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DiZinno: Top 10 IndyCar Drivers of 2013

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It’s that time of year again when all the pundits rank the season just passed. With some time to reflect on the 2013 IndyCar Series season, my top-10 drivers are below, and my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada’s will follow. Without further adieu:

1. Scott Dixon

If the rest of the top 10 and beyond is hard to separate – and really, from second through about 12th, it is – Scott Dixon stands alone at the top of my 2013 IndyCar Top 10 list. In a year where drivers and others were great in some areas but lacking in others, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing were really the only complete package.

With four wins in total, dominance at the three doubleheader weekends and a resiliency to bounce back from both a rough first half of the year and back-to-back gut punches at Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon embodied team principal Ganassi’s mantra that the No. 9 crew “never gave up.”

source: Reuters2. Will Power

Power in second may be a surprise choice but if we’re looking at drivers, not purely results, we have to take the Australian’s season into consideration. His results were erratic but consider his luck was abysmal for most of the year. He was speared at St. Petersburg under yellow, his engine grenaded in Brazil, he was taken out of Detroit Race 2, and saw other results go begging at both Toronto races and Baltimore after contact with the Target twins.

His wins were just reward for pace and persistence throughout the year, and apart from the actual results, Power’s stats were still otherwise phenomenal despite this being a year he didn’t contend for the title. He had the best starting average in the field by a full position, 4.31, led the most laps in the field, 351, and most notably upped his oval game as he finished all six oval races and scored a dominant, pivotal victory at the season finale at Fontana.

source: Getty Images3. Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud’s qualifying left something to be desired (11.5 average, with a rough first five races) but other than that, the Frenchman was firmly best outside the established “power teams” of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Frankly if he and/or Justin Wilson had that level machinery, it would be hard for most of the rest bar Dixon and Power to keep up.

Outside of a DNF in the season opener at St. Petersburg that almost knocked him off the radar, Pagenaud blended consistency and brilliance in the remaining 18 races. He won twice, surviving both attrition-filled debacles in Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore, and added seven other results of sixth or better. He was no worse than 13th in any other race outside St. Pete. Consider him a championship contender – probably Honda’s best shot – in 2014.

source: Getty Images4. Justin Wilson

Wilson was the same way in maximizing his equipment, exceeding his car’s potential on a near-regular basis and hassling the regular front runners on a consistent basis. The chemistry of having a second straight season with engineer Bill Pappas at the Dale Coyne Racing team was obvious from the get-go and Wilson quietly hung around and got the results the first half of the season.

Team and driver were even better in the second half and were unfortunate not to bag a victory – same as his three-weekend teammate Mike Conway did in Detroit. Justin was also unlucky to have been hit and injured at Fontana, but hopefully it’s not a setback and we’ll see the lanky Englishman back to his winning ways in 2014.

source: AP5. Helio Castroneves

Considering he nearly won the title, you might be surprised to see Castroneves so far down this list in fifth. Why, perhaps? The epitome of consistent but never truly great, in the sense others ahead of him either blitzed the field on one or more occasions or regularly outperformed their machinery. Or did both.

Where Power always seems to extract the max and then some, Castroneves has become a more methodical driver in letting the results come to him, rather than pushing for them. He’s needed to throttle back after an erratic 2011 season where he seemed to hit everything but the pace car, and went winless for the first time since he joined Team Penske.

And until Houston, that strategy worked perfectly. He led the points for 10 straight races on the strength of that consistency and finishing every lap. But the mechanical woes struck him in back-to-back races and that proved his undoing. The other thing that hurt? Of his six top-five finishes, five came in the first nine races, with only one in the last 10.

When he had nothing to lose, as was the case at Fontana or early in the year at Texas, he was brilliant; sadly, those great performances were all-too-few in a year where “very good” simply wasn’t good enough. Even had he won the title, I still would have probably only placed him third or fourth on this list.

source: Getty Images6. Marco Andretti

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay

There was little to separate either of the next two on my list, Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Consider if the top 10 was done after the first half, they may well have been 1 and 2.

But an absolutely abysmal second half plagued the entire Andretti team; it’s as if a lightning bolt struck the team after its front row lockout at Pocono and sent them into an irreversible tail spin of bad luck.

source: Getty Images

Andretti’s luck was much the same, except his bad luck struck on ovals. He reassessed his priorities in the offseason, working with a driver coach and altering his driving for road and street courses, moves that paid dividends. He should have won Milwaukee and Pocono but the races he did finish, he finished well. He ended with 15 top-10s and fifth in points. It was a career year, yet one that could have been even better if a few breaks went his way.

Hunter-Reay drove superbly in his two wins at Barber and Milwaukee and was due a third at Iowa after one of the drives of the season from the rear of the field. Street course results proved his undoing with only two results better than 18th in the nine street races. Those hurt and negated what was the second-best starting average all season, 5.3.

source: Getty Images8. James Hinchcliffe

Hinchcliffe I’ll place eighth because he was rarely as outright fast as Hunter-Reay or Andretti on most occasions, but he also bore the team’s bad luck in the first half of the season. It was a yo-yo of a year – win at St. Pete, followed by consecutive early race DNFs in Barber and Long Beach, dramatic win at Brazil, invisible at Indy, dominant at Iowa, wrecked first corner at Pocono – you get the point.

The second half brought at least a modicum of consistency with six top-10s in the final eight races, and the only two he didn’t was when adverse mechanical issues struck him on the grid at Toronto Race 2, and Houston Race 1. Additionally, it was commendable how well he managed to keep his cool on track while dealing with the pressure of being one of IndyCar’s two marquee free agents, before deciding to re-sign with Andretti. Make no mistake this was a better season for him than in 2012, and he can only get better for 2014.

source: Getty Images9. Sebastien Bourdais

10. Charlie Kimball

There was little to separate Bourdais and Kimball, as well, who I’ve placed in the last two spots ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan. You presume big things from Franchitti and Kanaan and relatively speaking, you expect less from these two given their equipment or experience level at their disposal.

Bourdais was excellent the second half of the year, and like Wilson desperately unlucky not to have secured a win, which would have been Dragon Racing’s maiden victory. The engineering switch to Tom Brown from Neil Fife paid immediate dividends both in qualifying and in the races. Yeah, we remember his podium trophy drop at Toronto, but my word it was great to see the Bourdais of old back. Three podiums included his near miss at Baltimore, and the outstanding ride at Fontana for his Dragon swan song. He had the best car in Champ Car with Newman/Haas but this was the best case of anyone in the field exceeding their machinery level – look at teammate Sebastian Saavedra’s season for a comparison.

source: Getty ImagesKimball finished just behind Bourdais in second half points (237 to 234, fifth and sixth most in the field the last nine races) and was arguably one of the year’s most consistent performers. Indeed he finished the most laps – 2,397 of a possible 2,433 – in the field. His methodical development included trips to the Firestone Fast Six on all three road courses, 10 top-10 finishes, and dynamic drives on four occasions: Barber, Pocono, Mid-Ohio and Fontana. Too often Kimball has just been known as “that driver with diabetes” but his talents beyond the advertising and marketing were on full display this year. It was a welcome sight.

Honorable Mentions: Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Mike Conway

Of the rest, Franchitti and Kanaan probably merited a spot if they had maybe one or two more ­­­great drives. Kanaan’s Indianapolis 500 win aside, he only had six other top-10 finishes, four of which were on ovals. He remains one of IndyCar’s oval aces but his team’s erratic performance on road and street courses, often in qualifying, left a lot to be desired.

source: Getty ImagesMeanwhile Franchitti went winless for only the fifth time in his illustrious 16-year career. He had the pace with four Verizon P1 pole awards, but for some reason or another couldn’t finish the deal on Sundays. His best stretch was a run of five straight top-fours from Pocono through Sonoma, but he didn’t look like winning any of them. He’s never felt entirely comfortable with the new DW12 chassis and for the first time since he came back to IndyCar in 2009, was further in Dixon’s rear view mirror than ever before.

I’d have to give Mike Conway the “part-time driver of the year” award, unofficial though that may be. The Englishman jeopardized his own career, resigning himself to criticism after deciding the risk of racing on ovals was simply too much for him. But RLL Racing gave him a shot at Long Beach – Conway promptly stuck a third, previously unraced car in the Firestone Fast Six – and we immediately remembered what a silent ninja assassin this guy is on a street circuit.

Dale Coyne snapped him up for the three doubleheader weekends as it turned out. Conway was simply sublime at Detroit. He did things with that previously unloved, geriatric second DCR Honda that didn’t seem humanly possible around the 2.3-mile street course. The win and third-place were deserved results. He added three other top-10s from his other four starts, and when all was said and done had the second-highest point total in the field on doubleheaders. His 180 trailed only Scott Dixon’s 263. There should be a bidding war to secure his services for the entire 12 road and street race schedule in 2014.

FP2: View from the ground in Austin, 2016 edition

during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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AUSTIN, Texas – One of the joys of coming to the United States Grand Prix on an annual basis is the opportunity to have a session to sample the view from trackside, and attempt to gauge quite what the feel on the ground is.

I must say though, with this being my third crack at a “View from the ground: FP2” trackside occasion, this one was a bit like most movie three-quels (2013, 2014 editions linked here).

It had its moments of greatness but was not quite the measure of the original, nor the first sequel.

This was a truncated walk, I’ll admit. I got to see the outside of Turn 1, the two bridges covering the Esses and before the Turn 18 Carousel, and the respective crowds from there. I didn’t get to the hairpin at Turn 11 to see that crowd figure. I didn’t get to soak up as much time as I would have liked, having come from another event just previous following FP1 this morning.

The hillside out of Turn 1 really stands out in terms of not being as packed as it has been in the past. It used to be standing room only or close; now, I’m afraid, there was plenty of room to walk and move around. Similarly, the Esses were only about two or three rows deep of folks from the top, rather than four to five; the best grandstand packing seemed to be the one exiting Turn 17 in the stadium section just near the Austin 360 Ampitheater and COTA Tower.

The crowd here is good, but not great, and this is with nearly perfect weather for the onlookers, with highs in the low 70 degree Fahrenheit ambient range.

If the circuit releases a crowd number today, be wary of it if it’s listed in the 60,000 or 70,000 range – there are simply not that many fans here today. A more conservative estimate would be 10-20,000 less than that, at least.

So the hope now is that Saturday’s Taylor Swift concert to go along with qualifying will produce a crowd bigger than today’s, and the race itself plus the Usher/The Roots concert on Sunday does the same, to achieve COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein’s goal of this being the second highest attended USGP weekend of the five here on site.

The upside, of course, is that there’s been an inevitable and expected bounce back in attendees today following last year’s dreary, rainy Friday – when only FP1 ran and FP2 was scrubbed owing to the miserable conditions. But it’s not a massive surge in numbers.

Some other notes from the ground:

Still missing that ear-piercing sound

I want to like the 1.6L V6 turbo power units. I really do.

But, I also want to come to an F1 race and have my ears damn near ready to fall off from shrill, piercing shrieks that I can’t get anywhere else.

Coming from traditionally IndyCar weekends, where the series run 2.2L V6 twin-turbos, to now F1 weekends, you expect a little bit of a change in pitch.

The pitch is similar – and it is still sonorous, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s quite nice actually.

But there’s something about coming to a Grand Prix where you’re not wanting to be able to have a solid conversation while cars are on track. It’s good that you can get that now in some respects. But man, I want some screams.

Good merchandise displays on offer

Whether behind the main grandstands or throughout the main fan corridors, the fans have a good lot of options when it comes to finding team gear. It did not seem as though one or more teams was slighted; admittedly, though, there was not as much Haas F1 Team regalia on display as I might have figured.

Respectable fan offerings in Guest Services and food options

Between the track food at concessions and a number of food trucks – an Austin staple – there seemed a good lot of options for fans to eat today. How reasonable they were priced, however, depended on how much you got and where you looked.

Guest Services having free sunscreen on offer was good to see, if perhaps you were not properly prepared and hadn’t put any on. One of the things about attending a race at Circuit of The Americas is that you will get sun-drenched if you sit anywhere besides the primary frontstraight grandstand, or are lucky enough to have suite access somewhere covered and perhaps, air conditioned.

Red storm of colors

Because I was walking more rapidly than normal on this track walk occasion, I didn’t get a great look at the percentage of attire team-to-team. I will say, though, that plenty of Ferrari kits caught my eye, and it was no surprise to see. I didn’t see as much in the way of fans wearing Mercedes gear or others to match. It is fun to see older kit – Renault’s old blue and yellow from the Mild Seven tobacco days was present.

Welcome back, Danny

The 1985 Indianapolis 500 champion and one time Benetton-sponsored Tyrrell F1 driver, Danny Sullivan, has made his first visit back to Circuit of The Americas since the inaugural running here in 2012. Sullivan emceed a Quint Events-hosted fan event in the Legends Club outside of Turn 1 earlier in the day, taking fan questions about the state of play in F1 and other forms of racing today. He shared a memorable Paul Newman story, where their competitive juices flowed even when it got to rental cars. Sullivan has been an F1 driver steward on a number of occasions over the last five to six seasons, including most recently at this year’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Tower time, if you want

The iconic COTA Tower remained packed today, particularly for FP2. Fans can access the tower for $30 for a standard tour, or for an additional $15 ($45 total), they can go to the tower in an expedited VIP line – and get champagne in the process.

More thoughts from today at Circuit of The Americas will follow in MotorSportsTalk’s Friday Paddock Notebook.

Rosberg quickest as Ricciardo, Red Bull rally in second USGP practice

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Formula 1 championship leader Nico Rosberg stamped his authority on proceedings in Austin, Texas ahead of the United States Grand Prix by topping the second free practice session on Friday afternoon.

Following his ninth victory of the 2016 season in Japan two weeks ago, Rosberg arrived in Austin leading the drivers’ standings by 33 points from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The German driver has started on pole for the past two years at the Circuit of The Americas, only to finish second to Hamilton on both occasions.

After seeing Hamilton lead FP1, Rosberg hit back in second practice to top the timesheets with a lap of 1:37.358, enjoying an advantage over the field of almost two-tenths of a second.

However, it was not Hamilton who played second-fiddle this time around. Instead, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo shot up to P2, suggesting that the sizeable advantage Mercedes enjoyed in FP1 was exaggerated. Hamilton was left to settle for third in the final standings.

Second practice featured one short red flag period after debris was left on-track at the esses, appearing to come off the back of one of the Haas cars as the American team continued to struggle at the start of its home grand prix weekend.

Sebastian Vettel kept Ferrari in the mix at the front of the field in second practice, finishing within a second of Rosberg at the front in fourth place, while Max Verstappen ended the session fifth in the second Red Bull.

Force India continued its impressive start to the weekend as Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez finished sixth and seventh, with the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso following in P8 and P9. Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top 10 in the second Ferrari as he struggled with front-end grip.

FIA confirms track layout for Montreal Formula E race

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The FIA has confirmed the street course layout that will be used in Montreal for next July’s Formula E race.

Montreal will become the first Canadian city to host a Formula E race on the July 29-30 weekend, acting as the final round of the all-electric racing championship’s third season.

A street course has been formed close to Downtown Montreal, comprising 14 corners and running to a length of 1.71 miles.

“Formula E wants to bring fully-electric racing to the streets of the world’s leading cities and Montreal is another fantastic new addition to the calendar,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“Montreal is a great city with a great vibe – the perfect place to conclude the third season of Formula E. I’m sure the drivers will revel in the opportunity to fight for the title against the backdrop of Montreal.”

“I’m very pleased that Montreal is now among the host cities for Formula E,” Mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre added.

“In Montreal, we wish to promote transportation electrification. This race, which speaks to this wish, will be conducted on an urban circuit and will be a festive family event where everyone will be able to admire the prowess of electric vehicles.

“It will give us, in 2017, at the climax of the celebrations for the 375th anniversary of Montreal, the opportunity to demonstrate that high performance can go hand-in-hand with sustainable development.”

Tickets for the Montreal ePrix will be on sale from December 3.

Renault teammates now stuck fighting each other to stay for 2017

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 03: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo leads Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 3, 2016 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Neither Kevin Magnussen nor Jolyon Palmer wants to leave Renault Sport F1 Team in 2017, but with Nico Hulkenberg’s confirmation in the team next year coming last week, one of the two incumbents will be forced aside.

It’s been a challenging year for the team in its first year back in works guise after Renault took over Lotus, but to their credit, both Magnussen in his second year and Palmer in his first have made strides as the year has gone on.

Results haven’t necessarily shown in though, as they’ve only amassed a combined eight points from three different scores. Magnussen has a seventh and a 10th, Palmer a single 10th.

Inadvertently, this now means the two of them are racing each other for one seat. Or, as Palmer described to reporters on Thursday, “I think there’s probably, in my opinion, probably three drivers down for one seat.”

Magnussen, who’d already sought to deny IndyCar rumors swirling around him for 2017, continued to mention his desire to stay with Renault during Thursday’s FIA Press Conference.

“I hope I can stay on as his teammate. That’s my target and that’s what I hope is going to happen,” Magnussen said.

“And hopefully it won’t be too long before we will be able to announce what’s going to happen – either/or – so we’ll just do this race and focus on driving and enjoying my time in the car and we’ll see what happens.”

If there’s any consolation or help, the bright side for Magnussen at least is that he’s been in this situation before. He waited to see whether he’d be retained for another year at McLaren in 2014, before ultimately losing out on the spot to Fernando Alonso once he rejoined the team.

Palmer said though this is a different situation, because either he or Magnussen hope to know their fate sooner rather than later, instead of having to hold out until December. He estimates a decision will come in the next two to three weeks.

“It may look similar at the moment but it’s a different team, different management. It’s still not that late in the moment,” the 2014 GP2 Series champion explained.

“We still have four races to go. I don’t want to be taken until the end of the year and then realize I’m going to be let go. It’s in my hands to assess my options. As I see it here, there are some other seats around, so I’ll have to do what’s best for me.”

Palmer said neither he nor Magnussen has been getting the credit they deserve for fighting back given the tough moments this year.

“I think neither of us is getting enough credit, to be honest. Kevin has done some great racing as well and proved in 2014 what he can do in a good car. He finished second in his first race when the car was there to finish second, he outqualified Jenson over the course of the year,” he said.

“And now, two years on, we’re both struggling because the car’s not really there. He’s done a good job this year and probably lost a bit of credit from where he was in 2014. I think neither of us have probably not gotten the credit we deserve. And that’s proved by the fact that at least one of us is going to be replaced. The car has been tricky and I think neither of us has done well. We’ve both made mistakes, but at certain points we’ve done a good job.”

The Englishman said he’d heard at Suzuka that the Hulkenberg signing was forthcoming, but was only thrown by the timing of when things would be announced.

There’s also been rumors that Valtteri Bottas is in the frame for the second seat at Renault, but the current Williams

“I understand that stick or twist is meaning if I stay with Williams or not,” Bottas said. “We’re going to still need to wait a little bit to get things confirmed about what’s going to happen next year.”