Thursday , 13 June 2024
Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, tackles the Esses at Sonoma Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Top Five: IndyCar drivers of 2018

The 2018 IndyCar season is nearing its completion. This thrilling year will conclude at Sonoma this weekend, and one of four men will be crowned series champion. All four contenders have had very strong campaigns – so spoiler alert – all four appear on this list. But what of the remainder of the field? Picking the fifth name for this list has been far from easy. It just shows the incredibly high level that the top teams and drivers operate at in the series.

There are a few honourable mentions to give column space to:

Sebastien Bourdais has once again wrestled his Dale Coyne-entered car into the top 10 in the standings, taking a victory at St. Petersburg for the second successive year. Despite failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, James Hinchcliffe has had a quietly solid year with Schmidt Peterson, topped off with a great win at Iowa. Both Takuma Sato and team-mate Graham Rahal have performed solidly at the latter’s father’s team – with Sato winning last time out at Portland. Narrowly missing out of the top five is Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was at his aggressive best at Detroit and duly left with a second and then a first to end a winless streak dating back almost three years. A title challenge didn’t quite materialise, but the 2012 champion is a force to be reckoned with once again.

Top Five: IndyCar drivers of 2018

5th – Robert Wickens – Rookie of the Year, Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, fastest in qualifying group (Detroit 2), one pole position (St. Petersburg), two second places (Phoenix, Mid-Ohio)

Canadian driver Wickens erupted onto the IndyCar scene with a sensational pole position on his debut, before being cruelly denied a historic win in the final moments of the race. For Wickens, who raced in single seaters for the first time since he won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series back in 2011, the season was cut short due to that unpleasant accident at Pocono. It was arguably little more than a rookie mistake which was made – a little bit of eagerness at the start of a 500-mile race. The consequences were very severe and left the sensational rookie with a long list of injuries.

But that is arguably the only real black mark against an eyebrow-raising campaign. He was right on team leader Hinchcliffe’s pace from the get-go, and there were many times where Wickens looked quicker – significantly quicker. Sure, IndyCar’s reset for 2018 would have helped, but as more is put into the hands and feet of the drivers now the reason for Wickens’ success has to be put down to how well he has performed and adapted to circuits he has not seen in over a decade, or even at all.

4th – Josef Newgarden – outside championship contender (87 behind), three pole positions (Alabama, Texas, Road America), three wins (Phoenix, Alabama, Road America)

2018’s title challenge was dubbed ‘Defend the 1’ for IndyCar’s new poster boy. Despite finishing every race in 2018 to date, the current series champion finds himself in fourth place in the standings. With as many victories as the other title contenders, how has that happened? While Newgarden was on excellent form when he took his victories and certainly was in the mix at Iowa too, the pace was not always there and when the other contenders have been on the relentless run they have enjoyed. It’s difficult to mount a serious campaign with just three finishes in the top three – even if all of them are wins.

It has been by no means a poor season for Newgarden, but the expectation that he was going to go on a complete rout of the series after his awesome campaign in 2017 has failed to materialise. His consistency when it comes to finishing races is a very useful asset to have, however, when looking forward to next season and beyond.

3rd – Alexander Rossi – championship contender (-29), three pole positions (Long Beach, Detroit 2, Mid-Ohio), three wins (Long Beach, Mid-Ohio, Pocono)

Rossi has completely shunned off all claims that he is a one-trick pony after fuel saving his way to the Indy 500 two years ago. He is so much more than that. Remarkably, Rossi has also finished every race of 2018 to date, with just three results outside of the top 10 (like Newgarden). Where Rossi was better than his fellow young American rival this year, was in consistently featuring in races and picking up the points and podiums. Undoubtedly one of IndyCar’s best active drivers, should he steal the show at Sonoma and secure his first championship, it will be a deserved one considering he has faced off against some of the greatest names in the history of American open-wheel racing.

Andretti has its young American superstar in the making in Rossi, and it was a massive coup by Michael Andretti to bring him over after his failed Formula 1 stint. He’s bloody quick in qualifying, he’s ferocious on the ovals, he can fuel save, he doesn’t crash out of races. That’s why he’s a title contender and should be for many years to come.

2nd – Will Power – Indianapolis 500 winner, outside championship contender (-87), four pole positions (Indianapolis GP, Iowa, Pocono, Portland), three wins (Indianapolis GP, Indianapolis 500, Gateway)

Power has become a master of all of IndyCar’s many circuit disciplines. After his near-miss in 2015, he finally secured the 500 after a brilliant old-school three and a half hour-long game of 230mph chess with Ed Carpenter. While improving his form on the ovals, he has not lost any of his prowess on the road courses. Over one lap, Power is among the fastest ever. He is level with Newgarden on points, but Power features higher in these rankings on the basis that two of his four failures to finish (and a 21st place finish at Portland) were not down to his fault.

Without two crashes (Phoenix from the lead and Texas from a good position), as well as these issues, Power would be right in the mix. It’s the small mistakes which costs him the top spot on this list. In the fascinating battle between three champions all at Team Penske, it is not one of the two most recent champions who is set to come out on top.

1st – Scott Dixon – championship favourite, fastest in qualifying group (Detroit 1), three wins (Detroit 1, Texas, Toronto)

This is Dixon circa 2008-levels of unfathomable consistency. Dixon’s idea of a bad day at the office in 2018 is 12th at Iowa. 12th! The fact that the series has undergone a drastic change with the new bodykit, Chip Ganassi Racing has downsized its programme from four cars to two, and Dixon has a new team-mate in the comparatively inexperienced Ed Jones, yet Dixon finds himself solidly at the top of the points standings just shows how great the man who could well surpass the legendary Mario Andretti in American open-wheel championships won, is.

Qualifying has not been Dixon’s strong point (his one start from pole came from a rained-out qualifying session at Gateway), but by focusing on the races, he finds himself almost always in the top six. Aside from that 12th at Iowa and 11th at Long Beach (after one awesome battle with Bourdais), every race has been finished inside the top six. Rossi, Power, and Newgarden have done stellar jobs to keep up, but it’s incredibly difficult to beat Dixon on this sort of form.

Sure, he got insanely lucky by avoiding being wiped out at Pocono and Portland (where he went onto finish third and fifth respectively) but he still did the job and picked up massive numbers of points. The Portland drive especially was incredible in that Dixon had a car roll over the top of him, had a drive-through penalty following a pit speed limiter glitch, had suspension damage throughout, and still finished ahead of all his title rivals in fifth. This is why Scott Dixon is the greatest driver of 2018, and why he is one of the greatest Indycar drivers in history.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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