I have decided to break the season review up into a few as to not inundate you guys with too much worthless banter. I think I will post it in three parts during the coming weeks on Fridays. There is a lot to talk about from this year so I thought this would be the best route of action.
2011, the season that was supposed to be forgotten, turned into one of the most hotly debated years in recent history. We had two first time winners, yet another back and forth battle for the overall championship, and an honest to goodness rookie of the year battle. 2011 would also see the last time the venerable IR03 and its derivatives would turn a wheel in anger in a top level series. We were all ready to get this season wrapped up even before it ever started; the tease of the new chassis was almost too much to bear. When the season finally got underway, it turned into a year not to forget. There are many topics to cover in the coming weeks, but first we will look at the drivers who took home the championship hardware.
Season Champion – Dario Franchitti – This man seemed to be immune to the bad luck bug that bit so many of his fellow competitors this year. His only major flub was wrecking into Takuma Sato in New Hampshire. Dario seemingly dodged any sort of poor finish all year long. In race two at Texas, he drew the 28th starting spot and was able to work his way into seventh spot without the help of a caution in only 114 laps. This type of performance punctuated Franchitti’s year and it was up to Will Power to play catch up or protection the times he would be leading the championship. Power wound up with two poor finishes; Iowa and Toronto would ultimately his undoing in the championship race.
The other championship contenders were not really an issue this year with Scott Dixon the only driver really able to make any inroad to the two leaders but wound up a whopping 55 points back by season’s end. Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan rounded out the top five, neither getting a win this season.
Road Champion – Will Power – Willy P did walk home with one trophy this year. Even with the switch of Motegi from oval to road, Franchitti was able to keep it comparatively close to Power. The championship literally changed hand every race until Sonoma, where Power took the lead and proceeded to extend the gap during the final two events of the schedule. Although the series is filled with road course ringers, European formula car graduates, and pure road racers no other drivers were really in contention for this title. I find this very interesting given the road heavy scheduling and the supposed easier time the smaller teams have at attacking the front. Yes, we have seen a few different winners on the road courses, but no other teams can find the same consistency the 12 and 10 teams had.
Oval Champion – Scott Dixon – In a much closer battle, Dixon was able to seal the oval championship. The seemingly heavy focus on the road portion of the schedule is confusing to me. I am not referring to TV viewership or track attendance or even media coverage. This championship saw a healthy mix of teams; two Ganassis, Newman/Haas, Penske, Andretti and Sarah Fisher (!) filled the top six. The spread was much closer than the road trophy, 80 points back to 12th place Marco Andretti verse 89 points back to 7th place Alex Tagliani in the road standings. There always seemed to be a focus on the road events over the ovals. I am not sure if this is just my misguided perception or an actual phenomena, but the supposedly road ready paddock has better consistency on the ovals. It is lost, on not only me but a large part of the fan base, as to what is causing the ovals have so much trouble. An interesting tidbit: Dan Wheldon, 22nd in the standings, finished higher than five full schedule drivers.
Rookie of the Year – James Hinchcliffe – Consistency was, again, the deciding factor this season. Hinch was able to walk away with seven top ten finishes, whereas JR Hildebrand only had five to his name. While this doesn’t seem like a huge margin but these two guys were incredibly evenly matched throughout the year. Remember than Hinch had one less start this year, missing the season opener in St. Pete, making his victory even more impressive. We had a really talented crop of rookie drivers this year and the championship did not disappoint.
Not counting 2008, we have not seen a real rookie battle since 2003 when Dan Wheldon victoriously played catch up with Roger Yasukawa, and in 08 most of the rookies were seasoned ChampCar drivers who still lost to IRL backed Hideki Mutoh. 2007 in ChampCar saw a closeish battle with Robert Doornbos taking the honors over Graham Rahal who couldn’t match Robert’s two wins. We have to go all the way back to pre-split 1995 to find a back and forth we saw this year. Gil de Ferren took honors over Christian Fittipaldi by two points that year.
I was really impressed with the three way split of the main championships. I feel it shows an increasing parity that will undoubtedly be carried through the off season and into 2012. The season championship battle was a bit two sided, I guess, but the ability for Scott Dixon and Will Power to take the other honors shows the paddock may be a bit closer than initially thought. We had eight different winners and this was without Tony Kanaan or Helio Castroneves capturing a win. The series seems to be set to have a blistering 2012 season and I absolutely cannot wait.
I am not sure how I will break up the next installments of the season review but there is plenty to cover from this year, stay tuned for more reactions and ramblings about 2011.