Estrada: Top 10 IndyCar Drivers of 2013

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Alright, boys and girls, it’s my turn now. The 2013 IndyCar season has been complete for about a month, so it’s a good time to get my Top 10 drivers’ list for 2013 out in the open. Feel free to check out my colleague Tony DiZinno’s list as well.

Let’s get started, shall we?

1. Scott Dixon

Determination and doubleheaders were the important elements in Dixon’s 2013 title run. The three twinbill events carried the unknown factor going into this season for everybody in the series, but the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver took to them as he needed to: A pair of fourths at Belle Isle, two wins at Toronto, and a win and a second at Houston. Toronto and Houston were critical in particular – the former helped Dixon get back into the title race and the latter helped him take control of the championship after potentially devastating setbacks at Sonoma and Baltimore.

Dixon and TCGR had their backs against the wall at several points this season but they always managed to fight their way out. Truly, they deserve this championship.

2. Simon Pagenaud

If not for that exhaust problem in the season opener at St. Petersburg, we likely would have seen Pagenaud be in contention for the championship all the way to Fontana. Still, he was competitive throughout the year, claiming two wins and 13 Top-10 finishes along the way. Not to say he was perfect: In a field this tight, he’ll need to have more of those Top-10s turn into at least Top-5s, and as Mr. DiZinno has written, he can’t afford to have down days in qualifying (first 5 starts of 2013: 19th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 21st).

But if he can work on those, I can see him kissing the Astor Cup next fall as champion. He and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports are a great combination.

3. Will Power

For a while this year, it seemed all the bizarre stuff had to happen to Power: How would the championship had been different if J.R. Hildebrand hadn’t ran over the top of his car at St. Pete or if Tristan Vautier had run into him in the pits at Long Beach? He had several more incidents like this during the year, and it cost him dearly in the points.

But a strong second-half surge reminded us that we can never discard him as one of the most formidable competitors in the paddock. And with signs of him shedding his reputation as a non-factor on ovals, he’s getting closer to becoming the kind of all-around driver that his rivals could lose some sleep over. Watch out for “Willy P” in 2014.

4. Helio Castroneves

Getting the most out of his equipment served Castroneves well in 2013 – until his equipment gave out on him in both Houston races. As a result, he once again lost out on that elusive series championship. It’s the down side of taking what I call “the Matt Kenseth route” to a title (said with respect, of course, to the former Sprint Cup champion). Consistency can put you ahead of the pack but if your rivals are finding ways to win as you keep banking just decent results, you’re in trouble when something bad finally happens to you.

Castroneves had some truly impressive moments, chief among them being his runaway win at Texas Motor Speedway. He just needed a few more of those.

5. Justin Wilson

Take his crash in the season finale at Fontana out of the equation, and the British driver could have wound up in the Top 5 of the standings. Like Pagenaud, qualifying wasn’t exactly Wilson’s strongest suit (10 starts outside the Top-10 in 2013) but when race day rolled around, he was solid more often than not. And also like Pagenaud, he did it for a team that doesn’t have the resources of a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti squad.

Wilson had good runs at every discipline of track, but as you’d expect, he really shined on road and street circuits with a season-best finish of second coming on the road course at Sonoma. I think he could be up for one or two wins next year upon recovering from his injuries in the aforementioned accident. Get well soon, Justin.

6. Marco Andretti

This could be your dark horse next year. After a brutal 2012 season on road and street circuits, Andretti knew that couldn’t happen again. A re-calibration of his driving style on the twisty tracks proved successful (four Top-5s, 10 Top-10s on RC/SCs) and that was the catalyst for his best overall season in the IndyCar Series.

But I have to assume he’s still thinking over potential wins that went by the boards at Milwaukee (electrical problems) and Pocono (poor fuel mileage) – and if that happened to be a correct assumption, I certainly couldn’t blame him for remaining sour over those instances.

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay

A solid first half had Hunter-Reay in position to successfully defend his 2012 crown, but after finishing runner-up at Iowa, everything fell apart for him. In the final nine races, he never finished higher than fifth (Mid-Ohio). Takuma Sato tagged him from behind on pit road at Pocono, and then came a never-ending stream of bad luck in the remaining street circuits that included pit stalls and a crash in the Toronto weekend, as well as battery problems in Baltimore and mechanical woes in Houston.

When he stayed out of trouble, he was often a force to be reckoned with, as his victories at Barber and Milwaukee showed. But six DNFs were too much to overcome in the end.

8. James Hinchcliffe

Up and down, feast or famine, roller-coaster, see-saw…Don’t worry about what phrase you want to use to describe the Canadian fan favorite’s season – it’ll fit. Highly memorable triumphs at St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo and Iowa were cancelled out by four DNFs and poor results at places like Indianapolis and Belle Isle. Those down days skewed his average finish (12.3) noticeably in the end, but as Mr. DiZinno mentioned, he did find a rhythm of sorts in the second half of the year.

Hinchcliffe’s stock is still rising overall, and now that he’s made his decision to re-up with Andretti Autosport, that’ll be one less thing for him to worry about in 2014 – although he’ll still have to figure out how to get some good fortune for once in his home race at Toronto…

9. Charlie Kimball

Also on the upward trend is Kimball, who cracked the Top 10 of the championship thanks to a steady year that saw him earn his first career win at Mid-Ohio and impress at several other points. Bit by bit, the young American has evolved into a driver that can carry his own weight at Ganassi, an environment that can be a little intimidating considering that he has to stack up against great veterans like Dixon and Dario Franchitti (and now, Tony Kanaan).

The pressure will be on him to raise his game even further next year, but Kimball has shown he can be a threat at nearly every stop. Outside of Mid-Ohio, I was particularly fascinated by his run at Fontana – a run that almost ended with him in Victory Lane until his Honda gave up the ghost.

10. Sebastien Bourdais

I tend to be a bit of an oval guy, but while I’m tempted to give Tony Kanaan the final spot in my Top-10 after winning Indianapolis, I must take the whole season into account. And when I do, I find that I must give No. 10 to Bourdais, the four-time Champ Car king that will be replacing Kanaan next year at KV-SH Racing. In what would be his final run with the Dragon Racing camp, “Seabass” was a true contender from Toronto onwards with three podium finishes and six Top-10s (plus one smashed-up trophy) in the final eight races. I also must mention the real jolt that the team got when it gave Tom Brown the nod at engineer.

Honorable Mention – Mike Conway

I’m keeping myself to one of these. And yes, I’m giving it to a part-time driver. But with Kanaan hindered by a poor road/street course campaign and Franchitti continuing to be uneven in the Dallara DW12, it’s down to Mike Conway, who delivered a tour-de-force weekend in Detroit with a crushing win in Race 1 and a third-place showing in Race 2.

He followed that up with three more Top-10s from Toronto (a pair of sevenths) and Houston (a ninth in Race 2), and all that chatter about how he’d effectively ended his IndyCar career when he gave up the ovals last year is nothing but a bad memory now. Any time Conway turns up for an IndyCar race, be glad – the show is going to be that much better.

Report: No Mexico, 16 races expected on 2016 IndyCar schedule

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IndyCar chairman Mark Miles doesn’t expect the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season to begin in Mexico in February next year, according to a report by USA Today.

Though Miles said the Mexico race was “unlikely,” he believes the final schedule will 16 races at 15 venues over the course of seven months.

Miles said the series is waiting for a “highly, highly likely” event to be approved by a board around Oct. 13, going on to say it wasn’t Pocono Raceway.

“If we had to, we probably could put this out, in theory, sooner, but we want to go through the formality and respect the process of a formal approval from one of the promoters,” Miles said.

Miles said the Mexico City race has been put on hold due to concerns for proper promotion for the event, which would be the series’ first outside the United States since racing in Brazil in 2013.

“The process they needed to go through to get everything lined up has not really left a lot of time to be confident that everything can be done to properly promote the first race,” Miles told USA Today. “So I think the conversation is very much about ‘17. We just kind of ran out of time for ‘16.”

This is what is know about the 2016 IndyCar schedule so far.

Either the track, IndyCar, or an IndyCar support series (Pirelli World Challenge) have announced these dates for 2016:

March 13: St. Petersburg, Fla.
April 17: Long Beach, Calif.
April 24: Birmingham, Ala.
May 14: Indianapolis, In. (Indy GP)
May 29: Indianapolis, In. (100th Indy 500)
June 4-5: Detroit, Mich.
June 11: Fort Worth, Texas
June 26: Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 31: Lexington, Ohio
Sept. 4: Boston, Mass.
Sept. 18: Sonoma, Calif.

These dates are not formal but are highly likely for 2016, per media reports:

April 2: Phoenix, AZ
July 17: Toronto, Ontario

These tracks have been rumored, but are yet to announce the status of IndyCar races for 2016:

Iowa Speedway
Pocono Raceway
The Milwaukee Mile
Gateway International Raceway

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

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At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.