_It was one year ago Tuesday, October 16, 2011, that the racing world lost Dan Wheldon. We still miss you, Lionheart, and take the opportunity to remember and honor all you did, not just for the sport, but for your family and friends. It just hasn’t been the same._
*Team Penske:* Looking at the results on paper, the people at Penske should be thrilled with their 2012 season. The three-driver team notched six wins and an additional six podium finishes, often looking like the class of the field. In fact, with four races to go, two of their drivers, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, were both viable title contenders. But once again the team could not close out the season. Castroneves watched his season go awry and Power faltered in Fontana and was relegated to finishing second for the championship for the third time. For an organization like Penske, not winning the Astor Cup is bittersweet in comparison to their results.
But all is not lost. The team shrewdly moved to Chevrolet engines to begin the year and that paid off. In addition, the teams were fast. Any other organization would be happy to have their drivers finish in overall points positions of second, fourth, and sixth. That sixth-place driver, Ryan Briscoe, is the one big question-mark this offseason, with rumors speculating as to whether he’ll be back. Perhaps his solid late season finishes will keep him around. Either way, Penske should again be in the title hunt next year.
*Schmidt / Hamilton Motorsports:* Team owners Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton are both former IndyCar drivers so you’d have to think they have a particular eye for what to look for in a driver. Still, one has to think IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Simon Pagenaud exceeded those expectations with a fifth-place finish in the series championship to go along with being the top first year driver.
Sam Schmidt is no stranger to success. His teams have won six Firestone Indy Lights championships. Schmidt tried the IndyCar Series as an owner before but moved back to the feeder series due to lack of funding. He returned in 2011, brought Hamilton in as a partner in 2012 (an interesting side note, Hamilton drove for Schmidt’s team back in 2001) and added Pagenaud, a driver with a reputation as a good sports car driver and some speculation about what he might do in an Indy car and not much else to explain the decision to put him in the seat. Chalk it up to that same eye that identified all those up and coming champions in Indy Lights.
Pagenaud is apparently signed to a long term deal, so team and driver will return next year. The tracks will no longer be new, the personnel will be used to working together, and the sky will be the limit.
*KV Racing Technology:* Did the expansion to three cars for 2012 hurt the team, or is it just a case of one driver underperforming and that lack of performance being highlighted by two teammates who did get the job done? Team veteran Tony Kanaan and rookie Rubens Barrichello, who is only a rookie in the IndyCar sense and not the driving sense as Formula 1 fans know, finished ninth and 12th on the season. Not Kanaan’s best season, but he was still a solid presence in the series. For Barrichello, who’d never been on an oval track before, it was also a decent finish. Then there is the third car, driven by E.J. Viso, who finished 20th.
That was actually a slight step back for Viso, raising the question of whether it was driver or a team spreading resources too thin. Remember that Barrichello was a late addition for 2012. Rubens Barrichello stated that he wanted to stay in the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2013 but wasn’t sure if that would be with KV or somewhere else, so if he moves on, KV will likely be a two-car operation again. If that’s the case, we’ll see what that does for the performance of both Kanaan and Viso for 2013.
*Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:* It’s hard to tell what RLLR really is at this point. Running the tried-and-true Honda engines, the team seemed to be better than its finishes indicate. The fact that their driver, Takuma Sato, had the chance to sneak by and win the Indy 500 is remarkable. But in telling fashion, the fact that their driver wrecked in trying to do so also says a lot about the team – bringing up the problematic question of whether or not Sato is a good enough driver.
There’s some reason to feel that this team can be competitive. For starters, Sato finished 14th in points and managed two podium finishes. In addition, he also had three top tens, but the flipside is that the team finished with positions in the twenties seven times. So it seems that RLLR, with Sato at the wheel, is a team that can be decent and competitive or a mess – and much of that has to do with Sato continually wrecking. Should Sato be able to keep the car on the track next year, it might give the truest measure of what kind of team RLLR is, but until then they’re stuck mid-pack.
*Barracuda Racing:* Barracuda Racing, which started the season as Bryan Herta Autosport, entered the IZOD IndyCar Series full-time for the first time in 2012, although they already had the biggest trophy in the sport after winning the 2011 Indy 500 with Dan Wheldon. They were also instrumental in testing the new DW12 chassis in advance of its debut season. Perhaps the track time with the new chassis gave the team a leg up.
Barracuda and driver Alex Tagliani started the year with Lotus engines, but were among the teams dropped by the manufacturer and skipped the trip to Sao Paulo in order to regroup for Indy. The team moved to Honda for the rest of the year, and as with the other former Lotus teams, the switch was the turning point that saw the first year operation contend in a number of events and post eight top-10 finishes in the 11 races after the switch.
Team and driver should return again for 2013 and you can bet they will be looking to not just run strong but to close the deal this time around.
*A.J. Foyt Racing:* A one-car team that has been trying to earn respectable finishes, AJFR struggled to earn them this year. It’s hard to know whether the team is not very good or the driver, Mike Conway, is the problem here, as the team secured just one podium finish and two other top 10s. Most of the team’s finishes came in the mid-pack area and in many ways, there was little by which the team could get excited. Another team that stuck with the Honda engines, they showed little improvement later in the year with the improved engine mapping.
The team might best be known this season for having Conway elect not to race the season-ending oval in Fontana – citing his lack of comfort on ovals. This move could prove difficult for AJFR in the future, as having a driver who can race all the tracks should be part of the plan. But for now, it doesn’t really matter, as this team is not one that can compete for championships. The strange thing about this team is that it is hard to tell if they are falling behind or gaining ground, which might just mean they’re staying put.
*HVM Racing:* The 2012 season was filled with nothing but disappointment for HVM Racing and driver Simona de Silvestro. After an at-times impressive 2011 season, the HVM team made the ill-fated offseason move to sign a deal with Lotus to be their engine supplier for the 2012 season. Big mistake. HVM floundered for the whole season, stuck with an engine that was usually anywhere between two to four times worse than rival Honda and Chevy engines on a given race weekend. And that’s not even taking the ubiquitous mechanical woes courtesy of the Lotus engine into account.
While most of the original Lotus teams broke their contracts and went with other engine suppliers at some point during the season, HVM was the only one to honor their deal through the end of the year. They certainly paid for it, as the best finish De Silvestro could muster all season was a paltry 13th place at Belle Isle. Despite the evident talent of De Silvestro, she and HVM Racing limped home at the end of the season a distant 24th in the final series standings, last among drivers who ran the full schedule. It is not known whether or not HVM Racing will be back with Lotus in 2013, but it will likely be another long season if they choose to do so.
*Dragon Racing:* Dragon Racing, much like HVM Racing, was a victim of the historically awful Lotus engine in 2012, and their season was marked by severe disappointment as a result. Despite having a championship caliber driver in Sebastien Bourdais and a capable but unproven pilot in Katherine Legge, Dragon Racing roundly struggled for the duration of 2012 up until a midseason decision was reached to switch to Chevrolet engines and contract to a single car organization. Bourdais and Legge split the rest of the season’s races as the team turned its attention to 2013.
Dragon Racing was mostly a mid pack squad for the majority of the season with Chevy power, and Bourdais managed to have a few good runs here and there when he was in the car. But by and large, it would be hard to quantify the 2012 season as a success for Dragon Racing. Look for them to come in to 2013 with a renewed focus and a more competitive fleet of cars.
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