The Frontstretch: Open Wheel Wednesday: Driver Reviews, Part 2 by Frontstretch IndyCar Staff -- Wednesday December 4, 2013

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Open Wheel Wednesday: Driver Reviews, Part 2

Frontstretch IndyCar Staff · Wednesday December 4, 2013


We’ve gotten over our turkey hangovers and here, without further delay, are the remainder of our 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series driver reviews!

Marco Andretti had a strong season in 2013 even though he never reached Victory Lane.

Marco Andretti

2013 was a season of improvement for Marco Andretti. Andretti took it upon himself to step up his road course performance over the offseason courtesy of a driving coach, and the results paid dividends. Andretti transformed from a driver who could only perform on ovals to a well-rounded driver capable of gunning for wins every week. Those wins, of course, were difficult to come by, and despite a great season that saw the driver finish a career-high 5th in the standings, Andretti went winless. But with momentum and renewed confidence, Andretti looks to be a threat in 2014.

Best Finish: 3rd at St Petersburg and Sao Paulo
Worst Finish: 20th at Detroit (1), Houston (2), and Milwuakee
Grade: B.

Ryan Hunter-Reay

After winning the series championship in 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay entered 2013 with a great deal of confidence and the swagger necessary to deliver back to back titles. However, things did not quite play out as planned for the DHL/Sun Drop team. Hunter-Reay had a bit of a championship hangover in 2013. Despite delivering two early season wins at Barber and Milwaukee, Hunter-Reay never developed the consistency necessary to develop another championship run. Despite this, Hunter-Reay proved once again that he is a top-level talent, and he will undoubtedly be back with a vengeance in 2014.

Best Finish: 1st at Milwaukee and Barber
Worst Finish: 24th at Long Beach
Grade: B-

Scott Dixon

Put simply, Scott Dixon was the best driver in the IndyCar field in 2013. Despite an early season slump that saw Dixon face a large deficit in the points standings courtesy of a car that was not up to par with other top level teams, Dixon and his team persevered midway through the season and staged an unlikely run to the championship. Dixon essentially put the team on his back along the way, forever cementing his status as a supreme talent in the world of IndyCar. Expect big things out of Dixon once again in 2014.

Best Finish: 1st at Pocono, Toronto (1), Toronto (2), and Houston (1)
Worst Finish: 23rd at Texas
Grade: A+

Simon Pagenaud

Call it a rather stellar year for the Frenchman driving for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton HP Motorsports. Though his team may read like that of a law firm, they’re not one of the ‘big boys’ so any success should take on greater weight. An ominous 24th place finish opened the season for Pagenaud, but then he ripped off 5 top tens in 6 races culminating in a win at Detroit 2. Driver and team couldn’t maintain the success and they struggled through the middle section of the year, but beginning at Mid-Ohio, Pagenaud again seemed to find his groove, going so far as to earn his second career victory at Baltimore. He finished the year third overall which is probably higher than anyone ever would have anticipated and sets him up with hope for the 2014 season.

Best Finish: 1st at Detroit 2 and Baltimore
Worst Finish: 24th at St. Petersburg
Grade: A

Tony Kanaan

In a way, it’s startling that Kanaan has been relegated to a lesser ride the past couple years, but then again his overall results with KV Racing have been rather similar to his last couple years at Andretti. And this year was no different. His finishes, when plotted, are like a drawing from a 2 year old with a crayon, all over the place. But if you’re going to win one race all season, why not make it count, which is what he did – earning his first Borg-Warner Trophy by crossing the yard of bricks in first place at Indy. It was his first win at the revered track, and for a while felt like a career coda until financing was found to close out the year. Next season he’ll have the chance to show what he’s really got left in the tank as he joins series champion Scott Dixon at Chip Ganassi.

Best Finish: 1st at Indianapolis
Worst Finish: 24th, three times (does it matter where?)
Grade: Originally a C, but the Indy win helps grade on a curve, B-

Simona de Silvestro

De Silvestro was just happy in 2013 to not have to deal with the Lotus engine. The underpowered motor completely derailed any semblance of a 2012 season. On the high speed ovals, it was a struggle just to maintain minimum speed (For instance, she was parked at Indianapolis for failure to meet the 105 percent rule).

2013 saw de Silvestro move from HVM Racing to KV Racing Technologies to partner up with Tony Kanaan. With the way 2012 went, the only way to go was up. De Silvestro responded to the move with her best season in the Izod IndyCar Series.

Traditionally, de Silvestro starts off strong. 2013 was no different with Simona putting up a top-10 finish (sixth) at St. Petersburg, which is her best track (take away last year’s 24th-place finish and her average finish would be a little better than ninth). St. Petersburg was followed by top-10’s at Long Beach and Sao Paulo. Street courses continued to be de Silvestro’s forte. Seven of her nine top-10 finishes came on the difficult and extra bumpy public roads (the others were a ninth at Sonoma and an eighth at Fontana).

The ovals were not so great for de Silvestro in 2013. Her best oval finish was eighth (three laps down) at Fontana in October. However, that came in a race with massive attrition. In addition, de Silvestro was also involved in the big crash just before halfway that eliminated Justin Wilson, amongst others. Outside of Fontana, her best oval finish was 11th at Pocono in July. Of course, Pocono may be an oval, but it doesn’t really drive like one.

For 2014, de Silvestro has not announced her plans as of yet. However, de Silvestro has shown off hats with the logos of “Areva, Inc.”: on her Twitter page. Areva is a Charlotte-based company that provides “solutions for low-carbon power generation” on a worldwide scale. Areva is part of the Nuclear Clean Air Energy initiative that has sponsored de Silvestro for the past three years. I would expect her to be back in the No. 78 for KV Racing Technologies next season. The only differences may be with a different paint scheme for part of the season, and a new teammate with Sebastien Bourdais replacing Tony Kanaan.

Best Finish: 2nd (Houston, Race No. 1)
Worst Finish: 24th (Belle Isle, Race No. 2 and Milwaukee)
Grade: B-

Takuma Sato

The first part of the 2013 season was excellent for Sato and AJ Foyt Enterprises. Decent runs in St. Petersburg and Alabama led into a dominating performance on the Streets of Long Beach. Sato led 50 laps and claimed his first career Izod IndyCar Series victory. A couple of weeks later, Sato nearly made it two in a row. However, James Hinchcliffe had other plans, passing Sato in the last turn to take the win. Regardless, Sato and Foyt had the points lead and a butt load of momentum heading to Indianapolis. Sato, who nearly won the 500 in 2012, was very confident.

Right about there is where Sato’s season fell apart. While Sato finished the Indianapolis 500 on the lead lap in 13th, he never really contended at any time. Belle Isle was a disaster. Stalling on course resulted in a 19th-place finish in Race No. 1, while he crashed out of the second race. Milwaukee saw a strong effort where Sato led the most laps (109) before fading to seventh.

Afterwards, Sato only managed to finish one more race (and even then, it was a miserable 22nd-place finish at Mid-Ohio). Stupid things started to happen. Pocono, where Sato essentially ran over Ryan Hunter-Reay on pit road, is the most blatant example of how far off the rails that the season had gotten.

Sato won the pole for the first race in Houston, but punctured a tire during the full course caution that followed the second attempt at a standing start. This forced him to pit and drop to the rear of the field. Sato never really recovered from the setback and later crashed into the tires while racing James Jakes for position. Crushing unreliability (Sato DNF’d from races due to wing assembly failure, blown engines (thrice) and exhaust issues) resulted in Sato’s relationship with the team going in the toilet by the time the season ended.

Best Finish: Victory (Long Beach)
Worst Finish: 24th (Toronto, Race No. 1 and Baltimore)
Grade: D+

James Jakes

After two years with Dale Coyne Racing, Jakes made the move up the grid for 2013, bringing his sponsorship from Acorn Stairlifts to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s reestablished second car to serve as a teammate to Graham Rahal. Based on track record, Jakes was supposed to be the No. 2 to Rahal. However, that wasn’t always the case in 2013.

Now in his third year in the Izod IndyCar Series, Jakes has steadily improved his form in the car. 2013 was Jakes’ best season of yet. By far the best weekend of Jakes’ season was Belle Isle, where he finished a career-best second to Simon Pagenaud in Race No. 2 on Sunday afternoon. That was not a fluke result by any means. Jakes had qualified second for the race and third for the race on Saturday. In addition, he had been turning in some of the fastest laps all weekend in race trim.

Outside of Belle Isle, Jakes ran midfield for much of the season, but generally kept himself out of trouble. The two crashes that he had in 2013 were quite unusual. In Toronto, he crashed in Turn 5 after hitting the curb hard enough to knock his hands off of the steering wheel. Fontana saw Jakes run over debris from a multi-car crash in front of him and hit the wall. A half shaft just missed hitting Jakes in the head.

Overall, Jakes had some bright spots, but still could only manage 19th in points. He’s got a lot of room for improvement in 2014, wherever he might end up. As of right now, Jakes has not announced any plans for the upcoming season.

Best Finish: 2nd (Belle Isle, Race No. 1)
Worst Finish: 25th (Sonoma)
Grade: C

Sebastian Saavedra

Saavedra was drafted into Dragon Racing’s fold to replace Katherine Legge, who was more or less responsible for bringing primary sponsor TrueCar to the team. Yeah, that didn’t go over well.

While Legge ended up landing on her feet in the American Le Mans Series with the DeltaWing, Saavedra was happy to be back in the Izod IndyCar Series full-time after only making three starts in 2012. The No. 6 that Saavedra drove was part-time as well. Dragon Racing only had the funds to start Legge in ten races.

Saavedra’s performances in 2013 were better than what Legge was able to put up (just barely), but they were still the worst of any full-time driver in the Izod IndyCar Series. The eighth-place finish in Baltimore didn’t come without issues as Saavedra was caught up in a restart crash on Lap 57. However, you should get the equivalent of a “Tommy Point” just for finishing that crazy race.

Probably the most visible moment of Saavedra’s season was when he crashed out of Dual No. 1 of the Quicken Loans Duals at Detroit after contact from Marco Andretti. Saavedra was none too pleased at Andretti’s actions and “let him know about it”: Those gestures earned Saavedra a $30,000 fine from the sanctioning body. While Saavedra did pick up a top-10 on Sunday in Dual No. 2, that was overshadowed by Saturday’s failure.

The rest of the season was marked by a series of wrecks (Saavedra failed to finish six races due to crashes) and mediocre finishes. Saavedra only managed to finish four of the 19 races on the lead lap.

For 2014, Saavedra’s plans are currently unknown. Dragon Racing announced in September that they have submitted an entry to run in the new FIA Formula E Championship, which begins in September, 2014, after the IndyCar Series would be complete. There is a possibility that Saavedra could end up racing there, but otherwise, there has been nothing out of Dragon Racing since Fontana. There is a chance that Saavedra could be on the outside looking in for 2014.

Best Finish: 8th (Baltimore)
Worst Finish: 32nd (Indianapolis 500)
Grade: F

Charlie Kimball

Kimball had a breakthrough year in 2013, his third season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He improved in every category across the board, improving his final standings position, 19th in his first two seasons, to 9th in his third for his first top ten in championship points. While he still needs to work on consistency, his average finish improved from 14.1 last year to 10.9 this year, and, likely much to team owner Chip Ganassi’s relief, he finished all but two races, also an improvement over the prior two seasons. The big highlight was of course his first series win at Mid-Ohio, a victory he scored in convincing fashion, leading a race high 46 laps on the way. He also made the podium at Pocono, joining his two teammates in a Ganassi sweep of the top three.

Best Finish: 1st at Mid-Ohio
Worst Finish: 21st at Long Beach and Toronto 1
Grade: B+

E.J. Viso

E.J. Viso is…well…E.J. Viso. 2013 found him at Andretti Autosport and while it was his best season to date, with a 15th place final championship result and only two DNFs, after six years, it doesn’t represent much growth as a driver. Viso did score his first pole at the first Belle Isle race, but didn’t really close the deal, with no podium results. It’s not the equipment. His three Andretti Autosport teammates finished 5th, 7th, and 8th in the same cars. Viso missed the season finale at Fontana due to illness, turning over his seat to the man who would ironically replace him at Andretti Autosport, Carlos Munoz. Viso’s 2014 plans are unknown at this time.

Best Finish: 4th at Milwaukee
Worst Finish: 22nd at Long Beach
Grade: C-

Mike Conway

Conway is a specialist, racing only on road/street courses and avoiding oval tracks by choice, meaning he is limited to part-time status as long as IndyCar races on ovals. While it does mean that he will never be champion, it does not mean that Conway doesn’t have opportunities to shine, which he most certainly did in 2013. He made only seven starts but he finished top 10 in five of them, including a win and a third place at Belle Isle, and he also started from the pole in the second Belle Isle race. It may also be worth noting that he posted these results driving for Dale Coyne Racing, and not one of the series powerhouse teams. Conway has a nice opportunity lined up for 2014, teaming with Ed Carpenter to drive the road/street course portion of the schedule for Ed Carpenter Racing while Carpenter takes the oval races. Carpenters team is always a contender on the ovals so it will be interesting to see how they do with a road ace like Conway behind the wheel at the other races.

Best Finish: 1st at Belle Isle 1
Worst Finish: 25th at Long Beach
Grade: B+

Also Worth Noting:

JR Hildebrand – Hildebrand started 2013 in a full-time ride with Panther Racing, the team he’d driven for the previous two seasons, but was released following the Indy 500 in May. He’d posted a fifth place result at Long Beach, but was 15th or worse in his other four 2013 starts. Hildebrand found an opportunity with Barracuda Racing for the races at Sonoma and Fontana, and team owner Bryan Herta says he was pleased with the driver’s performance, landing him on the short list of possible drivers for 2014.

Ryan Briscoe – Briscoe found himself without a ride heading in to 2013, but wound up much busier than he probably expected. After a successful run at the 12 Hours of Sebring, Briscoe signed on to drive in the American LeMans Series full time. Then Chip Ganassi signed him to drive a fourth car in the Indy 500. Then Panther Racing parted ways with JR Hildebrand and Briscoe found himself splitting the ride with Orio Servia while also fulfilling his ALMS commitment. Panther Racing needs sponsorship for 2014 but provided they secure funds, Briscoe is expected to be named the full time driver for the team.

AJ Allmendinger – All right, so Dinger is a NASCAR guy these days, and with a ride in place there for 2014, we probably won’t be seeing him in an Indy car again, but it was fun while it lasted. But for a loose seat belt, the kind of freak luck thing that rarely happens, what might have been at the Indy 500? He still finished the big race in 7th, even with the extra stop to tighten his belts. His other outings were quite a bit less spectacular, however. He finished only two of six races, and crashed in the three events he ran after Indy, including first lap incidents in both Belle Isle races.

Carlos Munoz – If 2013 was a preview of what Munoz can do, then team owner Michael Andretti might be a very happy man in 2014. Andretti ran the rookie in the Indy 500 and he started and finished an impressive 2nd, putting in a stellar drive. Panther Racing also gave him some seat time, tapping him to fill in at Toronto at the last minute for Ryan Briscoe after Briscoe fractured his wrist. Andretti turned to the young Columbian one more time in Fontana to fill in for a sick E.J. Viso, and while Munoz looked a bit more like a rookie this time (i.e. more bold than wise), he was certainly making some exciting moves before his day ended in a crash. Munoz will drive full time for Andretti Autosport in 2014.

Luca Filippi – European GP racer Filippi made his debut in an Indy car in 2013 with Barracuda Racing as one of the drivers team owner Bryan Herta opted to try out after parting ways with regular driver Alex Tagliani. Filippi made four starts for the team, posting a best finish of 10th in Houston, and impressed management enough to get his name at the top of the list for possible drivers for 2014 alongside Hildebrand. Herta says the team considered expanding to two cars and keeping both drivers, but says now that is unlikely to happen for next year. The team expects to announce final plans, including a driver, in January.

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