INDYCAR: The best of the rest, positions 13-27

INDYCAR: The best of the rest, positions 13-27

IndyCar

INDYCAR: The best of the rest, positions 13-27

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P27: A.J. Allmendinger, Team Penske: Having witnessed Allmendinger’s massive talent on display in Champ Car, this writer anticipated the pint-sized phenom’s return to open-wheel would eventually conjure of the confidence and decisiveness that made him so impressive on road and street courses through the 2006 CCWS season. Given a year or two to find his old groove, it’s likely ‘Dinger could rediscover that form, but after seven years of going in circles on the NASCAR tour, the best A.J. had to offer during his six-race IndyCar foray was on an oval. He starred at Indy for Roger Penske, leading home teammates Will Power and three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves. An enterprising owner would be wise to put him in a car at the Speedway if and when his schedule opens up again.

P26: Ryan Briscoe, Panther Racing, Ganassi Racing: The Aussie’s partial IndyCar season offered little in the way of rewards. His Indy 500 drive for Chip Ganassi was rather quiet, but it was the same for his three teammates. His fill-in role at Panther for the newly-terminated JR Hildebrand started on short notice at Detroit, and despite giving it his best, there were no miracles to be had. The same was true at Milwaukee, Pocono, Toronto 1 (where he suffered an injury and was replaced by Carlos Munoz for Race 2), and at Sonoma. Briscoe’s best finish for Panther was 13th, and based on his record in the IndyCar Series, it spoke more to a team in transition than a lack of ability on his part.

P25: JR Hildebrand, Panther Racing, Barracuda Racing: The writing had been on the wall for quite some time between Hildebrand and Panther owner John Barnes. The latter felt JR wasn’t fully dedicated to the team’s success, and the former Indy Lights champ felt the same about Panther, questioning the pace of the cars he was given to drive. A fifth-place run at Long Beach was the best the combo delivered leading into Indy, and after crashing out on lap 3 ” the first DNF of the event ” Barnes pulled the plug.

Although Briscoe, and later, Oriol Servia, vindicated Hildebrand in terms of on-track performances in the Panther car, it was hardly something to revel in. JR’s pair of drives for Barracuda Racing offered mixed results, with his home race at Sonoma being somewhat forgettable. He put on a show at Fontana, however, until his Honda engine surrendered and robbed the program of a decent result. We’ve yet to see the best from Hildebrand, and hopefully he’ll get a shot within a multi-car team after three seasons of learning on his own.

P24: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing, Ganassi Racing: Tag opened and closed his season with Barracuda Racing by recording drives to 10th, but it’s the crashes and distant results between St. Pete and Toronto 2 that led to his ouster. The team wasn’t blameless for some of the poor finishes, and engine partner Honda also shouldered some of the responsibility for the issues, but by Toronto, the ledger of how things fell apart and who was at fault was of little concern. By the numbers, 2013 was a calamity for Tag. The team eventually wanted a fresh start and got it, drafting in rapid Italian Luca Filippi for Mid-Ohio.

Tagliani, who was considered by some as past his prime, kept quiet, partook in some sports car races and waited until he got a call from Target Chip Ganassi Racing to replace the injured Dario Franchitti at Fontana. It was a classic case of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure, and the Ganassi team came away from the season finale with a newfound respect for the French-Canadian. Getting the boot from Barracuda Racing, as improbable as it might seem, could end up being a blessing in disguise. Tagliani readily admits he’s in the twilight of his open-wheel career, and was considering hanging it up for a place in the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship, but the door could be open for him to close this chapter of his life in grand style next season.

P23: Mike Conway, Dale Coyne Racing: The road and street course rock star?that’s the best way to describe Conway. He turns up, rocks the IndyCar Series for Dale Coyne and then heads home. A win and third at Detroit were the highlights of his six-race season, but his pair of sevenths at Toronto ” achieved after he and the stellar John Dick threw out their setup and started from scratch after a fruitless Friday ” was thoroughly remarkable. Knowing how bad his car was ” how defeated he looked as he and Dick stared off into the distance on pit lane, to motor from 23rd to seventh on Saturday and 20th to seventh on Sunday in Canada said a lot about the Briton’s resolve. His season closed in a rather unassuming fashion at Houston, but let’s hopes a team keeps bringing Conway back for the twisty events next season. If that doesn’t happen, he’s found a home in sports car racing where he’s won three-in-a-row in the WEC P2 class.

P22: Oriol Servia, Panther DRR, Panther Racing: A partial season with Panther DRR netted Servia superb finishes of sixth at Long Beach and fourth at Brazil. 11th at the Indy 500, the final race for the team before it went on a season-ending hiatus, came with a bit of sadness. The team had clearly made major headway with its Chevy-powered Dallara, allowing the fiery Catalonian to post more of his patented punching-above-his-weight performances. As Briscoe also found, Servia’s part-time drives at Panther Racing weren’t as productive as he’d hoped. A seventh at Iowa and a storming drive from 21st to another seventh-place finish, this time at Houston 2, served as a reminder of the talent Servia’s working with. Of all the takeaways about Servia’s season, the fact that he missed seven of the 19 races, yet finished only three points behind Dragon Racing full-timer Sebastian Saavedra borders on the miraculous.

P21: Sebastian Saavedra, Dragon Racing: Saavedra’s Dragon Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais reckons the young Colombian is fairly talented. Unfortunately, one finish with a single-digit result (eighth at Baltimore) from 19 races makes it hard to use numbers to vouch for Saavedra’s abilities. The kid made the Firestone Fast 12 four times through the Detroit double-header, and did so with Indy car veteran Ed Nathmann having to get up to speed with the Dallara DW12, so that’s an encouraging statistic to note. He also qualified sixth at Milwaukee ” another plus.

After that trip to Wisconsin, a significant slide took place where Sebastian failed to qualify better than 18th over the 10 remaining races. Other than his result at Baltimore and a 12th at Houston 2, all of his post-Milwaukee finishes ranged from 14th to 24th. Bad luck could be blamed for some things; ending the season with a blown tire and crash wasn’t Saavedra’s fault, and the Dragon team was also behind the curve for most of the season. But overall, Seb’s first complete season of IndyCar racing left us with more questions than answers. How good has he become, and will he get another chance to demonstrate it? Those are also questions without an answer?

P20: Tristan Vautier, Schmidt Peterson Racing: The 2012 Firestone Indy Lights champion wowed IndyCar fans on his series debut, making the Firestone Fast 6 at St. Pete and again two weeks later at Barber with the help of his highly respected engineer Allan McDonald. And then things started to get messy for the only rookie taking part in the entire championship. Vautier’s annual budget came from a patchwork of sponsors, and with every broken front wing or damaged wheel, the closer the Frenchman came to ending up without a drive. Houston was an expensive weekend, in particular, but Vautier adjusted accordingly and then drove within himself for most of the season.

Vautier’s rookie season will be remembered for the early fireworks, and he definitely made an impression during the first few months of the championship, yet his best result from 19 rounds was a 10th at Barber. He had everything a rookie could ask for, with a two-car team, a championship-winning engineer to guide him and a championship-caliber teammate in Simon Pagenaud to learn from. Vautier dealt with some major constraints that kept him from going for broke at every round, but it’s worth asking whether he made the most of the resources that were available. On paper, the No. 55 entry was far better than a 20th-place program.

P19: James Jakes, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Jakes came away with very little to show for his first season with RLLR. Yes, he had an awesome second-place result at Detroit 2, and added a sixth at Houston 1, but his finishing position in the championship standings is entirely forgettable. In contrast, the Brit’s insane drives during practice, occasionally in qualifying, and in about half of the races were anything but forgettable as we learned Jakes can drive almost anything his engineer Eddie Jones gave him. If the No. 16 car was in the setup window, he’d flog the thing without mercy. If it wouldn’t turn, or wouldn’t keep the rear tires planted?he’d still beat the thing half to death and climb from the car looking like it was just a normal day in the office.

The Rahal team had a brutal year; its cars weren’t very fast or consistent, yet Jakes, at least compared to his teammate, was rather numb to the deficiencies. Jakes’ finishing record was, without making excuses, a poor reflection of the effort he exerted from inside the car when it was time to go racing. He burned brightly at many events and never stopped fighting. It was a hell of a lot of fun to watch Jakes this season, and it would be even more fun to see him return and put in the kind of preparation and effort that could make him a true contender. Battling like an animal for every inch of track is definitely entertaining, but fading and settling for a finish somewhere in the teens most of the time isn’t something to be proud of. It’s now what we’ve come to expect from Jakes. Being the last in/first out at the track isn’t the formula for success, and if Jakes wants to become a fixture in the top 12, he’ll need to mirror the working habits of the top drivers in the series.

P18: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Rahal’s season must have felt like an eight-month-long punch to the nuts. The planet briefly aligned at Long Beach where he motored from 11th to second, and in a number of other races, Rahal also managed to improved six, eight and sometimes 10 positions by the end of the event. Problem was, he was starting so far back in the pack, going from 23rd to ninth at a race like Detroit 1 was done in relative anonymity. 15 of Rahal’s qualifying sessions were abysmal, setting up scenarios where a 24th to 16th at Milwaukee and a 24th to seventh at Houston 1 landed favorable results, but those were the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, Rahal’s first year with his father’s team went something like 15th to 13th at St. Pete, 26th to 25th at Indy, 16th to 18th at Pocono, and 19th to 18th at Houston 2.

The No. 15 team was a lightning rod for Honda’s reliability issues and lacked a damper program of any magnitude, with the latter causing the biggest separation between RLLR and the rest of the top teams. A mid-season reboot was called for with the addition of Mitch Davis to help manage the team and a new engineer in Neil Fife to look after Graham’s car, which made a slight difference from Mid-Ohio onward. He’ll have Bill Pappas engineering the No. 15 in 2014, which should make life much easier. How complete of a driver has Rahal, who’ll turn 25 in January, become after stints with Newman/Haas Racing, Ganassi Racing and RLLR? With no excuses to be found in next year’s program, we’re about to find out.

P17: Takuma Sato, AJ Foyt Racing: As we’ve chronicled with so many other IndyCar drivers in 2013, Sato’s year was segmented. First-half Sato started second at St. Pete, started fourth and won at Long Beach and, questionable tactics aside, led at Sao Paulo and finished second. He, engineer Don Halliday and the Foyt team were a revelation heading into the Indy 500, where Sato recorded his best-ever finish of 13th. He’d lead convincingly at Milwaukee and would claim seventh, but it would mark his final finish inside the top 10.

Engine and mechanical issues would plague Sato’s second-half performances, and then we had the season-altering mistake at Pocono. If taking Ryan Hunter-Reay out on pit lane while the Andretti driver was running second wasn’t bad enough, being placed on probation appeared to affect Sato’s intensity and results during most of the remaining rounds. Pole at Houston 1, site of the Foyt’s home race, had everyone smiling, but the misfortune continued as he finished 17th on Saturday and 14th on Sunday. Team director Larry Foyt is confident he can get Sato back on track next year, which would be a welcome sight.

P16: Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing: It was a surprise to see Carpenter go an entire season without scoring a victory, which says a lot about how far the single-car program has come since it debuted in 2012. Carpenter’s pole at Indy sent the fans into a state of rapture, and his best results came on the ovals, as expected, with a second-place finish at Fontana adding to the fourths he earned at Texas and Iowa.

P15: E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport: The move to Michael Andretti’s team helped Viso earn his best championship result in six years of trying, despite missing the final round at Fontana. 10 finishes of 13th or worse, including two three-race strings of forgettable results, countered a promising start to the season where Viso took seventh at St. Pete. He’d make the most of an odd qualifying session at Brazil to secure second, and posted a best finish of fourth at Milwaukee. Viso’s season ended up following the now-boring routine of being wildly inconsistent. His car wasn’t as reliable as he’d hoped, but the biggest variable in the program could be found strapped into the cockpit of the No. 5. Andretti Autosport didn’t have a perfect season from start to finish, but three of its four cars secured fifth, seventh and eighth in the championship. It’s worth suggesting that in different hands, Andretti’s fourth entry was capable of a lot more than 15th in the standings.

P14: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Minus Takuma Sato’s scary blocking tactics at Sao Paulo, we might be discussing how IndyCar sophomore Newgarden won his first race in 2013. As a rookie, and as rookies often do, he ran into a lot of things. Newgarden returned smarter and wiser, keeping the SFHR Honda intact at most races and he also managed to achieve something that escaped him in 2012: he finished inside the top 10, and then started doing so at a semi-regular pace. Josef’s previous best was an 11th (on his series debut at St. Pete), the highlight of his rookie campaign. It only took until Round 2 at Barber this year for J-New to crack the top 10, and he did it again at Brazil, Detroit 1, Texas, Pocono, Baltimore and Houston 1.

His run to second at Baltimore ” his first podium ” was backed by three other top-5s. Looking at their year-to-year progression, the jump from 23rd in 2012 to 14th this year reveals the SFHR program had a far better season than most people realized. 14th isn’t something we’d normally celebrate, but given the modest resources SFHR has to work with, and the fact that champions Sebastien Bourdais (12th) and Tony Kanaan (11th) finished the year less than 50 points ahead of Newgarden, there’s plenty for the team to build upon in 2014.

P13: Simona de Silvestro, KV Racing: Simona’s first season with a teammate ” the one her fans and supporters have been calling for since 2010 ” helped the 25-year-old to post her best championship finish to date, but a season of discord between the upper brass involved with her program and the leaders of the KV team limited their overall results. She started third at St. Pete, which was a revelation, but it would prove to be an aberration as she’d go on to start 14th or worse on 13 occasions. De Silvestro had her best outings on street courses, scoring five of her seven top-10s on temporary circuits. Starting fifth and finishing second at Houston 2 was simply awesome, but like Hildebrand and Newgarden, she’ll need a proper, happy two-car program to fill in the knowledge gaps.

Completing her open-wheel education alongside a Justin Wilson or Simon Pagenaud must remain a top priority for her management team. It’s not a question of talent with de Silvestro, but with her fifth IndyCar season right around the corner, the window for growing by leaps and bounds is starting to close.

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