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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

Vettel rides solo en route to ROC Nations Cup win for Team Germany

ROC Nations Cup finalists Team USA NASCAR, Kurt Busch (USA) and Kyle Busch (USA) with ROC Nations Cup winner Team Germany Sebastian Vettel (GER) during the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday 22 January 2017 at Marlins Park, Miami, Florida, USA
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Four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel led Team Germany to its seventh Nations Cup victory at the Race of Champions on Sunday in Miami, picking up his first major honor of the 2017 racing season.

Vettel saw his individual Race of Champions title defence end in the group stage on Saturday as IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya took a shock victory on debut.

Vettel had never previously appeared at the Race of Champions without winning one of the two titles on offer, having claimed six straight Nations Cup wins alongside Michael Schumacher between 2007 and 2012.

Following a frightening crash in Saturday’s event, Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein was forced to withdraw from the event, leaving Vettel to represent Team Germany alone on Sunday.

However, the Ferrari driver made the most of the opportunity, winning all eight of his match-ups en route to an unlikely victory.

Vettel topped Group B after beating Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, sending Team Nordic and Team GB – the latter out to defend its teams’ title – home in the group stage.

Vettel faced off against Team Colombia in the semi-finals, facing Saturday winner Montoya and coming out on top. The German completed a 2-0 victory after easing past Gabby Chaves in the second heat.

The nature of the draw guaranteed either Team USA or Team Canada would reach the final, with three American teams featuring in Group A. Team USA IndyCar and Team USA NASCAR both made it through, the former courtesy of a last-ditch victory for Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay faced off against NASCAR brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, with the match tied at 1-1 ahead of the decider. Kurt Busch appeared to jump the start, moving into a lead that remained to the checkered flag, securing Team USA NASCAR a place in the final in a controversial manner.

Vettel managed to see off Kurt Busch in the first heat of the final, but a loss in revs gave Kyle Busch an advantage off the line in the second match-up. However, Vettel was able to claw it back and cross the line ahead, wrapping up a 2-0 victory and Germany’s seventh Nations Cup win.

“I had a better day than yesterday,” Vettel said. “It’s a bit of a shame that Pascal is missing, but I did my best.

“In the last round against Kyle I was really nervous. The car nearly stalled. But then I came back so really, really happy.”

Nico Rosberg: More to life than driving around in circles

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg says there is more to life than “driving around in circles” after retiring from Formula 1 at the end of last season.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi at the end of November before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing five days later.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this week, Rosberg opened up on his decision to call it quits.

“To do sport at the highest level, it is really 110 per cent focus that is required and there is no room for any compromise whatsoever,” Rosberg said.

“Everything else is secondary and far behind, and that’s even family. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter now. Friends and any other fun or exciting projects – everything is way, way behind.

“So, there’s a time for everything and I find that life has more to offer than driving around in circles and it just felt like the right moment. I want to go for new challenges.

“Of course, there is the side now of having more time for family, more time for friends and being in control of my own life as well.

“For the last 21 years of racing, even starting as a 10-year-old, the whole season is planned by other people, telling you where you need to be and especially in F1 – it’s really, really intense. And now all of a sudden I have this complete freedom.”

Rosberg said that he plans to spend some time focusing on charity work, particularly helping children.

“One of the avenues that I want to go down is to give something back, find something that really touches my heart,” Rosberg said.

“Now I have the time, I’m going to go exploring different avenues. I’m going to go to Germany and visit children who are quite ill, especially of the age of children who are really happy to see me.

“I would really like to go and see them at the age where I can give them a great time.”

Pascal Wehrlein withdraws from ROC Nations Cup on medical grounds

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 racer Pascal Wehrlein will take no part in Sunday’s Race of Champions Nations Cup in Miami after being withdrawn on medical grounds.

Wehrlein sustained a frightening crash during Saturday’s ‘Champion of Champions’ event, rolling his KTM X-Bow with a passenger inside after crossing the line during a heat against Felipe Massa.

Both Wehrlein and the passenger escaped unhurt, but the Race of Champions organizers confirmed on Sunday that the German would not be racing on Sunday as a precaution.

“I’m very sorry to withdraw from today’s ROC Nations Cup. I’d really like to race again and I feel fine, but the doctors have advised me to rest so of course I will take their advice,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s no more than mild discomfort but my real priority for the coming year is my Formula 1 season. So while I’m sad to be missing out on all the action, I send my best wishes to my team-mate Sebastian Vettel and the rest of the competitors here in Miami and I wish them another exciting day’s racing.”

Event officials are yet to confirm who – if anyone – will replace Wehrlein in Team Germany’s line-up.

The Race of Champions Nations Cup takes place later today at the Marlins Park in Miami.

Juan Pablo Montoya victorious on opening day of Race of Champions in Miami

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia, driver of the #2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet prepares to practice on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya added another trophy to his cabinet on Saturday by claiming a shock victory in the Race of Champions.

The event at the Marlins Park in Miami pitted some of motorsport’s biggest names up against each other in a multi-discipline challenge, with the Race of Champions’ traditional crossover circuit style being used.

Ahead of the battle for national honors on Sunday, the 17 drivers on the entry list in Miami faced off for the individual title.

Defending champion and four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel suffered a shock exit in the group stage after defeats to Helio Castroneves and Travis Pastrana. The German won only one tie against 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who in turn had qualified following a shoot-out against GRC’s Scott Speed.

In the bottom half of the draw, IndyCar stars James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan were eliminated in the group stages, while veteran British F1 racers David Coulthard and Jenson Button made it through. The pair were joined by nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and NASCAR’s Kyle Busch; the latter’s brother, Kurt, was knocked out at the first hurdle.

Pastrana and Castroneves both fell in the quarter-finals, losing to Felipe Massa and Montoya respectively. Massa advanced through the draw despite a frightening incident in the group stage involving fellow F1 driver Pascal Wehrlein, who flipped his car after crossing the finish line.

Kristensen edged out Button 2-1 in their best-of-three bout to reach the semi-finals, setting up a tie against Coulthard after he eased past Kyle Busch 2-0.

Massa and Montoya’s semi-final went down to a tie-breaker, with the former receiving a time penalty to hitting the wall and gaining an advantage. As a result, Montoya progressed into the final, winning the tie 2-1. Losing 2015 finalist Kristensen followed Montoya through, beating Coulthard 2-0.

Montoya won the first heat of the final in the rallycross car, edging Kristensen out by less than a car length before jumping into a KTM X-Bow for the second match-up. Despite almost jumping the start, Montoya managed to wrestle his car through the two laps before edging out Kristensen by just 0.08 seconds, securing a shock rookie victory in the process.

“Honestly I had a blast,” Montoya said. “It’s pretty amazing. I told my wife, I’ve got to make it through the first round. It just worked out.”

Montoya will race in the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday, teaming up with recent IndyCar racer Gabby Chaves for Team Colombia.