Professor Robin Miller takes an overview of the IndyCar teams in 2013 to establish who are the most promising students and who need extra tutorials.
There aren’t usually too many surprises in the annual report cards. If you were strong at mid-season, chances are you will stay that way ” or at least that’s been the trend the past 30 years. Seldom does a team go from the outhouse to the penthouse, or vice versa, during the final four months.
But in 2013 we saw at least one huge improvement, a big nosedive and a couple of over-achievers as the championship came down to the final race for an eighth consecutive year. And, while there were some excellent individual performances, career breakthroughs and plenty of parity, no team was dominant. Nor were any of the 12 full-time teams a total slug. Everybody had a couple races to be proud of so, therefore, nobody got an F?but only two received an A.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
Going into Pocono, Chip Ganassi’s teams were nowhere as Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti had combined for zero wins. Charlie Kimball had led two more laps (3 to 1) than Dixon, who had recorded the only podium of the trio in the first 10 races. But Dixon and his crew responded the way everyone expected ” winning three in a row, four of the final nine and also adding another podium to snatch the title away from Helio Castroneves. Kimball scored his initial victory at Mid-Ohio after being runner-up at Pocono and really raised his game. Franchitti was still quick (four poles) but lacked consistency and luck, as his final-lap accident in the finale would illustrate. But the bottom line is that whatever engineer Eric Bretzman, chief mechanic Ricky Davis and the boys learned in their mid-season test at Sebring, it damn sure worked. Dixon delivered like he has so many times and earned that third championship.
SCHMIDT HAMILTON MOTORSPORTS
It’s true that everyone has the same chassis, the amount of development and allowable creative thinking is nil and both engines are pretty equal (9-8 in wins in favor of Chevrolet). Of course it’s never a totally level playing field because some teams will always have more money. But the biggest bargain in IndyCar is Simon Pagenaud. Not sure what Sam Schmidt pays him but the friendly Frog deserves a big raise after his 2013 performance. He won at Detroit and Baltimore and was near the front in two-thirds of the races. He, engineer Ben Bretzman and crew chief Don Oldenberg have meshed into a well-oiled machine in two years and Pagenaud is a good qualifier but a better racer and finishing third in the points for Schmidt substantiates both of those claims.
Yes, Will Power looked like himself those final five races (winning three of them) and nobody led more laps in 2013, but he’s set the bar high the past four years so wasn’t worthy of an A this season. Ditto for his teammate. Helio Castroneves led the standings much of the season while driving heady and steady but only one win and a disaster at Houston left Penske clutching that bridesmaid’s bouquet yet again.
A clear-cut A during the first half of 2013, Michael’s squad gave a good account of themselves all season but lost both that early advantage and their way a few times down the stretch. James Hinchcliffe blossomed into a three-time winner, Marco Andretti improved his road racing style and remained a star on ovals and Ryan Hunter-Reay drove as well as he did in his championship run, but got dethroned by myriad problems and failures that weren’t his doing. It was a good run overall, just not a great one.
DALE COYNE RACING
Justin Wilson’s four podiums and ability to get the most out of his situation had the veteran sitting fourth in the standings going into the Fontana finale. His crash broke his pelvis and dropped him to sixth in the points but he continues to excel for a tiny team. And Mike Conway’s impressive win at Detroit gave Coyne’s boys another reason to take a bow.
AJ FOYT RACING
After his initial win at Long Beach and near miss at Brazil, it seemed Takuma Sato had finally turned the corner in his fast but inconsistent career. Alas, it wasn’t to be, as the personable veteran’s season dissolved into crashes and mechanical mayhem and he plummeted from the points lead to 17th in the final tabulation. He was an A through May and then dropped to a D, hence, the final grade.
KV RACING TECHNOLOGY
Finally winning the Indianapolis 500 was well deserved for Tony Kanaan and, along with three podiums, the popular veteran probably deserved a better final grade. But, other than ovals, qualifying was usually a nightmare and too much to overcome ” even for the King of Overtaking. Teammate Simona De Silvestro started out good, faded into oblivion and then rallied for her first podium at Houston. But neither will return in 2014 and there’s a reason.
ED CARPENTER RACING
No oval win for the first time in three seasons but Ed Carpenter scored a major victory by claiming the pole position at Indianapolis. He emerged from Fontana with a second place and also ran well at Texas and Iowa while showing continued improvement in road and street racing.
SARAH FISHER HARTMAN RACING
Josef Newgarden damn near stole Brazil, finished second at Baltimore and turned in some good runs at Pocono and Houston. Considering his age, the team’s budget and the fact it’s only a one-car effort, it was a pretty encouraging sophomore season for both team and driver.
An engineering change put Tom Brown in Sebastian Bourdais’ ear and they clicked starting at Toronto with a pair of podiums, a near-win at Baltimore and a competitive end to what had been a very frustrating season.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
Had it not been for a pair of podiums (one for James Jakes and one for Graham Rahal), this grade would have been lower. Jakes actually had a pretty decent season and outqualified his teammate on many occasions. Young Rahal seems to have lost his confidence and needs to find that form he had a couple of years ago.
Fired J.R. Hildenbrand after Indy, then jettisoned engineer David Cripps and got some decent runs out of Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servia but nothing to show in the results category despite that hefty budget.
Pretty disappointing season with only a couple of 10th-place finishes for the group that won Indy in 2011 and shone in 2012. Parted company with Alex Tagliani long before the year was out but found a gem in rookie Luca Filippi, who was blazingly quick and impressive in three of his four starts.