How Competitive Will It Be In 2010?
Although the 2009 IndyCar season was admittedly non-competitive, unless you were one of the cars of Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s not time to predict the same doldrums just yet for next season. Had it not been for Justin Wilson giving Dale Coyne his first career victory as an owner, it would have been a Penske-Ganassi sweep of all the races in 2009. But don’t forget, It was just this time one year ago that we were discussing how competitive things looked having just finished a 2008 season that featured eighteen races and produced nine different winners among six different teams. NASCAR could only dream of such parity.
I’ve grown tired of the overused phrase “perfect storm” but in this case it may actually be appropriate. So many different factors came together to produce competition between two teams. At this point last year, it would have been hard to predict that three of those six winning teams, Rahal-Letterman, KV Racing Technologies and Newman/Haas/Lanigan, would either fold or change driver lineups; while a fourth, Andretti-Green Racing, would backslide into mediocrity. In the meantime, the Penske and Ganassi shops both bolstered their driver lineups. Ganassi jettisoned Dan Wheldon in favor of eventual season champion Dario Franchitti, while Roger Penske covered his bases by hiring Will Power to fill in for Helio Castroneves during Helio’s tax-evasion trial. When Helio returned, Power was retained on a part-time basis and helped to take points away from Dixon and Franchitti.
The economy took its toll on three of last year’s winning teams. Rahal-Letterman completed its fall from grace by failing to field a team this past season. It has been a long fall from its stellar 2004 season which saw Buddy Rice win the Indianapolis 500 along with two more races, as he battled down to the wire in the championship where he ultimately finished third. The team went winless in 2005, but still had some decent moments as Danica Patrick turned heads in her rookie season and Vitor Meira out-drove his two more famous teammates and finished seventh in the championship.
The following year saw new team member Paul Dana lose his life in practice for the first race, which was followed by the mid-season announcement that Danica was defecting to AGR at season’s end. Buddy Rice was told he was free to seek other opportunities for 2007. For the next two years, Rahal-Letterman was down to a struggling one-car team. In 2009, the fall was complete when they failed to find adequate sponsorship to field a car full-time. They were reduced to a one-off effort at Indy. Although there are reports that they are actively trying to return in 2010, I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve seen no evidence that Bobby Rahal has the ability to land a big-time sponsor even in flush economic times.
KV Racing Technologies had two solid drivers in Will Power and Oriol Servia for 2008. Power carried the Aussie Vineyards sponsorship from his native Australia, while Servia’s car generally carried little or no sponsorship although it had one of the best looking paint schemes on the grid. When Aussie Vineyards didn’t return for 2009, Power was unemployed and Servia was replaced by second-year driver Mario Moraes, who brought some sponsorship money. They were down to a one-car team that had an inexperienced young driver who had no veteran teammate to learn from. Although Moraes had veteran Paul Tracy as a teammate for a few races, he was pretty much on his own. All things considered, he did well to finish fourteenth – especially considering he missed the race at Mid-Ohio following the death of his father.
It was pretty much the story at Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Last year, Graham Rahal turned the IndyCar world on its head by winning in his first IRL race ever. He became the youngest winner in the brief history of the IRL However; reality crept in as the young Rahal struggled in the latter part of the season. Justin Wilson was his teammate for 2008, but again lack of sponsorship made Wilson the odd man out for 2009 as he was forced to sign with Dale Coyne at the eleventh hour. Robert Doornbos brought family money and a poor attitude to Newman/Haas/Lanigan. It was apparent early on that Rahal and Doornbos did not get along and would not help each other. After twelve races, Doornbos made the curious move to HVM Racing and was replaced by Oriol Servia. He and Rahal seemed to work well together. Rahal shows a load of talent and potential but could benefit greatly from having a seasoned teammate like Servia to help bring him along.
For those that thought that the 2009 season was lacking in competition, you don’t have to look too far back to find an even more uncompetitive year in the 1994 CART season. Of the sixteen races that season, Marlboro Team Penske won twelve, as Al Unser, Jr. wrapped up the championship at Road America with two races to go. The Indianapolis 500 was a yawner that year also as Unser and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi completely dominated with the pushrod Mercedes engine that was used just once. The only other visual image coming from that race was the comic relief provided by Dennis Vitolo, who inexplicably landed on top of Nigel Mansell’s Lola on the pit entrance road during a yellow. Team Penske finished the 1994 season 1-2-3 in the standings.
The 1995 CART season that followed the boring campaign from the previous year was extremely competitive. There were five different winners in the first five races from four different teams. Ultimately, there would be nine different winners that season among seven different teams across the seventeen-race season as Jacques Villeneuve took the title for Forsythe-Green Racing.
At the end of 1994, one of the many issues that occupied the offseason was the total domination by Marlboro Team Penske and how it would ruin the sport. The following season offered up one of the most competitive seasons in Indy car history. Am I predicting a repeat of history for 2010? No, because I have no crystal ball. The battle next season may be between the same two teams. But examining the transition from 1994 to 1995 and from 2008 into 2009, history has taught us that you cannot necessarily predict a season based solely on what happened the previous season. But if 2010 is a repeat of this past season, then all it teaches us is that history does not always repeat itself.