The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champ, Ryan Hunter-Reay, begins his title defense on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend. RACER editor David Malsher brings us his take on every team and driver in a talent-loaded field.
Ryan Hunter-Reay (1/28)
Career stats - Best championship position 1st, 2012 / Wins 9 / Poles 2
EJ Viso (5)
Career stats - Best championship position 17th, 2010 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Marco Andretti (25)
Career stats - Best championship position 7th, 2006 + '08 / Wins 2 / Poles 2
James Hinchcliffe (27)
Career stats - Best championship position 8th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Andretti Autosport has looked fast in testing, carrying on the momentum from 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay scored four wins on his way to the IZOD IndyCar Series title. For RHR, the idea is to do much the same again, but he's definitely due a change of fortune at Indianapolis: since winning the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 2008, anything that could go wrong has gone wrong for him at the Speedway. Hunter-Reay has vowed to be as aggressive and canny as he was last year; combined with the subconscious boost in confidence that comes with winning a title, he's likely to be an even stronger competitor in 2013. Which of course means a potential champion.
Their 2013 teammates have much to prove. Marco Andretti has decided to completely revise his driving style for road/street courses, in order to iron out his inconsistencies, which have revolved around his over-aggression on corner entry. He's still an ace on ovals, but Marco has realized that to finish in the top 10 in the championship requires competitiveness on right turns, too. His car control is superb, as seen whenever it rains, but his abrupt steering inputs punish the tires in the dry. Eliminate that, boost the confidence and his natural talent will do much (though not all) of the rest.
Keith Wiggins' HVM Racing will run Andretti Autosport's fourth car, which is to be driven by EJ Viso, who spent his first two IndyCar seasons with HVM. He will also be reunited with Michael Cannon, his engineer from those times, and if anyone can explain and then resolve Viso's bizarre up-and-down pace variations, it's Cannon. Expect to see No. 5 nearer the front more often this season. Whether it can remain there comes down to Viso's own mind management.
AJ Allmendinger (2)
Career stats - Best championship position 3rd (Champ Car) 2006 / Wins 5 / Poles 2
Helio Castroneves (3)
Career stats - Best championship position 2nd, 2002 + '08 / Wins 27 / Poles 37
Will Power (12)
Career stats - Best championship position 2nd, 2010, '11, '12 / Wins 18 / Poles 29
Hard to believe that Roger's men haven't won an IndyCar title since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.), for in the six seasons since, the team has accumulated 33 wins and, since '08, there has always been a Penske driver in the top three in the championship at season's end. It's trite to say that Team Penske's mission must be do to do the same only a little bit better, but basically that's exactly what's required.
Helio Castroneves rebounded from an awful 2011 to give himself an outside shot at the 2012 title right up to the penultimate race. He goes about trying to win the championship by accumulating points and then pouncing on victory chances when the opportunity arises, but always there are a couple of inexplicable performances that puncture his title hopes. With longtime race engineer Ron Ruzewski being promoted to Penske's technical director, and Jonathan Diuguid replacing him as Castroneves' right-hand man, it's possible that could be the key for Helio to score his fourth Indy 500 victory, but it's increasingly hard to envisage him as champion.
Helio long ago became the winningest driver in the 100-year history of Indy car racing to not have a championship to his name. Next on that list, believe it or not, is his teammate Will Power, whose extraordinary speed, misfortune and occasional lapses of his own have been too well chronicled to bear repeating here. Last season, he attempted the smart softly-softly approach to racing, as practiced successfully in the past by the likes of Al Unsers Sr and Jr, and Dario Franchitti.but because that wasn't his style, he ended up involved in stupid accidents. If he drives like Michael Andretti or Tom Sneva, he'll win his first IndyCar championship. And it should go without saying that, more often than not, he's the man to beat on road and street courses.
AJ Allmendinger, who once had Power-like speed in an open-wheel car, has a hard road ahead to recapture that form after six years in stock cars. But if eventually he can be guaranteed more than just the Barber race (round 2) and the Indy 500, he's going to blow off more and more rust with every race, and recapture his former instincts. It's great to have him back, but no one involved intends for this to be a mere publicity stunt.
JR Hildebrand (4)
Career stats - Best championship position 11th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Oriol Servia (22)
Career stats - Best championship position 2nd, 2005 / Wins 1 / Poles 1
There were signs last year that the abrupt and late wedding between Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing wasn't working as well as it should. Following D&R's dropping of the lamentable Lotus engine after four rounds, the team needed to swiftly regain lost ground to other Chevrolet runners, and a partnership with another single-car team seemed a smart way to go about it. However, the crossflow of information between the two sides was not everything it should be, and if each party looks inwardly, they can each assume a little blame.
But that, truly, is the heart of the matter: at the moment, both drivers have too much work to do on race day. Finding those last few tenths in qualifying should be No. 1 priority, and will come easiest if these two halves make a whole.
Sebastian Saavedra (6)
Career stats - Best championship position 25th, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Sebastien Bourdais (7)
Career stats - Best championship position 1st (Champ Car), 2004, '05, '06, '07 / Wins 31 / Poles 31
A baffling lack of pace in the final pre-season test should not be a foretelling of how the season should go for Jay Penske's team. Resident ace Sebastien Bourdais, whose experience has taught him what a great team looks like, was been fairly content to stay where he was, with a genuine belief in the personnel assembled there, starting with his race engineer, the much respected Neil Fife. Much is made of Bourdais' lack of experience on ovals (he didn't do a complete season last year), but he's smart and has won on ovals in trickier cars than the DW12. He remains superb on street and road courses, as he always has been, so don't be surprised to see podium finishes in 2013.
Sebastian Saavedra has only started 20 IndyCar races spread across three seasons, and, as with his Indy Lights career, has shown flashes of excellence (Sonoma last year in an Andretti Autosport car) and also days when he "goes missing." Those will become glaringly obvious when partnering a champ like Bourdais, and so consistency must be the prime aim for Saavedra this year. A charming guy outside the cockpit, if SS can retain his focus and learn from Bourdais, he should prove a worthwhile hire.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
Scott Dixon (9)
Career stats - Best championship position 1st, 2003 + '08 / Wins 29 / Poles 18
Dario Franchitti (10)
Career stats - Best championship position 1st, 2007, '09, '10, '11 / Wins 31 / Poles 29
Charlie Kimball (83)
Career stats - Best championship position 19th, 2011 + '12 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
The team to beat for four years got heavily beaten last year, when the Target boys (who have six IndyCar championships between them) found Victory Lane on just three occasions. Yes, a 1-2 finish at the Indianapolis 500 is - and will always be - an impressive achievement from a field of 33, but the season-long consistency that we came to expect in previous seasons, particularly from Dario Franchitti, just wasn't there. Some of the blame can be laid at Honda's door, for there were reliability problems that cost the team at least two potential wins, and a couple more podium finishes. But Dixon made a couple of high-profile errors and Franchitti took two races to get the DW12 handling to his taste.
Charlie Kimball is never going to be at that level, for qualifying pace will always be his undoing but he certainly has a decent racing instinct, as his drives at Sao Paulo and Toronto last year proved. He's a willing student, humble enough to listen and learn from his champion partners, and he's learning well. He's also a good ambassador for the sport; he just needs to stop being such a good guy in the cockpit!
Tony Kanaan (11)
Career stats - Best championship position 1st, 2004 / Wins 15 / Poles 15
Simona de Silvestro (78)
Career stats - Best championship position 19th, 2010 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
KV Racing is a complex team to try and figure out, alternately flattering to deceive or surprising us when you think all hope is lost. In a way, Tony Kanaan is this squad's ideal driver, because the old champ has an air of urgency, as well as a Nigel Mansell-like tendencies for getting involved in on- and off-track dramas and in demanding a team revolve around him. And to be honest, that's fair enough if you're a proven champ who's keeping up your side of the bargain.
On-track, Kanaan is Jekyll and Hyde. In qualifying on a street course, he'll drive like his steering wheel has an electric current running through it, but come the race he has a wonderfully polished wheel-to-wheel technique that sees him make great progress, and can cause other experienced drivers to look like rookies! On ovals, TK generally starts near the front anyway and remains swift during the race.but then occasionally, inexplicably, drops it (Milwaukee 2011, Fontana 2012). He also responds badly to being beaten by a teammate. In which case, should he be worried by new arrival Simona De Silvestro? Possibly, yes. While rookie Rubens Barrichello started to outpace his KV Racing teammates in the second half of last season, De Silvestro has enough years under her wheels to put that pressure on Kanaan from the start. This fourth term in IndyCars is a huge deal for her, not because KV is substantially better than HVM - it isn't - but because for the first time she will have a teammate. As long as she doesn't get too distracted by the intra-team tussle with Tony and keeps her eye on the big picture, she may well score a podium or two.
AJ FOYT RACING
Takuma Sato (14)
Career stats - Best championship position 13th, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 2
Takuma Sato has been an enigma for much of his career - fast and brave, a have-a-go hero - but with a tendency to live for the moment, and fail to see the big picture. I have no doubt that had he 1) Not had too many incidents in the first half of last year, or 2) not had the calming voice of Bobby Rahal in his ear, he'd have tried a 50/50 (at best) passing attempt on Castroneves at Edmonton last year, with the possible result being a win for eventual third-place finisher Power.. That may be an unfair assessment, but Sato's past is littered with missed opportunities and car debris.
So how will he fit in at Foyt? Actually, it should be fine. Sato can cope with being the sole driver on a team, as there are no question marks over his pace nor his intelligence in working through an engineering problem, while veteran engineer Don Halliday is never short of ideas in how to solve issues nor in how to empathize with drivers. Equally, for all the talk about AJ Foyt's combustibility, Super Tex will love anyone who puts the No. 14 near the front, and these days Taku has the ability and experience to do that on any type of track. Plus team manager Larry Foyt is about as placid a guy as you could hope to find in the IndyCar paddock. Should tensions rise - and yes, of course they will - the younger Foyt is the one who can keep everyone focused.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
Graham Rahal (15)
Career stats - Best championship position 5th (Champ Car), 2007 / Wins 1 / Poles 2
James Jakes (30)
Career stats - Best championship position 22nd, 2011 + '12 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Mike Conway (45)
Career stats - Best championship position 17th, 2009 + '11 / Wins 1 / Poles 0
It's fair to say that Graham Rahal frustrates a lot of IndyCar media. On one side, he's a thoroughly mature and reasoned youth who can handle media, sponsors and exalted company in a thoroughly classy manner that is a credit to his Pop, yet he also remains interesting because he's not afraid to speak his mind. On the other side, since he reached this level, we've waited six years for him to find somewhere and someone who can tease the best out of him on a consistent basis. Rahal Jr is never afraid and has great car control, but sometimes his technique on road and street courses is as unsubtle as his father's was smooth and easy. In IndyCar's current era, with the field so close and with the regulations pinched so tight that you can change hardly anything on the cars, it's up to the drivers to adapt their style to suit the DW12, as Marco Andretti will try to do. It's time for the other son-of-a-champion-IndyCar-driver to do the same.
On ovals it's a different matter. Graham has become quite exceptional at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing traditionally produces fine cars for the "500." Right now, he's my dark horse for victory there this year.
James Jakes doesn't appear to be the most inspired choice in the second full-time RLLR seat, but it's not skill he lacks but confidence, the sort of confidence that gives you the ability to carry an ill-handling car, or wring the most out of it at crunch time in qualifying. With Eddie Jones as his engineer, I think Jakes may take a good step forward.
Talking of lack of confidence, that's what prompted Mike Conway to quit oval racing. But on roads and streets, he has the capacity to surprise, and he was quick and confident in testing at Barber. Currently, Conway is down to race only Long Beach, where he won two years ago, but Bobby may well discover there are times when his part-timer is his fastest driver, and this may prompt yet more negotiations.
DALE COYNE RACING
Justin Wilson (18)
Career stats - Best championship position 2nd (Champ Car), 2006 + '07 / Wins 7 / Poles 9
Ana Beatriz (19)
Career stats - Best championship position 21st, 2011 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
Everyone who loves IndyCar racing and who intends to pass this same love on to kids and grandkids in decades to come, needs to make sure you hammer home this point to your descendants: Justin Wilson was up in the same league as the most successful IndyCar drivers of his era. Unfortunately, it seems the record books will never do him justice, and he will forever be consigned to fighting a rearguard battle, picking up the occasional win against the odds. On his side is the enthusiasm of team owner Dale Coyne and the talents of race engineer Bill Pappas and others on the No. 18 car. Working against him is the fact that Dale is largely funding this team out of his own pocket, and is therefore unable to apply the resources of a big team, such as extensive wind tunnel work or employing a teammate of similar experience and pace.
Ana Beatriz was dealt a poor hand (literally, come to think of it) in her first full season of IndyCar competition, two years ago, and in terms of raw talent, she's far better than she's shown at this level. Don't forget that four years ago she finished third in the Indy Lights series, when it was somewhat deeper than the puddle it is now. But Beatriz needs track time in the DW12 and that's not something the series allows much of in terms of testing. She's a plucky lady and won't give up, but she's not going to have enough practice time to shine anywhere but Indy.
ED CARPENTER RACING
Ed Carpenter (20)
Career stats - Best championship position 12th, 2009 / Wins 2 / Poles 1
His victory at the 2012 season finale in Fontana was somewhat overshadowed by Hunter-Reay's championship-winning performance, but Ed Carpenter's drive that night was strong, and his final stint pace left Ganassi duo Franchitti and Dixon gasping in his wake. It also reminded everyone that Carpenter is a brave driver - his fight with Alex Tagliani had some alarming moments - nor was it the only time that the Indianapolis native shone. For example, his run to eighth at Iowa was smooth and classy, and when his car's handling was compromised by damage at Indy, he drove it like a dirt car, until finally it got away from him while he lay fifth.
I still believe that, despite his progress on road and street tracks, Ed would better serve his own team and its sponsors by relinquishing the cockpit at any track that involves right turns - especially when Ryan Briscoe, Mike Conway and Alex Lloyd are available. But on ovals, he's undoubtedly got a chance to win races again this year.
SCHMIDT HAMILTON RACING / SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS
Tristan Vautier (55)
Career stats - rookie
Simon Pagenaud (77)
Career stats - Best championship position 5th, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
A "Vive la France!" mood is sweeping through Sam Schmidt's team in 2013, as super-sophomore Simon Pagenaud is joined by compatriot and (we expect) a super-rookie in Tristan Vautier. Pagenaud shook up the underperformers in the IndyCar field last year by posting four podium finishes on his way to fifth in the championship, blending great race pace with a smart attitude to ovals and other unfamiliar tracks. He admits that inexperience of the red (softer, grippier) tires, combined with a lack of teammate with whom to pool data, caused him to occasionally get a little lost in directing his team regarding optimum qualifying setups, but there were few road and street tracks where he wasn't a factor last year. However, he could scarcely have impressed more in terms of his extreme maturity and he and the team are expected to win races this year. It's a sign of their ambition that they were disappointed not to do so last year!
SARAH FISHER HARTMAN RACING
Josef Newgarden (67)
Career stats - Best championship position 23rd, 2012 / Wins 0 / Poles 0
When you look at his natural talent and the Sarah Fisher Hartman team's ability to punch above its weight, there's no excuse for Josef Newgarden to have languished in 23rd in last year's points table with a best finish of only 12th. Mistakes are easily forgiven in a rookie, especially one with a winning personality and great turn of pace like Newgarden, but it's important that this year he minimizes the number and scale of his wilder moments, forgoes the distractions of a series desperately trying to use him to promote itself to "the kids" and starts to exploit the talent that saw him win the 2011 Indy Lights series. His progress will again be hindered by not having a teammate, but Newgarden can still shine if he channels his natural born enthusiasm into a natural born killer instinct.
BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
Alex Tagliani (98)
Career stats - Best championship position 7th, 2004 + '05 / Wins 1 / Poles 7
It's hard to know what to say about Alex Tagliani other than to say that if desire and 24/7 endeavor were their own reward, he'd have been IndyCar champion years ago. Life ain't like that though, and so he's still waiting on the deserved results of his 13 years of talent and commitment. Will they arrive in 2013? Honestly, there's no reason why not. Tagliani is possibly faster than ever, he's surrounded by people he likes and respects and who reciprocate those sentiments, and he's so convinced that Barracuda-BHA Racing is on its way up that he's not fearful to take risks. He's no longer thinking "This podium finish may be my best chance all year, I'll settle for that." No, he's now of the mindset to keep on keeping on, pushing hard. He had the pace to win Iowa, Edmonton and Fontana last year.
It also helps that he's surround by level headed people like race engineer Todd Malloy, as well as team co-owners Bryan Herta and Steve Newey. They resisted the temptation to add a second car with a pay driver, and swiftly dismissed the idea of replacing Tag with a pay driver. Herta and Newey want to emulate Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, so are in IndyCar to excel, not just exist. Right now, they see Tagliani as the best way to do that, and the mutual faith and strong work ethic that permeates BHA makes it a happy place to be.