How Important Is A Strong Start?
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is a very important race. It’s important to me because Susan and I will be in attendance at Barber Motorsports Park all weekend. But it’s especially important to the drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series, because it will more than likely set the tone for the rest of the season for many drivers. What a driver does in the first two races generally determines if they are going to have a good or bad season.
Last season, Tony Kanaan was dead last in points after two races. He finished twenty-fifth at St. Petersburg in 2012 and twenty-first at Barber the next week. He spent the entire season playing catch-up from that point forward. Although he never placed as low as those two races for the rest of the season, he worked extra-hard to finish ninth in points and was probably fortunate to finish that high.
Dario Franchitti had won three championships in a row from 2009 to 2011. He was probably the odds-on favor to repeat again last season. However, he got off to a slow start by finishing thirteenth and tenth in the first two races. With the exception of winning the Indianapolis 500, he had a mediocre season and finished a forgettable seventh in points.
Ask any of the drivers that were stuck with a Lotus engine at the beginning of the season last season about how their championship hopes looked after a couple of races with that anchor in their car. The best average finish combining the two races among Lotus drivers was 14.5 by Oriol Servià, by placing sixteenth and thirteenth respectively. Sébastien Bourdais actually earned a ninth place finish at Barber, but he also finished twenty-first at St. Petersburg. Even after most Lotus drivers jettisoned the Lotus after four races, the highest any former-Lotus driver finished in the final standings was Servià, who finished thirteenth. Do you think he may have had a better season with a better start?
It’s a long season and two races make up just slightly more than ten percent of a nineteen race season. No one should get too excited or concerned by their results after two races, should they…or shouldn’t they? Actually, it’s a pretty good barometer.
Last season, Ryan Briscoe finished fifth in the season opener. One would think he was headed for a strong season after the first race. But he finished fourteenth at Barber. Briscoe ended up having a somewhat disappointing season and is currently out of work. Graham Rahal had a twelfth place finish in the season opener, but rebounded to finish fourth at Barber. That averages out to eighth place between the two races. He finished the season tenth in points.
Looking over the final Top Five in points for the 2012 season reveals just how indicative the first two races are of how a season will go. After two races among what ended up being the season’s Top Five, there were six podium finishes in those first two races. The season champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay, probably bucked the trend more than anyone when he finished third at St. Petersburg and twelfth at Barber. Runner-up Will Power finished seventh and first, respectively, at the two events. The third place driver in the standings finished second at the first two races, while fourth-place finisher Helio Castroneves had a win and a third in that span. Rookie-of-the-Year Simon Pagenaud showed what we were to expect out of him by finishing fifth and sixth in the first two races. He finished fifth in the standings.
Looking at the same two-race span in 2011 is more of the same, as the final Top Five had six podium finishes in the opening two races. The only bad finish among the 2011 Top Five was when Scott Dixon finished sixteenth in the opener at St. Petersburg, but rebounded to finish second at Barber. He still had to close out that season with six podium finishes (including two wins) in the final eight races to finish third in the final standings. Had he had a podium finish at St. Petersburg, he could have at least battled Will Power for second in the championship.
This season, many pre-season championship contenders left St. Petersburg with a sour taste in their mouth as they were looking up at many others ahead of them in the standings. Last year, Dario Franchitti never recovered from a mediocre start and had a poor season. Heading into the second race at Barber, he has a lot of ground to make up after finishing dead last at St. Petersburg and collecting a record-low five points after the series revamped the points payout structure this offseason. I don’t want to say his championship hopes are gone, but he certainly created an uphill struggle for himself by getting careless while leaving the pits so quickly on cold tires. Fortunately for him, there are four more races than last season for him to try and make up some ground.
Conversely, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti can vastly improve their chances of having strong seasons by having a good finish at Barber. Hinchcliffe finished sixth there last year after finishing twenty-fourth in his IndyCar debut in 2011. Marco has done relatively well at Barber over the short history at that event. He has a fifth, fourth and eleventh place finish there. Helio Castroneves finished second at St. Petersburg a week and a half ago. He too, has a good track record at Barber. His three-race stretch there produced finishes of first, seventh and third. Another podium finish at Barber could send him on his way to a great season.
Aside from Franchitti, drivers with high expectations that need to leave Barber Motorspsorts Park with a strong finish in order to get things back on track include Graham Rahal, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Oriol Servià. Of that bunch, Rahal had the best finish at St. Petersburg – thirteenth. The rest had finishes of sixteenth or lower. If history is any indication – another finish like any of those drivers had at St. Petersburg could create a hole that they won’t be able to dig themselves out of. Consequently, it could also produce a very interesting season.
Please Note: As usual, Susan and I will be travelling to Barber Motorsports Park on Friday morning and staying through the entire race weekend. There will be the obligatory Barber Preview here first thing Friday morning, but once we get there we will have many updates here with pictures and possibly videos throughout the weekend. Please check back here throughout the entire race weekend. – GP