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Special feature

Ranking the top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2023

Alex Palou may have been the leading light and streaked to the 2023 IndyCar title, but there were numerous standout performers along the way while others failed to hit their marks. Motorsport.com ranks the top 10 IndyCar drivers of the year

Race start

It was a season of surprisingly few race winners, with Alex Palou sweeping to the championship with a round to spare and Josef Newgarden cleaning up on the majority of the oval tracks. 

But there were still two first-time visitors to victory lane, in Kyle Kirkwood and Christian Lundgaard, while several promising rookies emerged in Marcus Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist - both of whom earned full-season deals at Chip Ganassi Racing for next season. 

As defending series champion Will Power slumped to seventh in the standings, going winless for the first time since 2006, there was the end of an era as Tony Kanaan made his final U.S. open-wheel start at Indianapolis and Helio Castroneves ended his full-time IndyCar career.

Motorsport.com runs the rule over the class of 2023 to pick out the 10 brightest lights.

10. Colton Herta

Strategy errors and driver mistakes at crucial moments really undid Herta's season

Strategy errors and driver mistakes at crucial moments really undid Herta's season

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Herta very nearly didn’t make this list despite his undoubted speed. He has finished 10th in points two years in a row now, after the top-five seasons that sparked genuine Formula 1 interest from across the Atlantic. This was a campaign riddled by more errors and misfortune, some of which was on Andretti Autosport for failing to execute from the pit stand, but some you could lay squarely at Herta’s door.

For example, he was dominating at Road America when his strategist pitted him a lap too soon for his final pitstop, while at Mid-Ohio – where he was running up front again – he managed to fumble his pitlane limiter off and was caught speeding.

One could argue that Graham Rahal should have this spot, for his sheer bloody-mindedness after his season from hell – especially that torturous sequence of unfortunate events at the Indy 500 – and coming oh-so-close to breaking his win drought at the Indy Road Course.

The Romain Grosjean of the first four rounds would have been here too, had his season not spiralled. Alexander Rossi had a stout first season at Arrow McLaren and is worthy of an honourable mention.

9. Will Power

Power endured his first winless season in 16 years of unified IndyCar racing

Power endured his first winless season in 16 years of unified IndyCar racing

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

After last year’s sublime season, this was very much a below-par year for the outgoing champion. His streak of 16 seasons with a win was snapped, although he came close to victory at Detroit.

His focus certainly wasn’t helped by his wife’s big health scare at the start of the year, which was touch-and-go for a while whether she’d live, and his qualifying form dipped alarmingly on previous seasons, although he still added a couple more pole positions to his frankly ridiculous record tally. He retained that ‘Will Power 2.0’ mindset that served him so well in 2022, but seemed to lose that edginess that makes him so quick in the first place.

We did witness some classic Power off-track moments, though, most notably at Road America when Scott Dixon mindlessly ploughed into him in practice, wrecking Power’s car and provoking double birds and some post-clash shoving. He also branded his own team-mate Scott McLaughlin a “dumbarse” for causing a similarly needless practice shunt at St Louis.

‘Only’ four podiums and three fastest laps meant he fell from first to third among the Penske trio, but Power remains one of the benchmark drivers in the series. And you almost expect him to channel this disappointment back into fire for next year’s campaign.

8. Marcus Ericsson

A season for what could've been for Ericsson highlighted by his Indy 500 near-miss

A season for what could've been for Ericsson highlighted by his Indy 500 near-miss

Photo by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images

A paragon of consistency and finishing sixth in points (with three podium finishes) for the third year running is no mean feat given the rivals Ericsson faces. Qualifying remains a work in progress, and how his move to Andretti Autosport impacts that will be fascinating to watch.

It’s fair to say he rather lucked into his sole victory of the season at St Petersburg, but he was in the right place to pounce when Pato O’Ward’s engine hesitated and it was typical victory for the so-called ‘Sneaky Swede’.

Ericsson was absolutely sublime again at the Indy 500 where he very nearly went back-to-back. Yes, there was some controversy over the time it took IndyCar to throw a red flag, and one could see why he’d be upset over its decision to restart straight out of the pitlane for a final-lap shootout. He made the best of a bad situation in getting the jump on Josef Newgarden at the final green/white flag, but Chevrolet’s aggressive ‘attack mode’ engine setting was simply too much for him to resist and the back straight, and victory was lost by less than a tenth of a second.

His switch to Andretti will probably define whether he’s capable of going to another level or simply keep producing these solid results.

7. Kyle Kirkwood

Kirkwood showed his true potential in 2023

Kirkwood showed his true potential in 2023

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

With respect to Logan Sargeant, Kirkwood is America’s best bet to become its next true Formula 1 star if his career keeps progressing like it is. His stunning drives at Long Beach and Nashville were the high points of a truly breakout season.

But he’s got to ditch his accident-attracting magnet, as he’s too prone to getting involved in unnecessary scrapes. His only visits to the podium all season were on the top step, which shows he knows how to grab his opportunities when they come, but the real trick is generating more of those chances.

You feel Kirkwood is just in the right place at the right time as Andretti forges ahead with its future F1 plans with General Motors. At 24, he’s got some decent life experience having also dabbled in sportscars while climbing the open-wheel ladder in such dizzying style.

His second IndyCar season, his first with Andretti, will be remembered by those street race wins, where he smartly overcut Penske drivers on each occasion. He was also Andretti’s best shot in the Indy 500 until he was flipped onto his lid by Felix Rosenqvist in the closing stages.

6. Christian Lundgaard

Lundgaard dazzeled to win at Toronto to cement his IndyCar status

Lundgaard dazzeled to win at Toronto to cement his IndyCar status

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Stellar progress from the young Dane, whose decision to turn his back on his Formula 1 dreams at the tender age of 20 continues to be a smart move. Lundgaard's maiden IndyCar victory at Toronto was as impressive as anyone’s all season and he continues to be the benchmark at Indy’s Road Course on raw pace.

His oval form must improve but this is hard to gauge with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing appearing to be in some form of set-up hell on these tracks. Yet on Indy’s Road Course in particular, its car comes alive and he’s the one forging it forwards the fastest. His dry sense of humour is winning him a lot of fans, and sponsors appear to love him too.

One thing is for sure, he’s going to be a hot property for the ‘big’ teams when his RLL contract expires…

5. Pato O’Ward

O'Ward was IndyCar's nearly man this year, but really should have put together a title attack

O'Ward was IndyCar's nearly man this year, but really should have put together a title attack

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Such a frustration to watch sometimes. O’Ward is capable of sheer magic moments with his super-quick hands and on-the-fly thinking, but then he’s downright bonkers with his decision-making and silly lunges at times.

One day it will all click and we’ll get a title battle royale with Palou et al, with the added edge of McLaren v Ganassi. With the Palou/McLaren deal off, this gives him a second bite at being its team leader, along with the enticement of some F1 activities along the way…

How he didn’t win a race in 2023, only heaven knows. He was robbed of a certain victory in the season opener, when his Chevy engine’s plenum chamber hiccupped, and then a late yellow flag cost him a strong shot at Texas.

Three runner-up finishes from the first five races should’ve been the platform to a title attack, but rash moves at Long Beach, the Indy 500 and Detroit set him back just as Palou was getting motoring. That they won’t be team-mates next year is somewhat saddening, as it would have been fascinating to compare their talents in the same machinery…

4. Scott McLaughlin

McLaughlin ended the year as Penske's top driver

McLaughlin ended the year as Penske's top driver

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

He’s so close to mastering this IndyCar lark now. The former Supercars legend has a couple of edges to smooth off and needs to get his head around his blind spot – the Indy Road Course – but McLaughlin has proved he’s got what it takes to win everywhere else.

It feels odd to recall that he only won one race all season, a beautifully executed driver at Barber where he out-duelled Romain Grosjean. He finished in the top 10 places no less than 13 times, which totally ticks the consistency box.

If he can repeat that and find some more speed at Indy, both on the road course and oval, then a title tilt is within reach. In fact, when you finish as the top Penske driver in a season, you expect to be in the hunt anyways!

3. Scott Dixon

Dixon will hope to start 2024 as strongly as he ended this year given his rampant form

Dixon will hope to start 2024 as strongly as he ended this year given his rampant form

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Too little, too late for the six-time champion. Those stunning comeback victories at the Indy Road Course and Gateway proved the highpoints of an, until then, frustrating season as Dixon watched his team-mate hog the limelight. Bar Palou, the New Zealander was the most consistent performer in the field again but only good enough for bridesmaid this time.

Working out why it took so long to click is puzzling. He was on the podium at the season opener but then didn’t feature until Mid-Ohio in July. Apart from being punted out by O’Ward at Long Beach, and whose non-apology probably infuriated Dixon more than the reckless lunge itself, his worst true finish of the season was seventh – which was even more remarkable than Palou’s record.

Winning three of the last four races – which included trailing home a lowly, er, third at Portland – is probably an ominous sign of what’s to come next year as he bids for a seventh title.

2. Josef Newgarden

Newgarden's maiden Indy 500 win confirmed his status of king of the ovals

Newgarden's maiden Indy 500 win confirmed his status of king of the ovals

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

An oval victory feast but famine elsewhere. Newgarden's season started badly, with a blown engine at St Petersburg, and a run of bizarre crashes and collisions meant his season tailed off woefully to bookend his misery.

But he’s second on this list, despite only finishing fifth in points, because of what happened in between: Newgarden was the one who truly took the fight to Palou. He led the most laps of the season (albeit many coming on short ovals, where he excelled once again) and got closest to the Spaniard until his points-scoring went into a death spiral.

A maiden Indianapolis 500 victory cushions the blow of no third title yet (it’s another reason that he’s second here), and one gets the feeling that he’d take achieving America’s greatest open-wheel victory over that anyways.

His streak of oval success was quite phenomenal, and it only ended as he crashed trying to keep up with a superior strategy being employed by fuel-whisperer Dixon at Gateway.

His only road course podium was Road America, which is probably his biggest worry, as were some really poor qualifying performances. But with that Indy 500 win under his belt, perhaps focus will revert to Penske returning to its status of being a winning machine everywhere.

1. Alex Palou

Palou's improvements on his weak spots were key to his second IndyCar title

Palou's improvements on his weak spots were key to his second IndyCar title

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

With his legal mess behind him, or so we thought, Palou made a tame start to 2023 but then decimated the pack at the Indianapolis Road Course – which was a sign of things to come. Consecutive wins at Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio put his title rivals completely in the shade, and only Newgarden ever threatened to catch up with him.

The Spaniard sealed the title in typical winning style with victory in Portland. Importantly, he improved his oval game no end and looked a genuine contender for victory at Texas, scored a brilliant pole position at Indianapolis with some of the bravest four laps you’ll ever witness, and surprised even Newgarden with his podium at Iowa.

With his road course prowess hardly in doubt, his street racing game advanced too, with a maiden victory on this genre of track coming at Detroit.

What are his on-track weaknesses now? You can argue he’s only ever scored four IndyCar poles in his career, but you can offset that by him more than doubling his win tally this year. His execution of opportunities is second to none, and the rest of the field better learn this quick, because he’s becoming a more rounded driver all the time.

The only shadow on his horizon? A legal mess ahead. Again. But at least Palou won’t have team colleagues giving him the cold shoulder this time, as he’s staying put! And he won’t have the distraction of F1 runs, not unless it comes calling for his services for real…

Can anyone catch Palou in 2024?

Can anyone catch Palou in 2024?

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

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