The Frontstretch: Open Wheel Wednesday: Driver Reviews Part 1 by Frontstretch IndyCar Staff -- Tuesday November 19, 2013

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Open Wheel Wednesday: Driver Reviews Part 1

Frontstretch IndyCar Staff · Tuesday November 19, 2013

 

Welcome to part one of our Frontstretch IndyCar Series driver reviews. Your regular IndyCar staff of Toni Montgomery, Matt Stallknecht and Huston Ladner, along with Phil Allaway, have the season ending report cards for all of your favorite open wheel drivers. Here they are, in no particular order. Check back after Thanksgiving for part two!

Graham Rahal

Rahal teamed up with his famous father to drive for the family team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, this season, but I’m not sure either side got the results they were hoping for, with a final result of 18th in the series standings. To be fair, it was not a complete surprise. Rahal moved from Chip Ganassi Racing, and even in a second tier Ganassi ride, you should expect better results. For RLL, the average finishes came out about the same between Rahal and last year’s pilot, Takuma Sato, although one would think the team would be happier to have had far fewer cars come back in pieces as Rahal had only three DNFs to Sato’s eight. Rahal did make the podium in Long Beach, but it was one of the few bright spots in a largely forgettable season. You could perhaps chalk this one up to the equipment.

Best Finish: 2nd at Long Beach
Worst Finish: 25th at Indy
Grade: D+

Oriol Servia

Servia had a roller coaster of a season after his DRR Panther team ceased operations following the Indy 500 due to lack of funding. He thought he’d be sitting out the remainder of the year, and yet, he ended up not far from where he started after Panther parted ways with JR Hildebrand in the No. 4 car and tapped Servia to split the seat with Ryan Briscoe for the remainder of the season. He finished the season 22nd in standings but ran in only 12 events. If Panther can get sponsorship solidified for next year, it appears they will give the ride to Briscoe, so Servia’s plans for 2014 are unclear at this time. He’s become somewhat of a go-to guy for teams needing subs so he’ll likely pop up somewhere.

Best Finish: 4th at Sao Paulo
Worst Finish: 19th at Texas, Houston, and Fontana
Grade: D+

Alex Tagliani

Tag started the year with Barracuda Racing (AKA Bryan Herta Autosport/Curb-Agajanian) and things started out fairly promising, but a dismal stretch of poor performances that included six consecutive races where the team finished outside the top 20 led the team to make a change following the Toronto doubleheader in July. The longtime veteran found himself on the sidelines after that. It’s hard to say why things took a sudden turn for the worse at Barracuda. Perhaps it was a lack of chemistry, perhaps Tagliani is past his prime. The Canadian got another chance while filling in for the injured Dario Franchitti at the season finale in Fontana and he capitalized on it nicely, even leading for 5 laps, before crashing 41 laps shy of the end. That sort of sums it up for Tagliani. He’s been mentioned in connection with the 10 car for next year, but that’s probably a slim chance.

The 2013 season was a long and winding road for IndyCar drivers.

Best Finish: 10th at St. Petersburg and Toronto
Worst Finish: 24th at Indy and Iowa
Grade: D

Justin Wilson

2013 was an excellent season for Dale Coyne Racing, despite the constant turnover in the No. 18. Wilson was the one constant for the team on track all season. On the road and street courses, Wilson was a constant threat for top-10 finishes. Even on the ovals, where Wilson is not quite as good, he was able to put up decent finishes. Wilson’s best runs on ovals tended to come on flatter ovals that favor more skilled drivers. He was in position to make a run for the win in the Indianapolis 500, but the crash on the final restart forced him to settle for fifth.

The No. 19 team really only had a couple of weak races. Sao Paulo saw Wilson running in a decent 12th when he stuffed himself into the tires and lost a couple of laps getting righted. He would eventually finish 20th. Texas was the weakest race strength-wise all year, where Wilson (the defending champion) just didn’t have it and finished two laps down in 15th.

Wilson misjudging the seams in Turn 1 at Fontana cost him a chance at five consecutive top-5 finishes to finish out the season, undoubtedly the best stretch in the history of Dale Coyne Racing. Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing have had an incredible amount of success together, especially given the Coyne team’s past.

All indications point to Wilson returning to Dale Coyne Racing in 2014. However, he is currently unable to test due to injuries suffered in his crash at Fontana. In all likelihood, he will be good to go by the new year.

Best Finish: 2nd (Sonoma)
Worst Finish: 22nd (Belle Isle No. 2)
Grade: A-

Sebastien Bourdais

For Bourdais, 2013 was definitely an up-and-down season. Having the Chevrolet engines for the full season was supposed to benefit the organization. However, the season started in a giant swoon. Bourdais started decently with an 11th at St. Petersburg, but the season went downhill from there. The first half of the year was marked by mechanical issues, pedestrian racing, and a crash in the Indianapolis 500. By July, Bourdais was just hanging on to the top-22 in points, crucial in order for Dragon Racing to get their share of the series money. In a Frontstretch interview with Bourdais at Lime Rock in September, he mentioned that his early struggles had a lot to do with the team’s inability to adjust to new 2013 rubber.

However, Toronto completely jump started Bourdais’ season. After essentially not sniffing the top-10 all year, Bourdais was right up in the hunt in both races. Granted, Bourdais couldn’t do anything with Scott Dixon, who won both races and took a $100,000 bonus in the process, but the fire was back. A top-10 at Sonoma followed shortly afterwards. Then, there was Baltimore, where Bourdais had possibly the best car and led 19 laps after starting 22nd. Despite getting spun out on a restart, Bourdais nearly claimed the win before having to settle for third. The No. 7 was a revelation at Fontana as well before a rather unusual crash put him out with 21 laps to go. Those excellent runs boosted him to 12th in points.

For 2013, Bourdais will move over to KV Racing Technologies, where he will replace Tony Kanaan in the No. 11. On Tuesday, the team announced a new sponsor in Mistic Electronic Cigarettes#. ; Let’s just say that when that car runs, Bourdais will stand out like a sore thumb. In addition, Bourdais will keep himself involved in sports cars. On Monday, Action Express Racing announced that Bourdais has been signed to drive in three endurance events (Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans) in the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet Corvette DP Evo. Bourdais will team up with regular drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi.

Best Finish: 2nd (Toronto No. 2)
Worst Finish: 29th (Indianapolis 500)
Grade: B-

Helio Castroneves

For Helio Castroneves, 2013 was yet another year of “close but no cigar.” Castroneves has won just about everything there is to win in the world of INDYCAR with the glaring exception of a championship, and despite a sterling year-long performance that saw him enter the final race of the season with a shot at the title, Castroneves once again came up short. His season was highlighted by a decisive victory at Texas in June along with four other podium finishes sprinkled throughout the year that helped him lead the points for much of the 2013 campaign. However, a late-season slump would ultimately rob the Brazilian driver of the one thing he desires most at this point in his career: a championship.

Helio Castroneves probably wished had had a car as invincible as the Batmobile at Houston, where he saw a potential championship season go up in smoke.

Best Finish: 1st at Texas
Worst Finish: 23rd at Houston (2)
Grade: A-

Josef Newgarden

2013 was a year of growth for Josef Newgarden. The young Tennessean driver made great strides this year, developing from a dart without feathers in 2012 to a bona fide darkhorse contender in 2013. Newgarden was a consistent threat for top 10 finishes every week and even delivered a surprising 2nd place finish at Baltimore. It was his first-ever podium finish in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Newgarden’s team, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, is still underfunded and clearly is holding him back a bit, but given Newgarden’s continued growth, it would not be shocking to see him pick up his first win in 2014.

Best Finish: 2nd at Baltimore
Worst Finish: 24th at Sonoma
Grade: B-

Will Power

“Mixed” would be the best way to describe the results Will Power delivered in 2013. Power entered the season with a chip on his shoulder after suffering back to back title defeats in 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately for him, the “hangover” often associated with such big defeats lasted much farther into the 2013 season than Power perhaps hoped for. That being said, Power managed to rebound in a big way late in the season, delivering 3 wins in the last 5 races and vaulting himself to 4th in the final series standings. If Power can keep the kind of momentum up into 2014, he could very well be a title threat once again.

Best Finish: 1st at Sonoma, Houston (2), and Fontana
Worst Finish: 24th at Sao Paulo
Grade: B+

James Hinchcliffe

Are we’re sure that Hinchcliffe was driving a car this past season and was not the operator of a roller coaster? His opening season win at St. Petersberg, which was the first of his Indy career, seemed like a statement that he was going to contend for the championship. But that was followed by two last-place finishes, with one race where he endured sitting just off the track in his car for its entirety. And he won again. That would seem to be the pattern for Hinch-town’s season, only consistently being inconsistent. His 8th-place overall finish is probably about right, but his glimpses of success are a hopeful harbinger for next year’s season.

Best Finish: 1st at St. Petersburg, Sao Paolo, and Iowa
Worst Finish: 26th at Barber (AL), and Long Beach
Grade: B-

Dario Franchitti

From the get go it looked like Franchitti would struggle through the season. His opening two finishes in the 20s signaled that something was off. But then he followed it by earning top tens in eleven out of the next thirteen races. For a moment it looked like he might even make his way into the championship battle, but that was just a mirage. Of course, the big moment for Franchitti came in the second race at Houston where he collided with Takuma Sato and helicoptered into the fence, ending not only his season but his career. All of the stats don’t really matter now as Franchitti is able to safely walk away. But he’ll be missed.

Best Finish: 3rd at Pocono, Toronto 1, Mid-Ohio, and Sonoma
Worst Finish: 25th at St. Petersburg and Barber OR 15th at Houston where he left in an ambulance.
Grade: C but really an A for surviving

Ed Carpenter

Did everyone know that Carpenter is the stepson of Indy Racing founder Tony George? It’s kind of a forgettable fact, which is how one might also describe Carpenter’s season. His efforts on the road courses inspire no one. But something about the ovals seemed to bring out the better in the 32 year-old driver. He posted top tens at Texas, Pocono, Iowa, and Fontana, but that wasn’t enough for the driver of this one-car team to make an impact on the points standings. He’ll have to improve his efforts on those tracks that go both left and right if he wants to become more significant.

Best Finish: 2nd at Fontana
Worst Finish: 23rd at Sao Paolo and Houston 1
Grade: C-

Tristan Vautier

Hm, what to say about Vautier and his first season in IndyCar? Um, well, he’s French? Yeah, that will do. The Indy Lights champion went through that painful process known as growing pains driving for Schmidt Hamilton this year. At times he could run near the front but those moments rarely lasted and he would often finish races in a middling position. It’s not like Vautier doesn’t have talent, as he also won the Star Mazda series, but it appeared he wasn’t able to show it this year. Perhaps his sophomore year will bring with it more promise. Call it funny that because he was the only rookie to compete full time that finishing 20th overall netted him rookie of the year honors.

Best Finish: 10th Barber (AL)
Worst Finish: 22nd at Houston 1
Grade: C+

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DeniseW
11/20/2013 07:08 AM
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Ed has hired Mike Conway to run the road/street courses in 2014. While he’s shown some improvement from previous years, I think he’s done the right thing in turning the wheel over to Conway, a proven winner.

Tim
11/20/2013 12:31 PM
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C+ for Vautier? He was awful the 2nd part of the season a D at best. As the other poster noted, Carpenter is going with Conway on the RC/SC so that will be an upgrade.