Open Wheel Wednesday · Toni Montgomery, Huston Ladner and Matt Stallknecht · Wednesday October 10, 2012
Andretti Autosport came into the 2012 season with heavy hearts and a whole lot to prove. Just days after signing the late Dan Wheldon to drive the #27 GoDaddy car for the 2012 season, Wheldon died tragically in the now infamous early-race accident in the 2011 season finale. Veteran driver Danica Patrick also left the team after 2011 to pursue a career in NASCAR. In place of Wheldon, AA signed promising sophomore driver James Hinchcliffe to pilot the #27, and he joined Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti to form a strong three car team that looked to avenge the demons of what was mostly a miserable 2011 season, both on and off the track. And for the most part, the team did just that.
The team started off strong and remained ferociously consistent throughout the year. The organization as a whole was at their best on the oval tracks, with Hunter-Reay winning two of the five oval races. Hunter-Reay emerged as a championship contender around midseason and never looked back, piloting the strong Andretti cars to four total victories and a series championship. Hinchcliffe and the #27 team also proved to be a force to be reckoned with, and ended up a strong eighth in the final series standings. Marco Andretti and his No. 26 team, however, were a major disappointment. Andretti lagged behind his teammates on the road circuits which make up the bulk of the schedule, and despite routinely having the best car in a number of the oval events, the No. 26 team simply could not find the magic necessary to follow through for a win.
Look for all three Andretti Autosport teams to come back strong out of the gate in 2013, and especially for Marco Andretti to bounce back after what was the worst season of his career.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing / Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing / Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing
The Ganassi teams represent one of the crown jewel organizations in the IndyCar series, but this year something just seemed a little off. With the opening of engine manufacturer competition, Ganassi stayed with what was tried and true, Honda, and that decision may have hurt the teams at the onset, as Chevrolet began with a better package. By midseason, Honda had made up the difference, which was showcased with Ganassi wins at the Indy 500, where the team took the top two positions, and next at the Detroit Grand Prix.
The problem, though, is that for a team with Ganassi’s resources, their overall three wins makes the season seem like a bit of a failure. Even worse, only Scott Dixon was close to sniffing the title hunt, with their other drivers finishing seventh on back. It’d be hard to exclaim that the sky is falling with Ganassi and that they won’t have their troubles worked out for next year. This team is just too powerful, and the driver line-up stout, not to close the gap between Penske and Andretti. Expect to see more than three wins next year.
Panther Racing entered the 2012 season looking to improve upon what could best be described as a down year in 2011. The team’s only driver, sophomore pilot JR Hildebrand, bettered his statistics in nearly every category in 2012 and proved that he does indeed belong in America’s premier Open Wheel Series. The team’s road and street program was noticeably improved, and Hildebrand did his best work on the road and street circuits as a result.
The team’s oval program was also much better than it was in 2011, with Hildebrand dominating the early portion of the season finale at Fontana before trouble befell the team in the middle of the event. Panther also forged an alliance with the Dreyer and Reinbold Racing organization, but it didn’t appear to have any real impact on the team’s performance. Overall, Hildebrand and his No. 4 Panther Racing team maintained its reputation as being one of the best single-car organizations in the sport, delivering a respectable 11th-place points finish at the season’s conclusion.
With a promising young driver in Hildebrand, strong Chevrolet engines, and a dedicated team owner, Panther Racing will be a team to watch in 2013.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
The veteran Dreyer & Reinbold team seemed to suffer somewhat of an identity crisis in 2012. The team signed driver Oriol Servia in the off-season and also announced they would be a factory partner of incoming engine manufacturer Lotus, making them Lotus DRR. Unfortunately Lotus entered the season unprepared and never caught up and after the race in Sao Paulo, they dissolved their partnership with DRR. Left with no engine for the Indy 500 and beyond, DRR formed a strategic partnership with another veteran single-car team, Panther Racing, and became known for the remainder of the season as Panther / DRR. The deal allowed them to use Panther’s second Chevrolet engine lease and they also moved into the Panther shop, an arrangement that seemed to satisfy a desire of both teams to better compete with the multi-car teams. It was also not without precedent as the two teams had worked together in a technical partnership in 2011.
As Lotus DRR the team posted a best finish of 11th. After the switch to Chevy power, as Panther DRR they scored four top 5s, although consistency was a problem. The team hasn’t said anything so far about plans for next year and if they plan to continue the partnership, although one would suspect when they moved into the Panther shops in May, they expected the deal to be for more than the four remaining months of the season.
Dale Coyne Racing
For a second-tier organization, Dale Coyne Racing had the type of season that would seem to be expected. The two-car team managed to place its cars in the top 10 eight times, with Justin Wilson earning most of those results. Of course, the team’s second-ever victory, coming at Texas with Wilson, was one of the highlights of the year. But otherwise, neither driver had any podium finishes for the year, and that had to be a bit discouraging. The reason for optimism here is that, currently, the team has stability. It started and ended the season with Honda engines and their engineering guru, Bill Pappas, has remained with the team.
Stability aside, the team, in many ways, doesn’t know what it has. Justin Wilson seems like a fine driver, but James Jakes is still young and raw, and after back-to-back 22nd-place seasons, it might be time to put him under further scrutiny. Is DCR a team that will be looking to fight for the championship next year? In all likelihood, probably not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the chance to improve – and gaining a few more podium finishes, and maybe stealing a win again, would be considered a success.
Ed Carpenter Racing
Ed Carpenter took on a big challenge in 2012. Carpenter started his own team and attempted to run the full schedule for the first time since 2009. For the most part, it was a rousing success. Carpenter has always struggled on the road and street circuits, and his new self-owned No. 20 team did not fare well in any of such races in 2012. Carpenter as a driver did appear to show some improvement towards the end of the season on the twisty tracks, but it will likely be awhile before he and his team can start competing at a high level.
The oval tracks, however, were an entirely different story. Despite being a one car team with limited resources, Carpenter and the No. 20 group were a factor in all five of the oval events and delivered a surprise breakthrough win in the series finale at Fontana. Carpenter has long been known for his oval track prowess, and it is clear that his team puts a lot of effort into the oval events given how surprisingly well they performed on such tracks in 2012.
Look for Carpenter and Co. to be even stronger on the oval tracks in 2013, and if Carpenter can improve his abilities on the road and street circuits, his team is strong enough to make a run at a top-10 finish in points. In short, keep your eye on Ed Carpenter Racing in 2013, and don’t be surprised if they field a second car in select oval events as well.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
It was an exciting year for Sarah Fisher’s team, which added business partner Wink Hartman to become Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and also broke ground on a new shop building in Speedway, Indiana. On the track, the team welcomed new driver Josef Newgarden. The 21-year-old American rookie driver was the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion and made his debut with SFHR in the season opener at St. Petersburg.
Admittedly SFHR does not have the resources of some of the bigger teams and Newgarden was a rookie. He had some promising moments, like staring second at Long Beach, but at times he made mistakes, like crashing four times, much like you’d expect of any first-year driver. The team also had to deal with some adversity when Newgarden was injured at Sonoma and unable to race at Baltimore. Veteran Bruno Junquiera stepped in and Newgarden was able to return for the finale at Fontana. SFHR signed Newgarden to multi-year deal so expect driver and team to return next year and hopefully improve with a year together under their belts.
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