Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Analyzing Newcomers to Ovals

Indycar has always had drivers from around the world migrate to them with little to no oval experience. Many of these drivers, most of whom come from European racing backgrounds (of course their exceptions), have never made only left turns (ovals), instead specializing mainly on road courses. Some drivers in the hunt for 2014 Indycar rides lack oval experience, but does this mean they are doomed? Here are some of the newcomers to ovals since 2008 and how they have did on ovals in their first season in Indycar:

Rubens Barrichello
2012 Avg. Oval Finish: 12.5

Rubens Barrichello has the best average finish on ovals in his first season on this list with KV Racing. Rubens came to Indycar following an illustrious career in Formula 1 with no experience on ovals. He led a lap at his first Indianapolis 500, which is quite awesome! He did not race at Texas because mechanical issues on the grid disallowed him to take the green flag. But solid runs at Iowa and Milwaukee saw for a valiant effort on ovals for Rubens. We, however, cannot evaluate Rubens' growth on ovals because 2012 was his only season in Indycar. Also, his sample size is really small, having only run four ovals. But make no mistake, Rubens was the best newcomer to ovals in recent years.

Rubens Barrichello - Milwaukee IndyFest 225 - Day 1
Rubens Barrichello, Milwaukee 2012 (Photo: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images North America)

EJ Viso
2008 Avg. Oval Finish: 15.3

EJ Viso came from a European racing background, racing in FR 2000, British F3, and GP2 before coming to Indycar in 2008 with no oval experience. Minus a great run at Milwaukee which saw Viso finishing P8, EJ did decent (putting it modestly) on ovals for a first-timer, averaging a finish of 15.3 with his team, HVM Racing. Viso did improve on ovals as his career continued, recording his career best finish at Iowa in 2010, finishing P3.

E. J. Viso - Iowa Corn Indy 250 Practice
EJ Viso, Iowa 2008 (Photo: Doug Benc / Getty Images North America)

Robert Doornbos
2009 Avg. Oval Finish: 16.2

Robert Doornbos came from Europe in 2007 to race in Champ Car following seasons in F3000 and F1. After taking 2008 off, Doornbos started the 2009 season with Newman-Haas Racing, seeing limited success on the ovals. After a disappointing 19th place finish at Kentucky, Newman-Haas let Bobby D go. He was immediately picked up by HVM Racing and finished out the season. He finished with an average finish of 16.2, with a high finish coming at Richmond, finishing P9. 2009 was his only season in Indycar, so we can't determine how Bobby D developed on the ovals.

Robert Doornbos - Suntrust Indy Challenge Practice and Qualifying
Robert Doornbos, Richmond 2009 (Photo: Darrell Ingham / Getty Images North America)

Will Power
2008 Avg Oval Finish: 16.8

I know in the intro I said their first season in ovals, and technically Power's first season in ovals was 2006 in Champ Car, but there was only one oval  that year at Milwaukee, so I disallowed that. Before coming to Champ Car, Power raced in British F3, World Series by Renault, and A1GP. His first full season on multiple ovals came in 2008 with KV Racing. Power saw limited success, but he did record a top-five finish in the season finale at Chicagoland. His average finish that year was 16.8. Since his rookie season, Power has vastly improved on ovals, but his first couple seasons were rough.

Will Power - Firestone Indy 200 Practice
Will Power, Nashville 2008 (Photo: Doug Benc / Getty Images North America)

Mike Conway
2009 Avg. Oval Finish: 17.2

Conweezy came to America following stints in Formula Renault UK, British F3, and GP2. He was behind the eight ball from the beginning on ovals, and the results were decent. I remember watching him race at Iowa in 2009, taking note at how well he was using the outside line to pass others on track. I thought he had a real future in ovals! But 2009 was, again, decent for him, averaging a finish of 17.2 with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. Unfortunately, Conway's career on ovals did not get too much better. In 2010, things looked to be going well for him. He even led the Indianapolis 500 at one point! But later that race, Conway suffered a terrible crash, breaking his back and his leg. In 2011, he failed to qualify for the Indy 500 for Andretti Autosport. In 2012, he got into another terrible accident at Indianapolis with AJ Foyt Enterprises, but he thankfully walked away from that one. That crash saw Conway change his mind on ovals, deciding to leave ovals for good, receiving many positive and negative reviews. I support him in his decision, but it casts a shadow on those who come into Indycar with no oval experience.

Mike Conway - Bombardier Learjet 550 Practice
Mike Conway, Texas 2009 (Photo: Chris Trotman / Getty Images North America)

Mario Moraes
2008 Avg. Oval Finish: 17.6

Mario Moraes came from a background that included Brazilian F3 and British F3 before jumping into Indycar in 2008 with Dale Coyne Racing, with limited success. In his rookie season, he recorded a top-ten finish at Homestead, finishing P10. But his aggressive nature on the track saw him getting in many incidents. As he progressed through the years, Mario showed much better pace on ovals, but again, the incidents mounted up for him. The pinnacle moment of his Indycar career was the 2009 Indianapolis 500. He was blisteringly quick all month, qualifying P7 for KV Racing. Turn one, lap one: Mario entered turn one with a lot of speed, and as he exited the turn, he moved up the track, thinking that he had room to his outside. Unfortunately, Marco Andretti was there, and Mario was hooked into the wall, ruining both of their races. Moraes did not return to Indycar in 2011, and has since dropped off the radar.

Mario Moraes - Iowa Corn Indy 250 Practice
Mario Moraes, Iowa 2008 (Photo: Doug Benc / Getty Images North America)

James Jakes
2011 Avg. Oval Finish: 20.7

James Jakes came to Indycar after European tours in British F3, GP3, and GP2. But 2011 was an absolutely terrible season for him at Dale Coyne Racing, especially on the ovals, averaging a finish of 20.7. Not included in that is the fact that he did not qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. His best finish on an oval that season at Motegi, finishing a modest P13. Since his rookie season, Jakes has shown little to no improvement on the ovals. He did record his first top-ten on an oval at Texas in 2012, but he continues to be a road racer and not an oval man. Switching to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2013 did not see him improving on ovals all that much.

James Jakes - The Milwaukee 225
James Jakes, Milwaukee 2011 (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images)

Takuma Sato
2010 Avg. Oval Finish: 21.4

Takuma Sato came to Indycar following a stint in Formula 1 that spanned from 2002-2008. Driving for KV Racing, Sato had a rough go at things. He DNF'd on five of the eight ovals, with a best finish of P12 in his home race at Motegi, and an average finish of 21.4 on the season. Takuma Sato did have a great run at Iowa going before crashing out. In 2011, he had another great run at Iowa going before once again crashing out. He also finished P33 in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. But he did record a top-five finish at Texas. I think Sato has vastly improved on the ovals in his career. This was on full display at the 2012 Indianapolis 500, where, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, he made a move on Dario Franchitti on the last lap before spinning and crashing. In 2013, driving for AJ Foyt Enterprises, Sato again had a great run at Indianapolis going, before a spin ruined his race. Will he continue to improve on the ovals?

Takuma Sato - Indianapolis 500 Qualifying
Takuma Sato, Indianapolis 2010 (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America

Simona de Silvestro
2010 Avg. Oval Finish: 21.8

Simona came to Indycar in 2010 with HVM Racing following a three year stint in Atlantics, a series that races only on road courses. Her rookie campaign on ovals was shaky, with rough races and a relatively slow pace. Her season was summed up with a frightening crash at Texas, where she crashed, and her car caught on fire with Simona struggling to get out. Her next season did not get much better, once again having a terrible accident, this time practicing for the Indy 500. Thankfully, she walked away okay from the crash. She did not show much improvement in 2011. In 2012, she was stuck with an awful Lotus engine, so forget anything that happened. In 2013, driving for KV Racing, Simona was consistently off pace with teammate Tony Kanaan. She did record a P8 in the season finale at Fontana, but that deserves a * (*she basically just survived. Two-thirds of the field DNF'd, and she finished three laps down). I think she needs to start showing improvement on the ovals, but she is still relatively new to them.

Simona De Silvestro - Cafe do Brasil Indy 300 Practice and Qualifying
Simona de Silvestro, Homestead 2010 (Photo: Nick Laham / Getty Images North America)


So what does this mean for drivers who have not come from ovals that will race / have expressed interest in Indycar? Their rookie campaigns will be rough, which is to be expected. Not many drivers are used to going 200mph + for two hours straight. It takes time and practice to master the ovals. Drivers like Mikhail Ashelin and Luca Filippi will get a taste of this in 2014, when they begin their Indycar rookie campaigns. Other drivers looking to Indycar, like Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta, Narain Karthikeyan, Sam Bird, and Luiz Razia will have to realize that ovals will be daunting to overcome, but it is to be expected.

Let me know what you think!

-Matthew Hickey

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