IndyCars: 2013 Season – Driver Rankings (Part 4)

In the final instalment of our four-part series, our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon shortlists the year’s ten best drivers en route to crowning our 2013 IndyCar ‘Driver of the Year’…

10: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay Ryan Hunter-Reay Ryan Hunter-Reay
Team: Andretti Autosport Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 3 Wins: 2
Top-5 Finishes: 7 Top-10 Finishes: 9 Retirements: 6
Laps Led: 297 Points: 469 Championship: 7th

The defending series champion used two disastrous results in the first and third races of 2013 to bookend a victory at Barber Motorsports Park, but overall, 2013 should not be looked on as a disappointment, even though he did not successfully defend his crown.

The Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa ovals again proved happy hunting grounds, with two second places coming either side of a successful defence of his 2012 win at ‘The Mile’. Six podiums overall for the year is no mean feat, however when it did go wrong for Hunter-Reay, it went badly wrong and early in the day too.

He finished 18th or worst on three occasions and was all but ruled out of a title defence with back-to-back DNFs at Baltimore and Houston. On more than one occasion, Hunter-Reay was simply the unfortunate victim of some bad luck, such as at Pocono, when he was rear-ended by Takuma Sato who had forgotten where the brake pedal was upon entering the pit lane.

But the circumstances around a poor finish are soon forgotten, but the result remains etched in history forever, leaving no doubt that RHR will be a driven man to avenge these next year. Andretti will give him another good car, but whether Lady Luck lets him use it for long enough on Race Day is the eternal question.

9: Carlos Munoz

Carlos Munoz Carlos Munoz Carlos Munoz
Team: Andretti Autosport Chevrolet / Panther Racing Chevrolet
Races: 3 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 1 Top-10 Finishes: 1 Retirements: 1
Laps Led: 12 Points: 74 Championship: 28th

Those who hadn’t heard much about this kid before this year sure know who he is now. Not since Danica Patrick in 2005 has an Indy 500 debutant made such an impact.

The Andretti Autosports protégé was a name plucked out of Europe and the Formula 3 Euro Series, where he was regularly a frontrunner. Andretti saw potential – as he tends to do – and saw him through the Indy Lights series, where in his debut season he clocked up five podiums (including two wins) and was clearly crying out for a further challenge.

For a series debutant to qualifying second-fastest, only a whisker short of Ed Carpenter’s pole speed, was the shock of the weekend. The ‘Pole Day’ result was no fluke, as the Colombian delivered a calculated and measured performance to bring his car home in second place behind race-winner Tony Kanaan, and ahead of three former 500 winners.

It was a sensational performance that fired the youngster firmly to the front of the class. Such was the impact of his Indianapolis performance that not even a hasty draft-in at Panther Racing for the second event in Toronto (where he deputised for an injured Ryan Briscoe) and a DNF driving E.J. Viso’s car at Fontana could affect the success Munoz should consider Season 2013 to be.

Even with his occasional outings in the top flight, Munoz still managed to finish third in the Indy Lights series, clocking up four wins, the most of any driver in the field. Andretti has responded with continued faith, elevating his young charge to a richly deserved full-time IndyCar seat for 2014. We cannot wait to see his progress.

8: James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe James Hinchcliffe James Hinchcliffe
Team: Andretti Autosport Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 3
Top-5 Finishes: 6 Top-10 Finishes: 11 Retirements: 4
Laps Led: 264 Points: 449 Championship: 8th

Season 2013 was the season James Hinchcliffe made his most impressive mark, and brought the results forecasted for so long from his climb up the American open-wheel motorsport rungs.

A long overdue start with Newman-Haas in 2011 saw the affectionately nicknamed ‘Mayor of Hinchtown’ deliver more than the car was capable of on more than one occasion, but had it not have been for the tragic passing of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas 2011, he would not have landed the seat at Andretti Autosport at all.

But returning to Hinch’s season in 2013, it couldn’t have begun better, with two wins from the first four races and a serious shot at the title off to a great start. However, an unfortunate string of poor finishes (not always his own fault) were always devastating blows to the available points hauls.

Every one of his non-Top Ten finishes were instead 15th or worse, which hurt his title hunt. As much of a media darling as he is, ‘Hinch’ can often be distracted in meeting such commitments, and focusing first and foremost on his driving may help him stay out of trouble and score well at each and every race.

7: Will Power

Will Power Will Power Will Power
Team: Team Penske Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 3 Wins: 3
Top-5 Finishes: 7 Top-10 Finishes: 9 Retirements: 4
Laps Led: 351 Points: 498 Championship: 4th

How disappointed must Will Power be in how Season 2013 turned out? Coming off three consecutive seasons with the championship in reach, Power was unable to hold on to his road and street course dominance, even in qualifying where he has typically excelled.

In recent years, Power was near untouchable at this discipline but it just didn’t come together this time around. He did have his moments – a podium at Milwaukee and a trio of fourth-placed finishes were about all the Aussie had to smile until the field hit Mid-Ohio – by which point he had been all but written out of title contention.

Then it all came right again, and the Will Power of old was back, winning comfortably at Sonoma, in the second race at Houston and then – of all places – the high-speed oval at Fontana. Power described that win as “the most satisfying thing I have ever done”.

Now if he can just string his old road course ways with this newfound comfort level on ovals, Australia will have its first IndyCar series champ next season.

6: Dario Franchitti

Dario Franchitti Dario Franchitti Dario Franchitti
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Races: 18 Pole Positions: 4 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 7 Top-10 Finishes: 11 Retirements: 5
Laps Led: 64 Points: 418 Championship: 10th

A flood of absolutely deserved tributes have since flowed since the announcement last month that Dario Franchitti must hang up his helmet and retire from motorsport on medical grounds, due to injuries sustained in a sickening crash at Houston late in season 2013.

He has since said it is likely the enforced decision won’t truly sink in until he watches the Indy 500 from the sidelines this coming season. Based on a career of achievements, Dario would have been ranked much higher on this list, but as we are only looking at this past season, the year was better than the one before, but still not one the Scot would consider among his best.

As usual, he was quick – four pole positions at Long Beach, Detroit, Toronto and Sonoma showed that – and good results came, but not as frequently as a four-time series champion would have come to expect. Alarmingly, he never saw the top step of the podium, perhaps underscoring how he never really got to grips with the Dallara DW12 chassis.

The best part of his season came from Pocono through Sonoma, with four podiums and a fourth place.

But the final lap at Houston proved fateful: while trying to pass Takuma Sato, Dario became airborne after wheel-to-wheel contact and slammed into the catch fencing, spewing pieces of carbon fibre in all directions – including into the packed grandstand. Franchitti suffered two fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle and a concussion, and at the time, was ruled out only for the final race of the year at Fontana.

Not until later was more serious news confirmed, when treating doctors urged the champion to stop racing altogether for the sake of his long-term health. Freshly turned 40, Franchitti was a wise old head and knew this was more important than a short-term career extension with potentially more serious or even terminal outcomes.

So after 15 seasons in the top flight of American open-wheel racing and even a brief NASCAR foray, Franchitti will step out of the car having amassed 31 victories from 265 starts – eighth on the all-time win list – and one of the greatest to have ever turned a racing wheel in anger. Expect Dario not to stay away long – for a long list of duties will not be far from his attention – whether that be in the commentary box or on the pit wall alongside Chip Ganassi himself.

5: Marco Andretti

Marco Andretti Marco Andretti Marco Andretti
Team: Andretti Autosport Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 2 Wins: 0
Top-5 Finishes: 6 Top-10 Finishes: 15 Retirements: 1
Laps Led: 259 Points: 484 Championship: 5th

The youngest Andretti generation ranks so highly this year not for individual success – race-winning drivers have been ranked lower – but for the overall maturity shown all season long, which has led Marco to finish fifth in the drivers championship, a career-best.

Sure, he had some bad weekends – some really bad weekends! – but all in all, both grandad Mario and father Michael should be proud. Fifteen times out of nineteen did he finish inside the Top Ten, with five in a row coming to start the season, everybody was looking Marco’s way.

Minor troubles during pit stops seemed to befall Andretti on a number of occasions, as it did for teammates Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay too. Milwaukee and Houston were weekends worth forgetting, and the sheer consistency showed by Marco’s main rivals meant the likelihood of moving down the championship standings was more probable than moving up if he returned to his older, wilder ways.

A long IndyCar career can be enjoyed with classy, consistent driving such as what Marco showed this year, and more success will inevitably follow.

4: Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud Simon Pagenaud Simon Pagenaud
Team: Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Honda
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 2
Top-5 Finishes: 5 Top-10 Finishes: 13 Retirements: 2
Laps Led: 39 Points: 508 Championship: 3rd

The ‘Friendly Frog’, Simon Pagenaud, will again be a force in 2014 after another successful year for Sam Schmidt, notably when his charge finally broke through for his first series victory in Detroit.

A further win in the crash-strewn event at Baltimore was at best unlikely but no less deserved, along with a further eleven top-ten finishes and just two DNFs.

If an area of improvement must be sought, Pagenaud could spend some time on his oval work, with Texas, Milwaukee and Fontana proving not to be the happiest of hunting grounds, even though only Fontana was classified as a non-finish.

Ensuring his finishes were in the lower half of the Top Ten will also be an area to zone in on for Season 2014. Championships can be won and lost close to the end of the year with a consistent season, but naturally, the poorer the results in the first half makes the hill to climb that much steeper at the end.

3: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves Helio Castroneves Helio Castroneves
Team: Team Penske Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 1 Wins: 1
Top-5 Finishes: 6 Top-10 Finishes: 16 Retirements: 0
Laps Led: 239 Points: 550 Championship: 2nd

Despite only one victory all season long compared to the four of eventual champion Scott Dixon, 2013 can rightly be ranked among the series veteran’s best.

But that being said, Helio really can’t get any closer without winning it now, can he?

On multiple occasions throughout what will always be an illustrious career, the always-friendly Brazilian been within touching distance of the title – and on each of these occasions either Scott Dixon or his team-mate at the time has also been there challenging alongside him and usually pipping him at the post.

This has happened three times now – once with Gil de Ferran in 2003 when Dixon prevailed and again in 2006 when he was beaten by his team-mate Sam Hornish Jr.

Few people deserve a championship more than Castroneves, but these things don’t get handed to you on a platter. All season long, on only one weekend did Castroneves finish worse than 13th. Unfortunately, that weekend was Houston, it happened twice in the same weekend and Dixon practically maximised his chances that weekend to not only rein in the points deficit, but overtake and set his own advantage.

Engine and gearbox problems couldn’t have come at a worse part of the season, but unfortunately for Castroneves, they did and the result couldn’t have been worse. It was heartbreaking for every Penske fan and crew member. Castroneves knows this was the only thing that kept him from the title this season, and now at 38 years of age, time is running out for the three-time Indy 500 winner to take the only accolade yet to elude him in American open-wheel racing.

2: Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon Scott Dixon Scott Dixon
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 2 Wins: 4
Top-5 Finishes: 10 Top-10 Finishes: 12 Retirements: 2
Laps Led: 239 Points: 577 Championship: 1st

It was the classic Rocky story. Every time he was knocked down – and that happened a few times this season – Dixon just kept on getting up and punching back, and it was this attitude that saw him claim the IndyCar series championship for 2013.

Apart from a podium at Barber Motorsports Park, the beginning of the season did not go to plan at all. Long Beach, Sao Paulo and Indianapolis were all left with results outside the Top Ten – a far cry from the high standards Dixon sets for himself, not least of which is expected by long-time fans of his.

Enter Pocono and Toronto, Dixon could not be stopped. Three commanding – no, utterly dominant – victories in a row were backed up by another win and a second place at Houston, all of which saw Dixon take control of the championship from Helio Castroneves, who by this point was showing gaping cracks in his normally steely resolve, desperate just to finish and avoid trouble and not pushing to the limit like Dixon could afford to do.

For the Kiwi, it could so easily have all come undone after Sonoma and Baltimore, when a series of controversial calls by stewards, all against Dixon and involving long-time nemesis Will Power, threatened to derail his momentum.

The two-time series champion was livid at both decisions and even darkly hinted at a conspiracy among officials against him. But in the style of the true champion that he is, Dixon withstood both dramas and walked out at the end of the season as the 2013 IndyCar Series champion – his third drivers’ title.

1: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan Tony Kanaan Tony Kanaan
Team: KV Racing Technology Chevrolet
Races: 19 Pole Positions: 0 Wins: 1
Top-5 Finishes: 6 Top-10 Finishes: 7 Retirements: 3
Laps Led: 79 Points: 397 Championship: 11th

The scene was Indianapolis 2012 and as he was being strapped in for another shot at the Indy 500 title and just before his engineer left him to do his duty, Kanaan said “as soon as I win this thing, I’m retiring”.

The emotion-charged declaration was largely on the back of the numerous tributes to his good friend Dan Wheldon, who had been killed six months earlier at the end of the 2011 season and was the posthumous defending champion of the 500 that year.

Fast-forward twelve months and after 200 laps of the 2.5-mile Mecca of American open-wheel motor racing, Kanaan found himself standing on the top step of the podium and drinking the famed buttermilk after a brilliant drive to victory.

It marked the ultimate achievement for the likeable Brazilian, and a more popular victory would be hard to find among fans, peers and even his critics.

But the love of the game supersedes all, and Kanaan was highly unlikely to hang the helmet up just yet, even with the Indy 500 title and the 2004 Drivers’ Championship crown to call his own.

The fire for more success still rages within, and the always smiling Kanaan will step up to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014 and into the car vacated by another of his good friends, Dario Franchitti. Kanaan’s best days are still to come.

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.