Decision Time At Panther Racing
Actually, the title of this post is a little misleading. From what I understand, the powers-that-be at Panther Racing (mainly John Barnes) have already made their decision as to who will drive the No. 4 National Guard car for 2014. They just haven’t told us who it is.
The general consensus from Curt Cavin and others is that it’s Ryan Briscoe. My question is; if that’s the case – then why don’t they announce it? I know that Briscoe had a conflict for this past weekend in Baltimore with his ALMS commitment to his Level 5 Motorsports team; so Panther went with Oriol Servià instead. Perhaps they did it out of respect for Servià. The fact that Briscoe tested the road course on Wednesday in the National Guard car along with Graham Rahal in his RLLR entry tells me that it will be Briscoe getting the nod with Panther for next season.
When JR Hildebrand was let go after his embarrassing Lap Three exit from this year’s Indianapolis 500, John Barnes proclaimed that the remainder of the 2013 season would serve as an audition between several drivers for the Panther ride for the 2014 season. Barnes’s definition of “several” apparently means two, as that is the total number of drivers that were scheduled to run the remaining races for Panther. I say scheduled, because Briscoe broke his wrist in the first race of the double-header at Toronto. Carlos Muñoz was recruited onsite to replace Briscoe for the second race on Sunday.
Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servià are the only drivers that Panther took a look at. Either one would be a worthy choice, but it would be a tough call to make. Assuming that the experts are right and the ride goes to Briscoe, is that the best choice?
A head to head comparison is unfair. Ryan Briscoe spent the bulk of his open-wheel career with Team Penske and has amassed eight wins since his first season at Penske in 2008. His only winless season at Penske was in 2011. He inherited the ride of Sam Hornish, who just two years earlier had won the Indianapolis 500 and the championship for Team Penske. Prior to that, his only full-time ride was in the third car in a three-car team with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005 as a teammate to Scott Dixon and Darren Manning. In eight Indianapolis 500 starts, Briscoe has one pole and two fifth-place finishes. He also has three finishes of twenty-third or worse.
Oriol Servià took a far bumpier path through his open wheel career. He started in CART in the 2000 season, but didn’t have the luxury of driving top equipment. Instead of spending the majority of his career with teams such as Penske or Ganassi; Servià toiled with such teams as PPI Motorsports, Sigma Autosport, PWR Championship Racing and Dale Coyne in CART/Champ Car. When he finally got a top ride at the expense of an injured Bruno Junqueira at Newman/Haas in 2005 – Servià responded with seven podiums, including a win, in eleven races.
With the unification of the two series in 2008, Servià made the move with KV Racing Technology into the IndyCar Series. Although he and his team had never run the 2003 style Dallara, Servia managed six Top-Five finishes in an eighteen race season to place ninth for the season in points. For his reward, he was overlooked by all teams except for a one-off for Rahal-Letterman at the 2009 Indianapolis 500. Later on that season, he replaced Robert Doornboos at Newman/Haas for a handful of races.
No offers came to the talented Spaniard for 2010 as he sat out the entire season. For 2011, he signed with Newman/Haas again for the full season. This time he would partner with rookie driver James Hinchcliffe. With a rookie for a teammate, and a team that was a shadow of its former self, Servià carried his car to a fourth place finish in points for 2011. He earned five Top-Five finishes, including two second-place efforts and a third. Again, bad luck struck just when Servià should have been rewarded for his results. Newman/Haas closed up shop and Servià had to hit the streets.
This time he landed a full-time ride for the very next season – with the always struggling Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. For the first four races of the 2012 season, Servià dealt with the now-infamous Lotus engine. Prior to the Indianapolis 500, DRR (sort of) merged with Panther Racing in an arrangement I never fully understood. They shared information and the team changed the name to Panther/DRR; but did they really merge? Whatever the case, it put a Chevy engine in the back of Servià’s car and his results improved dramatically. He placed fourth at Indianapolis and under the new arrangement with Panther, Servià closed the year with four Top-Five finishes.
Oriol Servià is one of the grittiest drivers in the paddock. He can make the most out of a bad car than any other current driver in the series. He reminds me of a present-day Gordon Johncock who had a similar trait. Oriol Servià is just more pleasant to deal with.
Panther Racing is one of those frustrating teams to follow. They are not in the top tier with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti – but they have grossly underperformed in recent years, in my opinion. They have not won a race since 2005, when Tomas Scheckter won at Texas. Since Sam Hornish left the team after winning the championship in 2002, the revolving door has spun at Panther.
Names like Mark Taylor, Tomas Schekter Tomàs Enge, Townsend Bell, Vitor Meira, Kosuke Matsura and JR Hildebrand have all tried to resurrect the glory days at Panther with little success. While Panther has gone winless since 2005, unlikely teams like Dale Coyne, Rahal-Letterman, KV Racing Technologies, AJ Foyt Enterprises, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Sarah Fisher Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport have all found victory lane. The only current full-time team in the paddock with a worse record of futility is Dragon Racing, who has failed to ever win a race.
Unfortunately, this day and age of racing puts as much of a premium on a driver’s ability to schmooze with sponsors as it does with a driver’s talent on the track. Panther Racing has a very important sponsor in the National Guard. It is understandable that they would want to keep them happy. I have never been one to moan about the lack of American drivers in the series, but I always found it a little awkward when Vitor Meira or Dan Wheldon were praising the American troops for what they do. This is one seat where I think an American would be more appropriate. But apparently, by narrowing his choices to a Spaniard and an Australian, John Barnes doesn’t see it that way.
Did the ability to relate to the troops enter into the equation? How about the troops being able to pronounce the driver’s name? If so, I think Ryan Briscoe would be justified in getting the nod. No offense to Servià, but Briscoe is a tad bit more personable in those matters. Not that Servià is a sponsor’s nightmare, but he is a bit more reserved than Briscoe when it comes to talking it up.
Another factor on Briscoe’s side may be that Serviá turned thirty-nine in July, while Briscoe will be just thirty-two in a couple of weeks. I tend to put more of a premium on experience over youth, but Serviá is approaching the age where he has a limited shelf-life.
But when it comes to who is the better driver, that’s where it becomes dicey. Driving for top teams with the best equipment, Briscoe has gaudy stats. Having eight wins over five seasons is not going to break any records, but it is certainly eye-catching – much more so than one win in eleven full seasons. But there is so much more to look at than statistics. You look at how much a driver has done with so little. That is an indication of how much heart a driver has. I’m not saying that Briscoe lacks heart, but you would be hard-pressed to find a driver with more heart than Oriol Servià.
So if the rumors are true, then Ryan Briscoe will fill the Panther seat for 2014. Still, I’m wondering – did John Barnes make the best choice?