As with all auto racing championships, the final points standings didn't quite convey who was the best in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series. Here's our unscientific but more revealing take on positions P10 through P6.
10. Marco Andretti
Andretti Autosport-Honda / Championship rank: 9th.
Another season of solid competence from Marco Andretti, and while the Andretti Autosport team’s overall lack of form hurt his chances of success, it may have also fired up Marco’s ‘Get on with it’ attitude. In pre-season testing, he looked disastrously off the pace, yet once the championship started and AA’s struggles with the Honda aero kit were ongoing, Marco was often the team’s leading light in any given session.
Understandably given the circumstances, tangible highlights were few, however. Andretti’s second place in the wet and wild first Detroit race was the result of his usual flair in ever-changing track conditions, and he was only a hair – and a hair-trigger decision – away from winning at Fontana in what turned out to be the final green-flag lap.
As the team’s understanding of HPD’s aero package improved – aided considerably by the regular presence of the late Justin Wilson in the No. 25 car – so Ryan Hunter-Reay rose to prominence, while Marco’s performances reached a plateau. He may not be your automatic choice to dig a team out of a technical hole, but ask him to dig deep to compensate for the hole and Andretti can do it.
9. Tony Kanaan
Chip Ganassi Racing-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 8th.
Given how strongly both he and Chip Ganassi Racing ended 2014, it’s understandable if Tony Kanaan struggles to find the upside of ’15, even aside from the loss of his friend, Justin Wilson. Runner-up spots at Texas and Fontana couldn’t compensate for TK’s unforced and race-ending errors at Pocono and the Indy 500. However, it’s cruel luck that he was robbed of a very real chance of victory at Iowa by a mechanical failure.
The encouragement Kanaan should take from this season however, was his continued improvement on road and street courses. Two years ago, he looked a spent force on tracks featuring right turns. Yet he bookended his 2015 season in fighting fashion, splitting the dominant Penske quartet at St. Petersburg, and being a massive pain in the butt to the title contenders at Sonoma.
There were days in 2015 when TK was clearly missing the vital two or three tenths of a second in qualifying to match teammate Scott Dixon, but he is someone who could often compensate on race day by using his experience and judgment to tread the fine line between aggression and over-aggression. There could be more wins in what some speculate will be TK’s final year of IndyCar racing in 2016.
8. Ryan Hunter-Reay
Andretti Autosport-Honda / Championship rank: 6th.
It took until Round 11, the Fontana free-for-all, for the 2012 IndyCar champion to lead his first laps of 2015, and after 12 rounds, Ryan Hunter-Reay was a lamentable 14th in the points table with just a single top-five finish to his name. Yet over the remaining four rounds, he scored two wins and a second place to vault his way to sixth in the final standings.
So why the early-season struggles? Well, there’s no doubt that the HPD aero kit was a tricky beast to learn, but the big stick with which Andretti Autosport was regularly beaten had Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing written along it. How could a one-car team with the same equipment so regularly leave a three/four-car team in its wake? Did AA simply have too much information to process over the course of a weekend? Well, that was one explanation. Another view (more biased in that it came from a Honda engineer) is that the aero kit era had set the three Andretti driver/engineer combos further apart in terms of setup, especially on road and street courses, and so one driver’s feedback was less relevant to the other two.
The result was that until July, Hunter-Reay consistently looked and sounded more downbeat than at any time since his dark days at Vision Racing, six years ago. Yet once he and race engineer Ray Gosselin more closely defined the competitive parameters of the Honda kit, it had a major positive effect on the No. 28 team. Serious progress was made between a first practice session and a race, while the renowned feisty Ryan re-emerged. His wins at Iowa and Pocono were top quality, and by the time of the Sonoma finale, RHR re-established his unofficial role as team leader.
7. Sebastien Bourdais
KVSH Racing-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 10th.
It’s startling to note that in 2015’s 16-race championship, Sebastien Bourdais won two yet scored only two other top-five finishes. He and engineer Olivier Boisson made KVSH Racing a regular top-five contender, to such an extent that it was more surprising to not see the No. 11 car fighting near the front. Simultaneously, the evergreen Frenchman dismantled rookie teammate Stefano Coletti’s reputation.
In Milwaukee, Bourdais turned in what was surely the most dominant performance of the IndyCar season, but it was his fighting drive to Victory Lane in Detroit 2 that really harked back to his Champ Car days of wonder. Basically, once he had the lead, there was a sense of inevitability that he would close the deal, even though team co-owner Jimmy Vasser’s tactics required extremely careful fuel management from his driver. In the end, it was close, but Seb was able to draw on his decade-old experiences at Newman/Haas. Scott Dixon and Will Power aren’t alone in being able to save a lot of fuel while going extremely quick.
There remain question marks over Bourdais’ ability on ovals – Milwaukee notwithstanding – as he was relatively nowhere at Texas, Fontana and Pocono, but this is probably unfair negativity. Seb was working alongside an inexperienced and crash-prone teammate (not for the first time), and the pooling of data with an oval-racing newbie was only ever going to be of minimal use to the Bourdais/Boisson combo. Still, it’s up to the Frenchmen to overcome this perception – and Milwaukee was a good start…
6. Helio Castroneves
Team Penske-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 5th
When critiquing Helio Castroneves’ season, should we choose to major on the bad luck that struck the No. 3 Team Penske entry? That would be Barber Motorsports Park (out of fuel) as well as Detroit 2 and Fontana, both of which saw the Brazilian veteran become an innocent victim in another driver’s accident. Or should we highlight the error at Pocono, the underwhelming Indy 500 performance and his good fortune to only be docked three points (rather than receive a drive-through penalty) at the Grand Prix of Indy? As usual, the only predictable thing about Helio’s season was its unpredictability.
But although there are people moaning about IndyCar’s veteran drivers not giving young blood a chance by retiring and opening up vacancies in the top teams, there seems no reason to bid Helio goodbye. There are still days when he can be top Penske driver (he scored five podium finishes) and he’s still extremely fast. His pole at Long Beach was a record-breaker, at Barber in drizzly conditions during qualifying he “outbraved” traditional pacesetting teammate Will Power to grab top spot, and his Verizon P1 awards at Iowa and Pocono were equally legit.
To those who say Castroneves was inconsistent or that he and engineer Jonathan Diuguid too often lost their way on race setups this year, it’s worth pointing that’s an accusation you could level at almost every IndyCar partnership in 2015 as the aero kits and their effects were investigated by trial and error. In short, despite not adding to his win tally this year, Helio proved several times that he’s still got it. Form is temporary, class is permanent, and in 2015, HCN displayed both.