Well, fellow IndyCar fans, the season is finally here. It's race week! Time to turn the page and start focusing on what is to come. It should be a good one, but we should expect that because over the last couple of years the competition level has begun ramping itself up, and with more knowledge and experience with the DW12 in their back pockets, the teams and drivers should put on some good shows this year.
This 2013 edition of the IndyCar schedule features 19 races on 16 race weekends -- with doubleheaders going down at Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston -- in three countries and two continents. The drivers will run 10 races on street circuits, six on ovals and three on natural road courses.
Along with the doubleheaders, new to the series will be standing starts for one race on each twinbill location, the reincarnation of the Triple Crown, which gives $1 million to the driver that wins Indy, Pocono and Fontana ($250K to win two of the three) and a new scoring system that graduates the points down from 18th-place on back instead of awarding those drivers the same points, which I think could make a difference come October.
So what is in store? It's always anyone's guess as the title chase has come down to the final race over each of the last several seasons. I mean, a year ago, did anyone think Ryan Hunter-Reay had a shot at the title? Me either, but guess who is carrying the No. 1 on his car?
I'm going to go through the entire roster of drivers (and if I miss one help me out) over the next few days, and throw out a few bits about all of them. In the sense of fairness, I will run through the field by order of car number.
Ryan Hunter-Reay (Car No. 1): OK, there is no sense of fairness. I'm going by car number order so I can start with RHR, our defending champion, and also because he did the way cool, old school thing of putting numero uno on his car this season. I think big things have always been predicted of RHR, but he struggled for so long with funding and other issues and never got a chance to show what he could really do. Did the four wins and a title get your attention? Actually, it goes even further back than that as he's been one of the best in the series since the middle of the 2011 season. Now comes the hard part: backing it up. Still, he's with an elite team with a fellow title contender in James Hinchcliffe as a teammate to push him. This just might be the start.
AJ Allmendinger (No. 2): So far, Allmendinger will only be in a Penske machine for two races: Barber and Indy, but it sounds like they are trying to get him more. He didn't blow anyone away during the Barber test, finishing in the middle of the pack, so if he can get more races under his belt we could get a better idea of whether or not his return to open wheels will be a successful one.
Helio Castroneves (No. 3): A year ago at this time, I had pretty much written off Helio after he often looked lost while spending the first third of the 2011 season hitting everything in sight before ultimately finishing 11th in the standings. He quickly proved me (and many others) wrong by winning the opener at St. Pete and finishing third at Barber on his way to a fourth-place showing in points. I'll never make that mistake again! He was scary consistent last year, with nine finishes of sixth or better, including three podiums. Lesson learned...write Helio off at your own peril!
JR Hildebrand (No. 4): Hildebrand had one of those up and down years that eventually led to finishing 11th in points in 2012. Still, it was three spots better than 2011 and he set a career-best for Top 10 finishes with six. It looked like he was going to finish last year on a high note as he led 52 laps and dominated the first quarter of the race at Fontana, then brushed the wall and finished two laps down. He is slowly improving and just needs more time. Hildebrand has run just 34 IndyCar races, which in the current series puts him at a huge experience disadvantage compared to many in the field. He's only 25 and appears to have a solid commitment to his future from Panther Racing. Time is on his side.
EJ Viso (No. 5): I wish Viso had the same level of talent as my favorite racer to carry that number (Speed Racer of course, don't laugh, it was a big part of my childhood for a while) but I guess we shall see how he fares racing for Andretti Autosport in 2013. That all depends on whether you view EJ Viso as someone who is ready to break out or a guy whose career (and ride) are propped up by the Venezuelan government. I'm somewhere in between...given the right situation Viso could improve, we'll just see if this is the right situation.
Sebastian Saavedra (No. 6): After struggling at the IndyCar level in 2011, Saavedra dropped back down to Indy Lights last year and captured four podiums -- including a win at Barber -- on his way to finishing fourth in the points. The good news is that earned him a promotion to Dragon Racing and a ride this year. The bad news is that a big cloud hangs over that team now given the way things were handled for the previous driver of the No. 6, Katherine Legge. It's not Saavedra's fault, he is just the driver, and if he can carry the mojo up from his run in Lights last year he might have a decent season.
Sebastien Bourdais (No. 7): After being an absolute badass in Champ Car, winning 31 races and four consecutive titles, Bourdais has become sort of an enigma in IndyCar, as many people are waiting for him to return to that form again. He's shown flashes of doing exactly that, but just hasn't had many opportunities as he has only run 21 IndyCar races in the last four years, and the first four of 2012 were with the Lotus engine. Still, a couple of his drives with the Lotus -- especially his ninth-place finish at Barber last year -- are the stuff of legend and showed that he still has plenty in the tank. He just needs more chances, which he will get this year, and a little bit of luck, which was pretty non-existent in 2012.
Rubens Barrichello (No. 8): OK, I know Rubens will not be back this season after choosing to run stock cars in his native Brazil. However, I am putting him in this space just for the express purpose of saying that his not running IndyCar this year is an absolute travesty, and should've been fixed long ago. Get him in a car for Indy...please!
Scott Dixon (No. 9): What can you say about this guy. He's an absolute machine. Let's just make it easy and pencil him in for a couple of wins and at worst a Top 3 finish in the points standings. It's what this guy does. What does that mean? Bad things for the rest of IndyCar.2013 marks his 11th year in the series, and in seven of the previous 10 he has finished the season in the top three. I don't see that changing anytime soon. One of the most underrated drivers in history, it won't be until about 10 years after he retires will most people figure out how good he was.
Dario Franchitti (No. 10): When I look at Dario's potential for 2013, I see a bit of a mixed bag. Last year he won Indy then came back with poles at Milwaukee and Iowa before finishing strong with a second at Fontana. In between was a lot of muddling and a tough go at adapting to the DW12. How high is the bar for this guy? A 7th-place finish in points makes people wonder if we are seeing the beginning of the end of his career. Knowing what we now know about his personal life, you have to wonder if that had something to do with his off year. Having been through it myself, I'd have to say yes, because stuff like that doesn't unravel overnight. The guy is 16 months removed from his last championship, there is no way anyone loses it that quickly. Like Helio in 2012, I see a big bounce back for Dario this year.
Tony Kanaan (No. 11): Like TK usually does, he was all over the map last year, posting three podiums (including a third at Indy where he made the restart of the Millennium) and five finishes of 18th or worse. His biggest problem last year was in qualifying, as he had some dreadful starting positions in which he was unable to recover. Now running with a teammate in Simona de Silvestro, the hope here is that two people sharing info will help both of them start closer to the front, because once he got there, as always he ran well. Sunday's race will be the 197th consecutive open wheel start of TK's career, a pretty massive accomplishment.
Will Power (No. 12): We will close Part 1 with Willy P, who has all of the sudden become the best driver in the world to not have a championship. Seriously! In 2012, Power went into the final race of the year in the title hunt (Playoffs!?! We don't need no stinking playoffs!!!) for the third straight season. And for the third straight season, he fell short after hitting the turn 2 wall at Fontana right in front of fellow contender Hunter-Reay. What is it going to take for WP to capture the championship in 2013? It's pretty simple: a better performance on ovals. Power scored 379 points on twisties, which was 79 more than RHR, but then posted just 86 on the ovals, a smelly19th-best in the series. As a comparison, James Jakes scored as many points on ovals than Power did last year. Some people never adapt to ovals (I'm not sure if Bourdais will, either) and Power might be one of them. But until he can at least figure out how to keep his car in one piece and just roll to consistent Top 10 finishes, he may not ever win a title. Or maybe that is the equalizer to the rest of the field, because as good as he is on twisties, if he ever even remotely figures out ovals, he runs away with it.
Look for Part 2 later this week. We're getting closer...