivers who race better than they qualify (e.g. Andretti, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay). "Tags," represents a contrary example of someone who often qualifies better than they race. And while Barracuda Racing has shown promise, the likable Quebecois remains in search of his first podium finish since 2006.
Oriol Servia, 75/1:
The consistent, dependable, likable Servia returns to Panther/DRR for a second year. Servia will drive professionally, score some top-5s, and maybe sneak onto the podium once or twice. But that's probably about it.
J.R. Hildebrand, 80/1:
I would love to see Hildebrand breakout in 2013. However, with the schedule skewing more towards road and street courses, Panther hasn't scored a road/street course podium since 2006.
Josef Newgarden, 80/1:
If the racing thing fails, young Josef will certainly have a fall back career in producing goofy YouTube videos. However for 2013, the talented Newgarden, like Hildebrand, lacks the team around him to be a front-runner.
Charlie Kimball, 85/1:
Toronto 2012 aside, I've yet to see much evidence suggesting Kimball is more than a mid-pack driver.
The Rest of the Field: A top-15 championship finish would be a fantastic season for any of the following.
Ed Carpenter, 95/1:
The outgoing Carpenter, of course, is a threat to win any oval race, and I think a sleeper to win the Indy 500. However, while Carpenter's road racing program has improved, 13 of 19 races on road and street courses, is not what you would call an "Ed Carpenter friendly" schedule.
James Jakes, 100/1:
Personally, I find Jakes' move to RLL an intriguing one. While the reserved Brit has been tagged with the dreaded "ride-buyer," label, I must ask: could he be a sleeper? He certainly impressed o more than one occasion at DCR.
For 2013, I think we can expect a step forward from Jakes. However, don't expect more than Jakes battling to score top-10 race finishes on his good days.
E.J. Viso, 120/1:
Moving to a better team may result in Viso scoring a fortuitous podium or two. I say it is certain to result in more gray hair for Michael Andretti.
Takuma Sato, 150/1:
I know, I know. Sato posted the fastest time in a recent test at Sebring. He also displayed flashes of brilliance with RLL last season. However, I bet you didn't know this: no Foyt car has won a race in a unified Indy Car series since 1978.
Also, keep in mind you have the combination of an aggressive driver paired with a team not exactly known for engineering excellence. Further, I don't see A.J. Foyt mentoring Sato as Bobby Rahal did a year ago. I'm guessing, Sato, as he is known to do, will overdrive the car to compensate for said engineering shortcomings.
Yes, this is a disastrous pairing folks. I'm predicting lots of tax write-offs, more overtime shifts at the Speedway Dallara factory, and one extremely grumpy Texan.
Sebastian Saavedra, 200/1:
Saavedra has some talent and a full-time opportunity with Dragon Racing. However, I have to imagine the sole focus of the team will be Bourdais' effort. A top-20 finish in the standings would probably be a good season for the young Colombian with the wild hair.
2nd Coyne Entry, 250/1:
Ana Beatriz and Stefan Wilson.
As one of the sport's true survivors, I very much admire Dale Coyne. By sharing duties as planned, Beatriz and rookie Wilson will struggle from lack of consistency in the car as they swap seats.
So, who raises the Astor Cup at Fontana in October?
I want to say Power, as I think he is the most deserving. Further, with Penske downsizing to two full-time entries, one has to think The Captain will address Power's pit road issues.
However, given Team Penske's struggles on the ovals in recent years, and the incredibly consistent form of Dixon and Ganassi, I'm going with the smooth, calculating Kiwi.
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