Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spring Training Has Few Surprises

Looking at the combined results from IndyCar spring training this week, it shook out pretty much the way I expected it. Penske and Ganassi were fast, Andretti Autosport wasn't far behind, and a few guys who know how to hustle a car around a road course filled in the blanks.

I think many people took the results as a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" scenario where the top teams were going to dominate with the DW12 in the manner they did with the old Dallara.

Well, of course they would. Why would we expect any different?

I'm not going to get into money, sponsorship or resources, I'm just going to look at this in another way.

Talent.

Growing up I was a big fan of the cartoon Speed Racer. After school I would run home and catch as many episodes as I could. There is one scene where he is trying to run down another car and Trixie (I believe) says: "Speed, he just has a faster car!"

To which he replies: "He might have a faster car, but I am a better driver".

In racing there has always been a chicken vs. egg argument...does the driver make the car or does the car make the driver? In my mind it's both. A good car with an average driver is one thing, a good car with an above-average driver is another. Sure, Penske and Ganassi drivers win because they have the best of everything, but that doesn't always guarantee success. There have been a handful of drivers for both teams that have struggled during their time of employment. They win because they have all of that stuff and are also some of the best drivers in the series.

Take a look at the top-5 in speeds at Sebring and their resumes:

1) Scott Dixon. 24 wins. 2008 Indy 500 champion. Two-time IndyCar champion, top three in points six times.
2) Dario Franchitti. 29 CART/IndyCar wins. 2007 and 2010 Indy 500 champion. Four time IndyCar champion.
3) Helio Castroneves. 25 CART/IndyCar wins, 2001-02, 2009 Indy 500 champion. Between CART and IndyCar won races in 11 straight seasons.
4) Rubens Barrichello. Record 322 F1 starts. 11 F1 wins. 60-plus podiums. Top three in points four times.
5) Will Power. 15 Champ Car/IndyCar wins. Two runner-up finishes in points. Arguably one of the finest road course racers in the world.

That's your top five, folks. A combination of talent, skill and resources, and the confidence that comes with having all of those. And if you took a poll among the drivers who they thought had the most technical skill of any driver in the series, your top five wouldn't look much different than this.

At this level, sheer technical skill is what separates the drivers in many instances. Since 2000, the Indy 500 has been won by the following drivers:

Juan Pablo Montoya 2000
Helio Castroneves: 2000-01, 2009
Gil De Ferran: 2003
Buddy Rice: 2004
Dan Wheldon: 2005, 2011
Sam Hornish: 2006
Dario Franchitti: 2007, 2010
Scott Dixon: 2008

Notice something among all of those drivers? All of them also won championships, save for Castroneves, whose body of work speaks for itself. Rice is the outlier here, but otherwise they are all tough, experienced, technically sound drivers.

Rick Mears won Indy four times of course, but is it because he had the best equipment driving for Penske, or because he is one of the masters of the Speedway. On the surface you can say he had great cars, which he did. But go to Youtube and watch a video where he drives Jimmie Johnson around the track in a Corvette and listen to how he describes his approach over virtually the entire 2 1/2 miles of the race course. This while cruising around at about 95 mph. It is the closest thing you will get to hearing a prophet speak.

Like most people, I hoped the new equipment, especially the idea that at least for now the engines may provide some sort of attrition, would change things, that other drivers and teams would have a chance to win races and championships. I still believe that might happen.

But before they start taking the poles, wins and championships we all wish would go to someone else this year, let's admire them for the fact that as drivers they are just better than everyone else. That doesn't disrespect any of the other drivers in the series, as I think guys like Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson (especially on twisties) are just a notch below, and younger drivers like Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe are going to take their places someday.

When I think of these guys, I think of the famous line about the football coach Bear Bryant: He can take his and beat yours, and he can take yours and beat his. That's what these guys represent. Could Franchitti jump into the car of a backmarker team and make it a winner? Doubtful, but I would bet he would drive it better than the current pilot does.

The equipment is good, no doubt. But if that was all it is, why isn't Ryan Briscoe ever part of this conversation? Briscoe is an above-average driver, but despite having similar resources has never put up the kind of numbers his contemporaries have.

When you look at the rosters of the drivers the superteams have employed, they represent some of the best drivers of the generation, guys who not only won for Penske and Ganassi, but other teams as well. They are the best of the best, and that is why they have the success they do. They are just better drivers.

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