IndyCars: 2013 Season - Driver Rankings Part 2

In the second of our four-part series, our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon ranks more of the drivers in this year’s field as he counts down to crowning our ‘Driver of the Year’…

29th: A.J. Allmendinger

A.J. Allmendinger A.J. Allmendinger A.J. Allmendinger
Team: Team Penske Chevrolet
Races: 6 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 1 Retirements: 4
Laps Led: 23 Points: 79 Championship: 27th

While it may seem a surprise for a front-running Team Penske entry to be ranked so far down this particular list, the return to open-wheel racing of A.J Allmendinger proved nothing if not extremely disappointing, considering the man’s history in the series, overall racing abilities and marketability.

This is the same man who had smashed through the 2003 Formula Atlantic championship, taking the title with ease and moving into a competitive RuSport ride bringing a wave of expectation. Allmendinger easily delivered on that promise, regularly on the lower two steps of the podium although never breaking through for a win, despite coming close on so many occasions. These years just happened to be when Sebastien Bourdais and Newman Haas were at the absolute peak of their powers, and the only insurmountable obstacle in young AJ’s way.

Come 2006 and signing for the championship-calibre Forsyth Championship Racing four races into the campaign, this was all AJ needed. Five wins that season and again, it was only Bourdais and an ultra-consistent Justin Wilson that held back the diminutive California native from title glory.

With such momentum, it seemed inexplicable why AJ would jump to NASCAR from 2007, but the lure of big money and ego- stroking proved too strong. This was where his star faded, as he finished no better than 15th in the championship over the next five seasons, and eventually fell sharply from grace when he was suspended indefinitely for testing positive to a banned stimulant, after which he successfully underwent the series-operated Road to Recovery program.

Enter Roger Penske, who signed Allmendinger to a partial schedule across both his NASCAR Nationwide Series and IndyCar Series teams. Every interview thereafter showed Allmendinger was extremely grateful for the faith showed in him by Penske.

However, six full years away from open-wheel racing revealed too much rust in his arsenal, as he struggled to get to grips with the DW12, despite a fifth place qualification and seventh place finish at the Indianapolis 500 – by far his best result of the year.

His next outing in the Detroit double-header was utterly disastrous, failing to make it through the opening lap in either race: crashing at the fourth corner in Race 1 and repeating the feat at Turn 2 in the second of the two events.

His last run at Fontana saw him last longer, although he still failed to finish and was classified in 16th place. It’s hardly a surprise that AJ has carried out an about-face, returning to NASCAR next year and leaving a thoroughly underwhelming campaign in the IndyCar Series consigned to the pages of history.

His seat at Penske will be taken over by none other than fellow NASCAR reject Juan Pablo Montoya, who will kick off his 2014 in a blaze of glory and with equally high, if not higher, expectations.

28th: Ana Beatriz

Ana Beatriz Ana Beatriz Ana Beatriz
Team: Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Races: 7 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 0 Retirements: 4
Laps Led: 0 Points: 72 Championship: 29th

For all the promise shown in Indy Lights in 2008 and 2009 under the expert tutelage of Sam Schmidt, Ana Beatriz continues to struggle in the IndyCar Series.

She shouldn’t be out of her depth, as many of her Lights contemporaries of the time have found themselves in the top flight with various levels of success. These include Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Sebastian Saavedra and others, but Ana remains in the shadows despite considerable backing from her native Brazil.

Short of a lightning strike to her driving style, or at the very least, her luck, expect more of the same in 2014.

27th: J.R. Hildebrand

JR Hildebrand JR Hildebrand JR Hildebrand
Team: Panther Racing Chevrolet / Barracuda Racing Honda
Races: 7 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 1 Top-10 Finishes: 2 Retirements: 3
Laps Led: 4 Points: 112 Championship: 25th

Drivers make their impact on the season in different ways, however J.R Hildebrand literally driving over the top of an unsuspecting Will Power was probably not in the manuscript to kick start the 2013 campaign.

Hitting the accelerator a little early at a restart and not watching where he was going led to the unusual collision which admittedly made for excellent TV. Whether that planted any seeds of dissatisfaction in Panther Racing boss John Barnes’ mind were not known, although they could be countered by Hildebrand’s growing disbelief in the team’s inability to win again.

Not even a promising fifth place finish at Long Beach – a surprise showing for a noted oval specialist – could avert a parting of the ways after Indianapolis, where Hildebrand embarrassingly slammed into the wall after just three laps.

The sacked J.R. sat on the sidelines until Bryan Herta threw him a lifeline for a pair of outings at Sonoma and Fontana. It is hard to tell where and when the former Indy Lights series champ will next turn up, but should he return, he’s going to have to do a much better job justifying his place in the series.

26th: Alex Tagliani

Alex Tagliani Alex Tagliani Alex Tagliani
Team: Barracuda Racing Honda / Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Races: 14 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 2 Retirements: 5
Laps Led: 6 Points: 180 Championship: 24th

Several comparisons can be made between the careers of Alex Tagliani and Formula One veteran Jean Alesi. Both brought a plethora of God-given talent in their paths to the top flight categories and made immediate impacts through barnstorming drives in positions much higher than their cars were expected to be.

But for all their potential, both could only manage a single career victory.

‘Tags’ has had a remarkable career but if it isn’t out already, the final pilot light is barely flickering. Far too frequently has he been mired in the midfield and unable to challenge for the higher placings, which led to a mid-season tap on the shoulder from team boss Bryan Herta after Tagliani’s home race, where he’d ironically scored a season’s equal-best tenth place.

The official line was that the team wanted to try some younger blood in its car for the rest of the season, but ‘Tags’ must have seen the writing on the wall. Only an injury to Dario Franchitti secured any further race action during the rest of the season, and while his Fontana showing was impressive and reminiscent of days gone by, a late crash sealed what may be the Canadian’s final showing in top-flight US open-wheel racing.

25th: Ryan Briscoe

Ryan Briscoe Ryan Briscoe Ryan Briscoe
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing Honda / Panther Racing Chevrolet
Races: 7 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 0 Retirements: 2
Laps Led: 0 Points: 100 Championship: 26th

After falling out of favour with Roger Penske, Ryan Briscoe needed a drive and headed to sports cars to begin the year, promptly winning the 12-hours of Sebring in a P2 class car.

He wasn’t away from IndyCars for long however, with former employer Chip Ganassi rehiring the Aussie for the Indy 500, at which Briscoe finished 12th, driving strongly from his 23rd place start position.

Panther Racing came calling soon afterwards, signing the Australian for Detroit, Milwaukee, Pocono, Toronto and Sonoma, relinquishing his seat to Oriol Servia when his sports car commitments created a clash.

The Toronto event did not go well, however, with a mid-race accident breaking Briscoe’s wrist and putting him out of action entirely while he recuperated, although he was back in the saddle before the end of the year.

Briscoe’s reliability and technical prowess has clearly kept Chip Ganassi’s radar firmly focused on him, and he was signed for a full-time return to the series for 2014 and will be among the championship favourites by the time the season kicks off on 30 March.

24th: Sebastián Saavedra

Sebastian Saavedra Sebastian Saavedra Sebastian Saavedra
Team: Dragon Racing Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 2 Retirements: 5
Laps Led: 0 Points: 236 Championship: 21st

In this very review piece one year ago, I called for somebody to pick up the talented and emerging Colombian, as all he needed was a full-time run and the subsequent opportunity to show what he could do.

While I don’t want to claim responsibility for it, Dragon Racing did just that and Saavedra delivered a polished season with results commensurate with his car’s capabilities.

Highlighting his reliable – although perhaps not particularly quick – driving style, far more races were finished than not, with mechanical gremlins taking hold on those occasions where he didn’t see the chequered flag.

However, he only scored two top-ten finishes (at Detroit and Baltimore), and finished worst-placed of the full-time drivers in the championship standings.

As the pieces fall into place for 2014, a second full-time season should be on the cards for Saavedra, especially if he can be partnered with an experienced campaigner to provide further assistance and advice as the youngster continues to develop. He is, however, going to have to lift his game to warrant a long-term future in America’s top-flight championship.

23rd: Tristan Vautier

Tristan Vautier Tristan Vautier Tristan Vautier
Team: Schmidt Peterson Hamilton HP Motorsports Honda
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 0 Top-10 Finishes: 1 Retirements: 3
Laps Led: 2 Points: 266th Championship: 20th

The 2013 ‘Rookie of the Year’ title was awarded to Vautier by default at the beginning of the year as he was the only series debutant competing in every event, effectively declaring what would normally be an otherwise prestigious accolade a no-contest.

The Frenchman was the first man to have ascended through two separate rungs of the ‘Road to Indy’ development system initiated and championed by Randy Bernard during his tenure in charge of the series.

Vautier did indeed show his worth to the series with a few strong drives, especially early on in the season, where a Top-10 finish at Alabama showcased his potential for all to see.

The Indianapolis 500 was another highlight – an 11th-placed qualification and 14th in the race – even if fellow rookie Carlos Muñoz left all others in his wake on that particular occasion.

While the rest of Vautier’s season wasn’t quite as spectacular, on only two occasions was he not classified as a finisher, heralding a quick and reliable driver who merely needs more races under his belt to develop further and become a contender. At this stage, Schmidt has already declared its second driver for 2014 will be Russian Mikhail Aleshin, so Vautier now needs to make his own way to find his place for next season.

22nd: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal Graham Rahal Graham Rahal
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 2 Top-10 Finishes: 5 Retirements: 3
Laps Led: 6 Points: 319 Championship: 18th

It seems an age ago that the son of the 1986 Indy 500 winner and multiple series champion, Bobby Rahal, made such an impact in his rookie year of 2008, winning at St Petersburg.

Ever since, Graham has appeared to struggle to return to such lofty heights. A second-placed finish at Long Beach this season reminded everybody once again what he was capable of, but it was ultimately a false dawn in what was a very unimpressive season.

His switch to his father’s co-owned team came amid much fanfare, but he only managed a further four visits inside the top-ten all year, with a number of poor performances coming off the back of some truly appalling qualifying performances.

Indianapolis was a disaster, as was Texas, Toronto and Mid-Ohio. For a team with the family pedigree associated with the Rahal name, added with the spotlight that legendary talk-show host David Letterman brings with it and its strong funding from Mike Lanigan, all the pieces are there and Rahal Jr has to make more of this opportunity.

Blood is thicker than water, but his family connections won’t protect him if this form is repeated in 2014.

21st: Takuma Sato

Takuma Sato Takuma Sato Takuma Sato
Team: AJ Foyt Enterprises Honda
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 1 Wins: 1
Top-5 Finishes: 2 Top-10 Finishes: 4 Retirements: 10
Laps Led: 187 Points: 322 Championship: 17th

Breaking through for his maiden IndyCar Series victory at Long Beach was not only deserved, but expected and fully justified for the seven-season Formula One veteran.

Prior to Indianapolis, Sato’s first four starts also included an eighth place at St Pete, while Sao Paulo was so very nearly the scene of back-to-back wins, had he managed to hold off James Hinchcliffe through the final corner.

Sato had well and truly stamped his IndyCar passport with the talent that everyone knew was there. Team boss AJ Foyt was giving him a good car week in and week out and some were even muttering he could be a championship force if he could keep it up.

But – with the exception of a seventh-placed finish at Milwaukee – the second half of Sato’s season was an unmitigated failure, with only one finish in the last ten races of the year, and even that was a quite pathetic 22nd place at Mid-Ohio.

His speed was never in doubt – as was backed up with pole position late in the year at Houston – but his finishing ability now firmly was. It was a case of Murphy’s Law – anything that could go wrong, did, and the results saw him tumble down the championship order on an almost race-by-race basis.

The elder Foyt and his team manager and son Larry however have kept faith in Sato, signing him already for the 2014 season, perhaps no doubt encouraged by the team’s engine supplier, Honda.

Whatever problems kept him down for that disastrous run of results will be the focus of the off-season, and results will need to be better next year – Sato of all people demands it.

20th: E.J. Viso

E.J. Viso E.J. Viso E.J. Viso
Team: Andretti Autosport (HVM Racing Honda) – run as ‘Team Venezuela’
Races: 18 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 2 Top-10 Finishes: 7 Retirements: 2
Laps Led: 15 Points: 340 Championship: 15th

E.J. Viso delivered a few moments in 2013 that really showcased his largely unfulfilled promise, no doubt justifying team boss Michael Andretti’s decision to sign the Venezuelan in his team’s expanded line-up.

But those ‘moments’ were rare highlights in a sometimes troubled campaign, which saw him finish lowest of the team’s full-time quartet of drivers in the championship standings.

Seven top-ten finishes – three of which occurred on ovals – were boosted by a second row-qualification for the Indy 500, which was undoubtedly Viso’s best showing even if the race itself was not as strong.

On the flip side, the three-race run through Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and Baltimore was very poor, not finishing higher than 13th and this is an aspect of Viso’s game that he needs to work on for next year.

Perhaps his greater concern will be how, or even if, he will return to the grid in 2014. Viso was notably absent from the season finale at Fontana. He cited a sudden illness, but few were buying that, and the doubts were all but cemented when it emerged that Viso was the alleged ring leader in a scheme featuring a number of his compatriot racers to embezzle a chunk of their government-funded sponsorship.

Find out who ranks inside our top-twenty in our third and fourth instalments of our IndyCar Series driver-by-driver rankings, which will be online soon!

Matthew Lennon
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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.