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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.

Romain Grosjean pleased with initial Haas simulator feedback

KANNAPOLIS, NC - SEPTEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France speaks during a press conference as Haas F1 Team announces Grosjean as their driver for the upcoming 2016 Formula 1 season on September 29, 2015 in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean felt pleased with his first simulator run in the new Haas Formula 1 car ahead of its on-track debut in Barcelona on February 22.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will take his F1 operation onto the grid this season after two years of preparation, with Grosjean joining ex-Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez at the team for its maiden campaign.

Ahead of the car’s first on-track run at the beginning of pre-season testing in Spain later this month, Grosjean has completed some laps in it using a simulator, and reported that the initial feedback was positive.

“The impressions were quite good, even if in the beginning it was necessary to resolve a lot of small technical problems such as turbo lag, the energy recovered under braking, etc,” Grosjean told L’Equipe.

“The morning was spent doing this. But once everything was settled we had the opportunity to run extensively in the afternoon.

“I think the car’s baseline appears to be good. We now know the simulator corresponds to the windtunnel, but the differences with what we find in reality are sometimes huge – at Lotus for example, the car changed dramatically between track and simulator.”

Haas will lift the covers off its first F1 car on Monday 22 February ahead of the initial on-track running later that day.

Valentino Rossi may extend Yamaha MotoGP contract until 2018

VALENCIA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 07:  Valentino Rossi of Italy and Movistar Yamaha MotoGP rounds the bend during the qualifying practice during the MotoGP of Valencia - Qualifying at Ricardo Tormo Circuit on November 7, 2015 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Valentino Rossi may extend his contract with Yamaha in MotoGP until the end of 2018 depending on how he fares in the opening stint of the coming season.

Rossi has won a motorcycle world championship on nine occasions, and came within just four points of a 10th title in 2015 when he narrowly lost out to teammate Jorge Lorenzo at the final race of the year.

Rossi, 36, heads into the final year of his Yamaha contract in 2016, and confirmed to Sky Sports Italia that he would be seeking an extension until the end of 2018 depending on how the beginning of this season goes.

“At the end of 2016 my contract will expire, so I will have to decide whether to continue for another two seasons or not,” Rossi said.

“If I continue, it will be for two seasons as all the contracts are for two years.

“It will be like 2014 when I said I will look at it after the first few races. You have to look at the first five or six races then start thinking.”

Rossi had considered walking away from MotoGP at the end of 2014 after a quiet return to Yamaha the previous year, only for his early-season form to convince him to sign a two-year extension.

Esteban Ocon secures Mercedes DTM seat for 2016

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C8733
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2015 GP3 Series champion Esteban Ocon will race in the DTM championship this year with Mercedes in tandem with a reserve role in Formula 1 at Renault.

Ocon joined Mercedes’ junior program in the spring of 2015 before becoming a fully-fledged member at the end of the year just days before his GP3 title success.

The Frenchman was known to be considering a move into either DTM or GP2 for 2016, but will now replace F1-bound Pascal Wehrlein at Mercedes’ factory team for the new DTM campaign.

“It’s an incredible feeling to be part of such a professional and strong racing series,” Ocon said.

“I’m very pleased to be driving for Mercedes-Benz. It’s the best team in the DTM and I’m very grateful for this fantastic opportunity.

“Mercedes is the most successful manufacturer in DTM history. You can only achieve that with real passion and hard work, and those are characteristics that we share. After driving in free practice during the final race weekend of the 2015 season at Hockenheim, I can’t wait to start a DTM race.

“I obviously have a lot to learn, but my goal – and that of everyone in the team – is to fight for wins as soon as possible.”

Trident completes 2016 GP2 line-up with Armand

2015 GP2 Series Test 3.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 4 December 2015.
Philo Armand (INA, Status Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _L0U4261
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Trident has completed its line-up for the 2016 GP2 Series season by signing Indonesian driver Philo Paz Armand.

Armand has previously raced in a number of European Formula Renault 2.0 championships, and most recently took part in half of last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 rounds, scoring one point.

Armand will now step up to GP2 for the 2016 season, racing alongside 2015 GP3 runner-up Luca Ghiotto at Trident.

“We are very excited to start this collaboration with Philo and we are confident he will express all his talent thanks to the team’s help,” Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci said.

The grid for GP2’s support series, GP3, is also beginning to come together for the new season following the announcements of Tatiana Calderon and Honda junior Nirei Fukuzumi.

Calderon moves into GP3 from FIA F3 and will race for Carlin, while Fukuzumi joins ART Grand Prix, continuing the French squad’s association with Honda.