MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 1

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Nine of 16 racing weekends, and 10 of 19 races are in the books in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It’s a season thus far defined by parity, relative struggles by the long regarded top two teams in the series (Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing), and the emergence of several new stars.

In the first of our two-part midseason review (the second part, each of our top five stories this year, will be posted on Thursday), my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I examine the bests and worsts of the first half of the season purely from an on-track standpoint. At this point, much of the off-track hand-wringing that always seems to pop up in some way, shape or form, has been relatively minor and in the background.

Without further adieu, our take thus far:

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport. The champion has come out firing to dismiss suggestions his 2012 title was a “fluke,” with two wins, two poles, a 4.6 qualifying average through 10 races and just 9 points off Helio Castroneves.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Helio Castroneves, Team Penske. With just one finish outside the Top-10 this season (and a victory at Texas Motor Speedway), the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is showing the consistency he’ll need to finally bring home that elusive series championship.

MOST DISAPPOINTING FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. I like Tag and I like the team. But via some mix of bad luck, bad timing, struggling to acclimate to the 2013 Firestone tires, either the pace or the results haven’t yet synced up on a weekend for the veteran Canadian this year. Through 10 races, I’m sure they expected a lot more than one top-10 finish and two top-10 starts.

CE: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. Graham Rahal was in this spot until his Top-5 run at Iowa last weekend. As a result, I have to go with Tagliani and Barracuda, who’ve led just one lap all year and have finished outside the Top 20 in the last six races (four of which ended in DNFs). If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.

MOST IMPROVED FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: James Jakes, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. E.J. Viso a close second here, but Viso’s had potential for years. Meanwhile Jakes has undoubtedly risen the most year-on-year, has taken nicely to RLL’s team and setup and starred on multiple occasions.

CE: E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport. Some of us were thinking the well-sponsored Venezuelan was simply going to be the “money man” for the Andretti foursome. But Viso has taken advantage of his team’s plentiful resources and is putting together the most competitive season of his IndyCar career so far.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE

TDZ: Brazil. With the level of passing and drama on the streets of Sao Paulo, ending with a last-lap, last-turn pass, it’s hard to say any race beat it – even Indianapolis despite its record 68 lead changes.

CE: Brazil. It was, quite simply, the best street race in IZOD IndyCar Series history and one of the best it’s had overall. James Hinchcliffe’s race-winning pass on the final corner gives this race the award over perhaps the most competitive Indianapolis 500 ever.

WORST HALF-RACE

TDZ: Texas. Thing is, it wasn’t that bad – it just was a combination of a package that had been slightly overdone and a presentation that left a little to be desired.

CE: Detroit, Race 2. The second doubleheader race around Belle Isle Park ended well enough with Simon Pagenaud getting his first victory, but getting there was brutal – with the low point being a 10-car pileup coming off a restart. For the series, it wasn’t the best way to follow up a thrilling Indy 500.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY 

TDZ: For me, it’s Alex Zanardi attending the Indianapolis 500 and being presented with the car that he made “The Pass” – his legendary move on Bryan Herta at the 1996 CART race at Laguna Seca.

CE: INDYCAR is finally implementing a long-range plan to bring back technical innovation and ramp up the speeds. Fans that have been clamoring for something besides a spec product are hoping it comes off.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Aero kits. To me, they’ve been nothing short of a boondoggle since they were first announced in 2010. Now, INDYCAR has announced they’ll finally be implemented in 2015… allegedly. I’ll believe them when I see them, and I’m not sure if they’ll generate much buzz beyond the hardcore fans that are already there.

CE: Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles is certainly working hard trying to boost INDYCAR’s profile, but his apparent preference to end the season around Labor Day is worrisome. Unless he’s also trying to gain warm-weather events that can push the start of the season back into February, we’re looking at six months of nothing again. Not acceptable.

Hartley’s F1 grid penalty streak continues in Abu Dhabi

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Brendon Hartley’s record of receiving a grid penalty at every Formula 1 race he has started is set to continue in Abu Dhabi this weekend after Toro Rosso was forced to change part of his Renault power unit following the last race in Brazil.

Since making his F1 debut at the United States Grand Prix last month, Hartley has faced a grid drop at all three races he has started so far amid ongoing reliability difficulties for power unit supplier Renault.

After being forced to retire from the last race in Brazil two weeks ago due to an engine issue, Hartley has received a 10-place grid penalty for Abu Dhabi after it was confirmed Toro Rosso had changed the MGU-H on his power unit.

Hartley is yet to score any points in F1, having retired from two of his three races so far to make his debut run to P13 in Austin his best result to date.

The Toro Rosso driver finished 20th in FP1 and 19th in FP2 during Friday’s practice sessions in Abu Dhabi as he continued to get to grips with the Yas Marina Circuit.