THE SEASON OF WHAT-IFS
If consistency is the key to winning championships, many Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are struggling to find it after the first four races. At the end of the season’s opening quarter, only three can lay claim to finishing every event inside the top 10, and that’s from a pool of more than 20 drivers.
Starting with points leader Josef Newgarden who sits atop those three, he took the championship lead from Alexander Rossi at Barber with his second win of the year and has a tidy pair of firsts and sevenths to thank for his new position. Fourth-place Graham Rahal and fifth-place James Hinchcliffe are the only other drivers who’ve found similar top-10 consistency, and before and after them, tales of boom and bust is the norm so far in 2018.
Second-place Rossi was the epitome of consistency with a pair of thirds and a win before a relatively bad day at Barber left him 11th at the checkered flag. Third-place Sebastien Bourdais is an altogether different case where misfortune – some of his own making, and some through strategy errors –dropped an ugly pair of 13ths between his win at St. Petersburg and fifth at Barber. Imagine where he’d be without the dramas at Phoenix and Long Beach…
Following Bourdais’ model, move back to Ryan Hunter-Reay in sixth, and without the brutal day in Long Beach that left him 20th, a pair of fifths and a second at Barber would have him sitting much higher in the championship standings. And look no further than Robert Wickens for the ultimate example of how scattered the early season has been for some drivers.
When extremely bad things haven’t happened to the Canadian rookie, he’s finished second and fourth. When race-ending contact at St. Pete and electronics problems at Long Beach intervened, strong potential finishes became a forgettable 18th and 22nd, respectively. Despite his all-good or all-bad results, Wickens has climbed to eighth in the Drivers’ rankings. Like Bourdais, wipe the bad from his slate, and he’s nestled with Newgarden and Rossi at the sharp end of the top 10.
Continuing the scattered trend, Will Power holds a remarkable 10th in points on the strength of placing second at Long Beach, but with his 10th at St. Pete, the crash at Phoenix, and aquaplaning incident on Sunday, he’s only earned 81 points so far – approximately half of Newgarden’s 158.
Ed Jones is in a nearly identical situation to Power. His third at Long Beach and eighth at St. Pete are responsible for holding 11th in the championship, but imagine how far up he’d be without the unnecessary crash while running second late in the Phoenix race and the engine misfire that forced him to stop at Barber. Together, the two forgettable days with a pair of 20ths has left Jones with a decent-size crater to dig out of as we head into the season’s second quarter.
The ‘what if’ scenarios don’t matter, of course; whatever’s happened so far counts, but it is interesting to see how in most cases, poor choices or the cartoon anvil can be blamed for the inconsistency that has struck most of the championship contenders. A sheer lack of pace and competitiveness has not – at least through Barber – been the problem.
Few have latched onto consistency so far, but it’s obvious that a few more drivers – Bourdais, Wickens, Power and Jones, in particular – have vast abilities to move forward in the standings if they can avoid more big swings in fortune.
Alexander Rossi might not have much to say outside the car, but within the context of what he’s hired to do for Andretti Autosport, the young star is delivering the goods.
Seemingly bred from birth to become a professional race car driver, “Robo Rossi” has been in full Terminator T1000 mode so far, and only a slight misstep at Barber – a spin while trying to make speed on slick tires in the rain – hinted at the fact that he’s human.
If there’s a newly remarkable aspect to Rossi’s season worth tracking, it’s how Barber was the first event of 2018 where a shot at winning looked like it was beyond reach. The opening trio of races almost came too easily for the Californian, and with Newgarden hitting a powerful stride in his early title defense, it will be interesting to see how Rossi responds.
Always among the most pressure-packed drivers in the field, I’m not sure it’s possible for Rossi to exert more control over his emotions, but this is the first time we’ve seen him with something tangible to lose. If the points gap to Newgarden grows in May, will he blow it off and maintain the Robo Rossi form, or will a few glitches be revealed in his programming?
The response to adversity, as we’ve seen in so many title contenders, is a critical component in how they perform in the heat of the moment. Newgarden was bulletproof last year, but we haven’t observed Rossi in a similar situation. Yet. Our first chance to find out what he’s made of – robot or human – could be on the horizon.