Grading The 2010 IndyCar Season
We are now a little more than ten days removed from the end of the IZOD IndyCar Series season-ending race where, for the second year in a row, Dario Franchitti snatched the points lead away at just the right time of year and stashed away another championship. Now that we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on the entire season, I thought I would take the very unoriginal approach and issue my grade to all of the teams that participated in most of the races of the season. My grading system is based more on expectations going into the season, so things may look a little skewed compared to the many other end of season report cards.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing (A+): At first I thought an A+ might be too generous. After all, they were the defending champions heading into the season; so much was expected of them. The team started out a bit slow and Scott Dixon seemed to be in the doldrums throughout most of the season. He did win two races and finished third in points, but he never threatened to win the championship.
Dario Franchitti, on the other hand, was consistently in the mix and poured it on at the end of the season when it really mattered. Throw in the fact that he completely dominated at Indianapolis on his way to his second 500 victory, and it’s obvious his team was very focused and not complacent as some defending champions become. Plus, when you consider that Ganassi also won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 – it was an unbelievable year for Chip Ganassi.
Team Penske (A-): It’s hard to imagine assigning a minus grade to a team that won nine out of seventeen races, but by Penske standards – this season was a disappointment. Helio Castroneves won three races, but two were at the end of the season when he was in the process of being mathematically eliminated. He was also not much of a factor at Indianapolis where many, including myself, projected him to win his fourth Indy 500. Last season, Helio was given a pass as he was coming off an emotionally draining tax-evasion trial which caused him to miss the first race of the season. This year, however, there were no such distractions and more was expected of him than another fourth-place finish in points.
Ryan Briscoe had an even worse season in 2010. After being in the mix in 2009 and actually leading the points battle heading into the last race of last season, Briscoe crashed while leading late in the season-opener at Brazil and his season just never got back on track. His lone win came at Texas, but there weren’t many other bright spots for Ryan Briscoe. Although it looks like he will be back with the team next season, nothing has been signed yet.
The real bright spot for Penske was Will Power, who dominated on the road and street courses on his way to five wins and eight poles. But even that bright spot had a shadow cast over it, as Power failed to match Franchitti’s charge on the ovals and his fifty-nine point lead became a five point deficit by the end of the season.
Panther Racing (B): Although they are still behind on their road course program, Panther Racing acquitted itself nicely this past season. Other than the race at Sonoma when Dan Wheldon landed on his helmet on the opening lap, the team never finished worse than twentieth between Wheldon and Ed Carpenter, who ran a limited schedule – while racking up nine top-ten finishes. They were on top of their game in the last few oval races of the season, and also finished second at Indianapolis for the third year in a row.
Their future is wrapped in uncertainty, however. No one knows if Wheldon will be back. It is also not clear if they will run a second car. If they do, will it be a full-time effort? Will they split a second car between Ed Carpenter on the ovals and a road course specialist? Although there are many unanswered questions at Panther, they earned their way into a B grade with their strong finish in the last few races.
Andretti Autosport (B-): This is a hard team to grade because they were coming off of a horrendous 2009 season where they went winless for the first time since Michael Andretti bought into the team in 2003. Their driver lineup improved by adding Ryan Hunter-Reay in place of the departed Hideki Mutoh, and they won two races. Hunter-Reay won at Long Beach and Tony Kanaan won at Iowa, breaking a two-year stranglehold on the ovals by Penske and Ganassi. As was succinctly pointed out to me last week, they placed all four of their drivers into the top ten; so on paper, anyway, they had a good season.
But Danica Patrick had some disastrous runs where she was terribly uncompetitive and Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti were way too inconsistent for a team that has the resources that AA does. Those resources may be short lived, though. Two of their four cars are now unsponsored and uncertainty looms at Andretti Autosport.
A.J. Foyt Racing (C+): Some may scoff at this grade and attribute it to me being a Foyt fan; but not much was expected of this team heading into the season, and they quietly put together a pretty solid year. Vitor Meira began the season with a strong third-place finish at Brazil and had six top-ten finishes on their way to a twelfth-place finish in points. Is that spectacular? No, but for a low budget team that has had some lean years recently, that’s certainly better than most were expecting.
HVM Racing (C): Although their final results didn’t always indicate progress, this small and under-funded team did more with less than any team in the paddock. Normally, a low budget, one-car team with a rookie driver is a recipe for disaster. But Simona de Silvestro outperformed anyone’s expectations. Even after their only new Dallara had burned up at Texas, they were able to squeeze enough speed out of the older and heavier tub they had left to give her some great runs. They have already announced intentions to stay together for next year, assuming proper funding can be put in place.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (C-): Contrary to Foyt’s team, much was expected from Dreyer & Reinbold this season. They had spent money to upgrade their engineering staff, they had second-year driver Mike Conway returning in one car and they swapped a split program that featured drivers Milka Duno and Tomas Scheckter in another car for race winner Justin Wilson.
Conway crashed in the closing laps of the Indianapolis 500 and ended his season. The No.24 car then became an endless parade of has-beens (Paul Tracy and Tomas Scheckter), wannabees (Ana Beatriz and J.R. Hildebrand) and name drivers (Graham Rahal). No one spent any amount of time in the car to benefit the team by providing consistent feedback. In the other car, Justin Wilson had some decent runs but faded to eleventh in points in the final stretch on the ovals.
Conquest Racing (D+): I’m not an Eric Bachelart fan, but in spite of himself – he made a good hire when he signed Bertrand Baguette to drive the second Conquest car beginning at Barber. Although he cracked the top-ten only once, he had some spirited drives which caught the eyes of several people in the paddock. He deserves a better team next year. The other car was driven by Mario Romancini in eleven very forgettable starts, before running out of funding. Romancini did finish a surprising thirteenth at Indianapolis.
Newman/Haas (D): My, how the mighty have fallen. This once-proud team is just a shadow of its former self. Paul Newman passed away after the 2008 season and Carl Haas is having health issues of his own. Mike Lanigan’s name disappeared from the moniker at the halfway point in the season and the team went from running Graham Rahal and Robert Doornbos/Oriole Servia in 2009 to a single-car effort with Hideki Mutoh and his Formula Dream money from Honda this season. They finished eighteenth in points and never finished higher than twelfth in a race all season long.
Dale Coyne Racing (D-): This was a mixed bag to evaluate. On one hand, this was a team coming off of a season where they had won their first race in twenty-five years of competition. They had also signed a promising driver in Alex Lloyd, who did manage to win the Rookie of the Year award. On the other hand, they had Milka Duno who seemed to regress as the season progressed. They also had twenty-six years of being Dale Coyne Racing working against them.
KV Racing Technology (F): Although there was some uncertainty in their driver lineup leading up to the season opener in Brazil, much was expected of this team. They had hired engineer Bill Pappas along with former Formula One driver Takuma Sato. They had also added EJ Viso who had shown signs of promise while languishing for two years at HVM Racing. At the last hour, they re-signed Mario Moraes to carry on the momentum he built up with the team in the second half of the 2009 season.
It was a disaster. There was more carnage among the three cars than I have ever seen in all the years I’ve followed this sport. Adding insult to injury, they failed to qualify Paul Tracy for the Indianapolis 500. KV took several steps back in 2010.
Sarah Fisher Racing (F): It pains me to give this fledgling team a failing grade, but it is what they deserve. Sarah had done everything right in growing this team from its infancy in a short time. Maybe they bit off more than they could chew by trying to expand to a two car team this year. Whatever the case, they clearly went backwards in 2010 and failed to qualify Jay Howard for Indy in the second car. There are whispers that Sarah may be stepping out of the car and will focus on being a car-owner only, with a decent driver – and possibly racing only at Indianapolis. As much as I like Sarah, this may be her best bet.
de Ferran-Dragon (F): For a team that showed so much promise when they debuted at Indianapolis in 2007, they’ve never lived up to the hype after that first year. Ryan Briscoe drove for them when it was essentially a satellite team of Team Penske. Now, Jay Penske, Steve Luczo and Gil de Ferran have no connection with Jay’s father’s team, which might explain their lack of results. Still, there are a lot of racing smarts associated with this team. Rafa Matos has underperformed as the driver. Whether it is his fault or not – he may end up being the scapegoat before next season. In my eyes, they were the most disappointing team for 2010.
I’m sure not everyone agrees with my assessment of the performances of all the teams this season, but that’s what’s great about the off-season – there’s plenty of time to debate meaningless topics like this.