My preseason look at the drivers of the IndyCar season continues.
Takuma Sato (No. 14): No doubt the pairing of Taku and AJ Foyt is one of the more intriguing story lines early in the season. In a way, Sato had a big breakthrough last year as he made his way to the front in several races, and was one steel kahunas move away from winning the Indy 500. But at the same time, he destroyed an awful lot of equipment, which he is wont to do. Bobby Rahal was able to reel Sato in last year, can AJ finish the job? This could be a solid pairing if that happens.
Graham Rahal (No. 15): This year will represent a season of change for Graham as he moves to his father's team at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing from Ganassi B, and swaps the No. 15 with his old 38. The two Rahals never formed a partnership previously, as Graham decided he wanted to establish his career on his own terms. He's done that, and is now comfortable with being a member of the family business. I never thought he (or Charlie Kimball for that matter) got a fair shake with Ganassi B and now that he is the lead driver on a team he is primed to have the breakout season most of us have been expecting from him. Hard to believe he is still just 24.
James Jakes (No. 16): Jakes takes his considerable family fortune to Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing this year in a move that surprised many, including me. He was second to last in points among drivers who competed in every race last year (ahead of Simona de Silvestro, but at least she had an excuse) and has finished P22 in points in both of his IndyCar seasons. Expect more of the same this year.
Mike Conway (No. 17): Depending on your perspective, Conway did the admirable thing or the cowardly thing when he walked away from his AJ Foyt ride just before Fontana last season, saying he just no longer wanted to compete on ovals. I like Mike, so I'm going with the former here, and back in September I predicted that he'd probably be able to find someone who could fit him into a twistie package because he is so good at them. RLL did just that, and Conway will be in the field at least at Long Beach, where he won driving for Andretti Autosport in 2011.
Ana Beatriz (No. 18): In what many would call a last-minute move -- but one that is actually ahead of schedule since Dale Coyne is involved -- Bia gets the opportunity to return to the IndyCar series after starting 22 races over the previous three seasons. There is talk that she will at some point or another share the ride with Stefan Wilson, who also tested the car at Barber last week, but for now it is her seat for St. Pete, Sao Paulo and the ovals, and she looks to improve on her 14th-place finish at St. Pete two years ago.
Justin Wilson (No. 19): Looking back at Justin's 2012, I have a hard time believing that he finished P15 in the standings. From the eye test, it just looked better than that, especially on ovals, where he took a big step forward, running up front at Indy before finishing P7, winning at Texas and qualifying second at Milwaukee. Still, his team chased a lot of mechanical issues all season long, and therein lies the problem. From 2009-11 he finished P11, P9 and P11 in the standings, which is more like it. Anything outside of the Top 10 in points should be a disappointment to this crew.
Ed Carpenter (No. 20): It's crazy to think for as good as Ed is on ovals (and he is very good), he's just as terrible on the twisties. I think if his Fuzzy's Vodka team put a little more effort into the road/street side of the program he would be much improved, but they are an oval team and don't make any apologies about that. Nor should they. If you want a solid lock for 2013, you can give a win to Ed in one of the Triple Crown races (Indy, Pocono or Fontana), because those three races will be very near and dear to his heart.
Oriol Servia (No. 22): I don't know what it is that makes me think this guy is so awesome (maybe it is the way he trills his "r's" or something) but I do. Servia is a lot of fun to watch because when he has a hooked up race car he makes it go. I'm sure it's a point of pride that at one point in the season the Spaniard had passed more cars than anyone in the series, but at the same time that was a necessity, the result of some really poor qualifying efforts. With the competition so tight from top to bottom, you really need a lot of luck if you are starting mid-pack, especially at a road or street course. They need to be better on Fridays and Saturdays this season.
Marco Andretti (No. 25): Have some off-season attitude adjustments (not to mention a car number change) going to cure what ills the third-generation driver? That remains to be seen, but last year was just putrid for Marco, and a huge step back in his career. Three Top 10s (and the pole at Fontana) and a great run at Indy until a late race crash was all he had to show for 2012, which doesn't get it done. Many are picking him as a favorite to win Indy, and if the numbers follow suit, it could happen. His previous two horrible finishes at Indy (P24 in 2007 and P30 in 2009) were followed by podiums the next season. He finished P24 last May, could another bounce back be coming?
James Hinchcliffe (No. 27): Through Milwaukee last year, Hinch was on fire, picking up a podium at Long Beach, a front row start at Indy and a podium at Milwaukee, to go along with seven finishes of P6 or better in eight races. But a crash at Iowa sent him into a tailspin from which he was unable to recover, finishing P12 or worse in six of the last seven events. If the Barber test is any indication, Hinch wasn't any worse for the wear as he battled for the top spot on the pylon in each session. Like JR Hildebrand, Hinch is relatively inexperienced with just 31 IndyCar starts, but given his talent and the resources at his disposal, he will rise pretty quickly. Don't be surprised to see him break into the win column this season, and a Top 5 in points isn't out of the question.
Tristan Vautier (No. 55): What's with this huge jump in car numbers? Oh well, the double nickel will be on the side of the 23-year-old Frenchman's ride this year, and look for him to easily roll to Rookie of the Year honors. OK, so he's the only driver in the running for the award, but given his pedigree it's a safe bet he would have been regardless of the size of the field. Back-to-back titles in Star Mazada (2011) and Indy Lights (2012) convinced Sam Schmidt to give him a shot at the big leagues this season. The key word for this young driver: patience. Not just from his perspective, but ours too. He will make his share of mistakes, but improvement should follow.
Josef Newgarden (No. 67): A year ago, much of what was written above could have been written about Newgarden. Young and with a ton of talent, Josef took his lumps last year as he figured out what racing at this level is all about. Year 2 should be much better, if he can begin finishing races and consistently running in the Top 10, you can call it a success. You can say the same for many of the young drivers in this series, but once it clicks, watch out. His Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team has really stepped up its game, and resources, the last couple of seasons, so everything is in place for young Newgarden to take a big jump up the pylon.
Simon Pagenaud (No. 77): Simon was a nice surprise in a lot of ways last year. Despite being disadvantaged as a single-car entry, Pagenaud rolled to a P5 finish in points, posting three podiums and showing he was a quick study on ovals, a discipline on which he had never raced prior to arriving at Indy last year. He is on EVERYONE'S list to win a race this year (including mine), and with a teammate in Vautier he has another resource to gather information, which should only add to his chances. He is by far the best driver who doesn't work for Ganassi, Andretti or Penske.
Simona de Silvestro (No. 78): Time to bring back the Simona! moniker when talking about de Silvestro, who has been a complete professional in dealing with the heaps of crap that have been thrown her way the last couple of years. Now with a teammate in Tony Kanaan for the first time and a Chevy engine compliments of her new team in KV Racing, it's Simona's opportunity to show she is capable of doing what we think she can. But on the flip side, now it's time for her to show what she can do...and the pressure that comes with that. Two years ago she started 2011 with a P4 at St. Pete and a P9 at Barber, then saw her career stall after a couple of accidents later that year and then the (s)Lotus engine that made last year pretty much a waste. Can she get back to what we saw at the start of 2011? She has what she needs at her disposal now.
Charlie Kimball (No. 83): Kimball was another driver that had a roller coaster year in 2012. Through Belle Isle, Kimball had ridden to four finishes of P8 or better, then drove the wheels off of the car to pick up his first career podium in the form of a P2 at Toronto. In between were seven finishes of 18th or worse. Kimball is very fortunate to have a supportive sponsor in Novo Nordisk, but as I mentioned about Graham Rahal, doesn't seem to get as much help with Ganassi B as he should. I don't think Kimball is ever going to be a superstar by any means, but he has the stuff to be a solid driver in the right situation. Even where he is now, he should finish better than his P19 finish in the standings from a year ago.
Alex Tagliani (No. 98): One of the other benefits of writing this in car number order is that I get to end with Tags, who is probably just a step or two below Tony Kanaan in pure on (and off) track entertainment, and drives from one of the teams that best engages social media in the series. So if from all of that you feel like you are friends with Alex despite never meeting him, don't fret...I do too. Anyway, like all teams saddled with the Lotus last year, he got off to a dreadful start that was so bad that his Bryan Herta Autosport team didn't even make the trip to Brazil for the Sao Paulo race. But once with the Chevy, their season took off and he became a Top 10 machine, posting eight of them through the final 10 races. He is one of those streaky drivers that can put together a couple of poles and be a threat to win a race at any time. And believe it or not, this weekend will represent the start of his 14th year in American open wheel racing.
OK, so my summary of the drivers is in the book. What's next? Predictions of course! Check back here soon for my thoughts as to how the season is going to go down.