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.

Ricciardo: Red Bull ‘not really that close’ to Mercedes in Austin

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd after qualifying in third position 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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Daniel Ricciardo is doubtful that Red Bull can challenge Mercedes for victory in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, believing Ferrari to be the team’s closest challenger.

Red Bull currently sits second in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, having won two races this season – notably the only two not to have been won by Mercedes – with Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

Both drivers enjoyed impressive outings in practice, with Ricciardo’s race pace on Friday and Verstappen’s one-lap run on Saturday in FP3 hinting that a close fight at the front of the pack may be on the cards.

However, Mercedes stretched its legs when it came to qualifying as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg locked out the front row of the grid. Ricciardo was left to settle for third place, finishing half a second shy of Hamilton at the front of the pack.

Red Bull opted to split the strategy of its cars in Q2, meaning Ricciardo will start on the super-soft tire while Verstappen is set to take softs to the line, giving the latter more strategy options.

“I’m not concerned. We expected it to go like this,” Ricciardo said of Verstappen’s tire choice.

“Max wanted to try the soft, I was happy to go on super-softs. I was more comfortable on this tire so that was the reason. Hopefully it gives me a better launch off the line.

“Not really that close to the Mercedes, but we should have a good battle with Ferrari. The car works pretty well for us. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully a bit of friendly grip off the line.”

However, Ricciardo agreed that the long-run pace of the Red Bull during practice on Friday was strong, offering the team a boost heading into the race.

“It was pretty delicious, I would say,” the Australian told NBCSN.

“Track conditions changed a bit. Maybe it affects what happened on Friday, but we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.

“Let’s show y’all how it’s done.”

Verstappen was also surprised by the gap to Mercedes in qualifying, and was left disappointed to be only fourth on the grid.

“Not great to have three cars in front of you. Could have been better,” Verstappen told NBCSN.

“To be honest, I expected us to be closer in qualifying. We were not that close. They start on the softs. Hopefully a good start and we’ll see what happens in the race.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Rosberg ‘annoyed’ to see Hamilton on USGP pole after ‘good lap’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left feeling “annoyed” after seeing Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 championship rival Lewis Hamilton beat him to pole position for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg arrived in Austin, Texas leading the drivers’ standings by 33 points with four races remaining in the 2016 season.

The German scored pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in 2014 and 2015, but was denied a three-peat by Hamilton in the dying stages of qualifying on Saturday.

The two drivers matched each other for pace through all three legs of qualifying, with Rosberg’s final effort giving him provisional pole ahead of Hamilton.

However, Hamilton was able to hit back and ultimately go two-tenths of a second faster, handing him his ninth pole position of the year.

After the session, Rosberg was very matter-of-fact about his qualifying, saying that he was happy with his own lap.

“Nothing specific,” Rosberg said when asked where he had fallen short.

“Sector 1, Lewis was just quicker. Pretty simple.

“Good lap I did nonetheless. Annoyed when Lewis came over the line, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

“Nevertheless, qualifying isn’t all-important. From P2, we still have a good chance tomorrow.”

Rosberg’s recent surge in points has been largely down to his strength off the line, with Hamilton dropping back in Italy and Japan, easing the pressure on his teammate in the battle for victory.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton left feeling ‘amazing’ after ending COTA pole drought

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position 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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Lewis Hamilton was left feeling “amazing” after scoring his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, giving his fading hopes of a fourth Formula 1 title a boost.

Hamilton is a three-time winner at COTA (2012, 2014, 2015), but has never started a race at the track from pole position.

Hamilton last scored pole position on American soil back in 2007 during his rookie F1 season, in what proved to be the final United States Grand Prix to be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Briton put an end to his barren run of poles in the U.S. on Saturday, finishing two-tenths of a second clear of drivers’ championship leader and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

“I feel amazing. My first pole here. It’s been many years of trying and a lot of people who’ve helped me get that,” Hamilton said after the session.

“For us I want to say a big thanks to the crowd. I could hear them cheering. The energy on the slow down lap was much appreciated.”

Hamilton enters Sunday’s race trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship and without a win since the end of July, with a number of poor starts proving costly in the meantime.

“We’ve worked hard the last couple weeks. It’s a great feeling to be back up here,” Hamilton said.

“I’ll do the best I can tomorrow. Have had some incredible support from friends, family and the crowd. Been practicing the starts all weekend.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton captures first COTA pole in USGP qualifying

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton stormed to his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday, edging out Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second.

Hamilton entered the USGP weekend trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship, but remained the favorite for victory after his three previous wins at COTA.

However, Hamilton had never started on pole in Austin, offering a statistical anomaly that the Briton sought to rectify on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg and Hamilton were neck-and-neck throughout qualifying, only for the latter to pull ahead with their first runs in Q3, going 0.072 seconds clear.

Rosberg rallied with his final Q3 lap to take provisional pole, but Hamilton managed to dig deep and produce a lap of 1:34.999 to wrestle P1 away at the checkered flag.

Rosberg was left to settle for second place, while Daniel Ricciardo finished as the best of the rest for Red Bull in third, half a second off Hamilton’s P1 time. Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen qualified fourth.

Both Mercedes drivers were able to make it through to Q3 on the soft compound tire, as was Verstappen, opening up the possibility of a one-stop race for the trio on Sunday.

Ferrari had a difficult session as Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished over a second off the pace, leaving them fifth and sixth respectively on the grid.

Nico Hulkenberg continued his run of top-10 finishes at COTA over the race weekend, qualifying seventh, while Force India teammate Sergio Perez ailed to P11 after being knocked out in Q2.

Valttei Bottas and Felipe Massa were eighth and ninth for Williams after electing to run just once in Q3, while Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Fernando Alonso was McLaren’s sole representative in Q2 after seeing Jenson Button fall early in Q1. Alonso could not make it through to Q3, though, with late laps from the Williams pair leaving him 12th on the grid.

Like Perez, Daniil Kvyat was unable to match the pace of his teammate, finishing three-tenths of a second shy of Toro Rosso teammate Sainz in Q2 to finish 13th.

Haas F1 Team’s first qualifying session on American soil failed to live up to expectations of the home crowd as it failed to get both cars through to Q2 for the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix. Romain Grosjean was knocked out in Q1, qualifying 17th, leaving Esteban Gutierrez to fly the star-spangled banner alone in Q2, where he finished 14th.

Jolyon Palmer made it through to Q2 for Renault after an impressive first run in Q1, failing to improve on his second lap that he called a “f***ing disaster” over the radio. A sole attempt in Q2 left him 15th on the grid ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who opted against a proper qualifying run after making it into the second session.

Kevin Magnussen qualified 18th for Renault ahead of a disgruntled Button, who risked an early run on soft tires at first in Q1 before McLaren mistimed his last flying lap that left him with traffic at the final corner in the form of Palmer.

Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon endured a fairly routine qualifying for Manor, finishing P20 and P22 respectively as Felipe Nasr slotted into 21st for Sauber, failing to match the pace of Ericsson ahead.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.