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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.

Two memories recalled today: Schumacher Spa debut, Tyrrell’s passing

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Schumacher in 2012, Tyrrell in 1989. Photos: Getty Images
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Today, August 25, marks two anniversaries of note in the F1 world – the beginning of one legendary on-track career, and the end of another F1 legend’s life.

A then unheralded 22-year-old German named Michael Schumacher made his race debut with Jordan Grand Prix, in the Jordan 191, taking over the seat after Bertrand Gachot was jailed following an altercation with a London taxi drivers. August 25 marks 25 years to the day that Schumacher made his race debut.

Schumacher qualified in seventh place and looked set to score points on debut – the top six paid points at that time – but the debut didn’t really get to happen owing to a clutch failure on the opening lap. A further reflection can be offered by Mark Gallagher, who’d worked with Team 7Up Jordan at the time, via his blog. Gallagher recently authored the well-received “The Business of Winning,” a deeper look into the business world of F1.

Of course, the rest was history from there. Schumacher went to Benetton from the next race in Monza, then went on to his run of a record 91 career Grand Prix wins and seven World Championships.

Official news has been limited on Schumacher’s condition since his December 2013 skiing accident and all we can continue to do is resume with the message of #KeepFightingMichael.

That 1991 Belgian Grand Prix day also dovetails slightly into the next anniversary, albeit a sadder one.

Another team on the grid was fielded by Ken Tyrrell; the legend was a World Championship-winning team owner in the 1970s with Sir Jackie Stewart and saw his drivers win 33 races from 1968 (Stewart won at Zandvoort for the team’s first win) to 1983 (Michele Alboreto the last win at Detroit).

Tyrrell’s last runner-up finish as a constructor came in 1991 when Stefano Modena came second in the Canadian Grand Prix; the team’s final podium occurred in 1994 at the Spanish Grand Prix when Mark Blundell finished third.

Tyrrell’s team ran through 1998 before it was bought out by British American Tobacco for 1999, and BAR was launched. The team eventually became Honda’s factory team, then Brawn GP, and now Mercedes AMG Petronas – the erstwhile dominant team on the grid – and the team Schumacher returned to drive for from 2010 to 2012.

Tyrrell died this day 15 years ago, on August 25, 2001, from cancer at the age of 77. But his impact on the sport cannot be forgotten.

Watkins Glen extends with IndyCar for two more years

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This year’s announcement of Watkins Glen International rejoining the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a bit of a shotgun marriage – the track and the sanctioning body got a deal done in a couple weeks, in what was akin to a minor miracle pulled off by both parties.

The next two years for IndyCar at Watkins Glen will come with quite a bit more time to prepare. The two parties have announced a two-year extension at the track through 2018, which syncs up nicely with the remainder of most IndyCar races currently under contract.

Here’s what Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, had to say about Watkins Glen joining this year, when it was announced back in May:

“Well, the process was pretty quick. We can’t thank Michael (Printup, track president) and his whole staff at Watkins Glen for their yeoman-like effort the last couple weeks. We got the news a couple weeks ago that something was going on, and that might have been around 5:00, and by 5:01 I was talking to this gentleman on the phone, and from that it kind of led a life of its own.

“It certainly was great interest on his behalf, great interest on our behalf. We were thinking more about 2017, but obviously we’re a year ahead. All the rumors, all the enthusiasm that we saw from the rumors was going on was very, very high, so we couldn’t be more pleased to go back to Watkins Glen. It’s a great facility, great history, and again, we can’t thank Michael and his staff enough for being willing to do this on such short notice. So far, so good.”

Printup added, “Friday night at 5:01, it was an awesome moment. I can tell you that. I was really excited to hear from Jay, and like he said, we had met earlier in Phoenix. I was out there on business, and Jay and I and Stephen (Starks, from INDYCAR) sat down, and I have to say the same thing about his team. Jay and I took one or two phone calls over the weekend, we had a follow-up even Friday night at like 9:00 that night, we exchanged a couple emails Saturday and Sunday, and we didn’t talk again for like another week because we handed it off, or week and a half. We handed it off to our teams, and the teams really put the deal together. Jay and I obviously were the cheerleaders and champions on both sides. I know that. But both our teams really are responsible for putting this together, so we couldn’t be more proud.

“This belongs at Watkins Glen International. Scott and I had a moment just prior to walking in here, it’s so nice to see. It’s so great to walk around here and feel the electricity here. Can’t wait to do it again up in Watkins Glen, and like he said, it was just an awesome time working with Jay and the team, and we couldn’t be happier. In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it.”

More to follow… 

Da Costa excited by opportunities with Andretti, ‘jealous’ of Frijns’ IndyCar test

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© FIA Formula E
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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Antonio Felix da Costa is excited by the opportunities available with Andretti Autosport after joining its Formula E team for the third season of the all-electric series.

Red Bull-affiliated driver da Costa raced for Team Aguri in season one and two, scoring a victory in Buenos Aires in 2015 and putting forward a good case for being the best pound-for-pound driver on the grid given the team’s tight budget.

Andretti confirmed earlier this month that da Costa would be joining its Formula E operation for season three, replacing Simona de Silvestro in a move that is also understood to incorporate a partnership with BMW – da Costa’s team in DTM.

“It was probably one of the worst-kept secrets in Formula E,” da Costa told NBC Sports.

“But we really had to do it this way because there were a few other things in play and we could not jeopardise or compromise other things. Shortly after London, we were able to agree on everything and went straight to work.

“Very happy to be joining a racing family like the Andrettis. They need no introduction to the motorsport world. To be joining this team is a very good thing for me.

“I love America. I’d love to race there. I love the way Americans do sports in general, so it’s all very good.”

Da Costa will partner Robin Frijns, whose efforts in Formula E led to an IndyCar test with Andretti last month at Mid-Ohio where he put in an impressive display.

“Yeah I’m a little bit jealous of him, I have to say!” da Costa joked, before saying his focus remains on Formula E for the time being.

“One thing at a time. We’re here now, just got started with the team so first of all we need to do a good job here and then we’ll see what the future brings.

“If I have a winning car, we need to win races. If not, then just bring home maximum points possible. I think me and Robin together, we can do a good job.

“We’re both very competitive and I know him well, I know what he’s like, I’ve raced against him. To have him on my side now and push the team in the same direction is very, very good.”

Lewis Hamilton to take F1 power unit penalty in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has confirmed that he will take a sixth power unit component ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, resulting in a grid penalty.

Hamilton arrived in Belgium leading Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship by 19 points after winning the last four races.

Power unit issues at the start of the season forced Hamilton to use more of his allocated components early, making a penalty in the second half of the season inevitable.

Drivers are permitted to use five of each power unit component across the course of the season, with penalties being handed out for exceeding this limit.

Hamilton confirmed in Thursday’s FIA press conference at Spa that he would be taking new components in Belgium, meaning he will take start towards the back of the grid.

“As far as I’m aware, we will take the penalty this weekend,” Hamilton said, before Mercedes gave official confirmation.

“As Lewis just confirmed in the press conference, we will take an engine penalty this weekend,” a team spokesperson said.

“It is safe to assume he will start from the back of the field or very close but we cannot be more precise at this stage.”

Hamilton has previously charged from the back of the grid to finish on the podium in Germany and Hungary two years ago, with both drives being decisive in winning him the title.

However, the Briton is skeptical that he can challenge for victory, given the reduction in Mercedes’ advantage over the field compared to two years ago.

“In terms of winning, that is going to be very, very hard. Obviously the gap has closed between other cars,” Hamilton said.

“We’re in the third year of the evolution of these cars, Red Bull have been very quick in some of the races and the same with Ferrari and down the whole grid, so it’s going to be harder than it was last year and the year before to climb through the field.

“But I’ll do everything I can and it’s just about minimizing the damage of taking the penalty.”