2011 - Changes and Stage Setting

Since we are now four-plus years removed from the 2011 IZOD Indycar Season, a quick analysis of that season and its teams, drivers, and tracks shows that the 2011 season would shape Indycar for the next four seasons and perhaps even further, both through changes and similarities as to what we see in 2015.

Obviously, 2011 is remembered for the triumphant win of the Indianapolis 500 followed by the tragic loss in the season finale of Dan Wheldon. Wheldon drove for the second year team, Bryan Herta Autosport. The famous 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 saw JR Hildebrand crash in the final corner of the race, leading to Dan passing him a few hundred yards before the finish line. The race became an instant classic and a career defining moment for Wheldon.

Indianapolis 500 Mile Race
Photo: Nick Laham / Getty Images North America

Five months later, Dan lost his life in a massive crash at Las Vegas. Hildebrand, Pippa Mann, and Will Power were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. Indycar and the entire racing community lost a father, husband, friend, brother, and champion that year.

Because of the crash, Indycar began to rethink its philosophy on downforce levels on ovals. Up until that point, Indycars were notorious for driving in 'packs' on high speed, high banked ovals, like Las Vegas, Texas, and Chicagoland. This contributed to the crash we saw at Vegas. The race in Las Vegas was the last race for the Dallara IR-07, a chassis that had been used since 2003 (which was modified several times). Dallara designed a new car, which would be named the DW-12 since Wheldon had a profound impact in molding the car through testing during the 2011 season. If not for Wheldon and BHA's efforts, us race fans may not be getting the great races we've seen since 2012. The DW-12 also served as a giant leap forward in safety. The strives in safety have put many drivers and fans at ease, as we have seen several massive accidents in the DW-12 era. A lot of credit goes to Dallara as well for the innovations and design of the car. And the fact that they named it after Dan means the car lives on his name, as he continues to be ingratiated in our sport.

The rookie class in 2011 is one that has proven to be a great crop of rookies. James Hinchcliffe won the rookie of the year in 2011. Since then, Hinch has become one of Indycar's most marketable, talented, and fan favorite drivers. JR Hildebrand has become a favorite among many fans. His talents are there, but he's never been able to make the most of opportunities. Still, Hildebrand remains a favorite among the Indycar faithful and he isn't done with Indycar, as he has a great partnership going with CFH Racing. Charlie Kimball is another rookie on the list who is still in Indycar. The eventual race winner has been with Chip Ganassi Racing for five years. His efforts to bring awareness to diabetes and his overall kindness has made him a great fit in the Indycar paddock. James Jakes made his Indycar debut full-time with Dale Coyne Racing. Jakes continues to race in the sport. Sebastian Saavedra, who did race in 2010, began his full-time rookie campaign with Conquest Racing. He now has a part-time deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. Simon Pagenaud began to make his comeback to Indycar after an absence dating back to 2007, driving for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and HVM Racing. He now drives for the mighty Team Penske. Indy Lights graduates Martin Plowman and Pippa Mann made their debuts in 2011. They both have been in and out of Indycar, becoming names everyone recognizes. Overall, it was a prominent year for rookies in Indycar, with many of them having elongated careers in Indycar.

Indy Japan 300
James Hinchcliffe driving for a team no longer around (Newman-Haas) at a track Indycar visits
(Motegi). Thankfully, Hinchcliffe has become a top-caliber driver in Indycar (Photo: Chris Trotman / Getty Images AsiaPac)

Indycar had several drivers who, come the end of the 2011 season, would never drive in the Indycar Series again. The biggest name on the list is Danica Patrick. The national icon who had been in Indycar since 2005 opted to leave Indycar to drive in NASCAR full-time, which she has done so since the beginning of 2012. While speculation persists every year that Danica is coming back to Indycar, no signs point to the fact that she will. One driver with a cult following, Vitor Meira, has not raced in Indycar since 2011, though whispers of him driving in Brazil (the event was cancelled) and the Indianapolis 500 for the 2015 season never came to fruition. Legendary driver and Indycar champion Paul Tracy retired following the 2011 season, and has since gone on to commentate for NBCSN. Tomas Scheckter, one of the most aggressive and well liked drivers, hasn't raced an Indycar race since 2011, though he isn't retired persay. Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice has since retired since 2011 and has become an adviser to CFH Racing and JR Hildebrand.

Other drivers like Alex Loyd, Rafa Matos, Bertrand Baguette, Jay Howard, Davey Hamilton, John Andretti, and Hideki Mutoh haven't raced in Indycar since 2011.

One driver who made a big return to Indycar in 2011 was four-time Indycar champion Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais, who left Champ Car after the 2007 season for Formula 1's Toro Rosso, returned to drive on road courses for Dale Coyne Racing. After a couple of years of struggles, Bourdais has solidly planted himself (again) as one of the best drivers in Indycar.

2011 was the last season of having one engine manufacturer. Since 2006, Honda was the sole provider of engines for the Indycar series. In 2012, Chevrolet and Lotus entered Indycar. Despite Lotus subsequently leaving after the 2012 season, Chevrolet vs. Honda has become a great battle on the track that continues today.

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama - Day 3
Alex Tagliani (BHA) and Simona de Silvestro (HVM) driving Lotus powered cars around
Barber in 2012 (Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images North America)

As mentioned, the IR-07 was retired and Indycar began to race with a brand new chassis for the first time since 2003 (the IR-07 was a modification of an existing chassis. Champ Car did run a new chassis in 2007, but the series disbanded in 2008).

Several teams closed up shop following the 2011 season. The biggest loss by far was Newman-Haas Racing. The historic and championship caliber team, who fielded Oriol Servia and ROY James Hinchcliffe in their final season, closed up shop after 2011 despite purchasing DW-12s for the 2012 season, Their reason for closing up shop was caused by lack of funds. The team has left a void that hasn't been filled. Their presence at the track is greatly missed. The other big loss was Conquest Racing. Conquest is owned by Eric Bachelart, but despite purchasing a DW-12, they never ran the car. The team closed down their Indycar program after a decade of running in the sport. A true shame to lose two solid teams for Indycar.

The 2015 Indianapolis 500 field was compromised with some of the best and brightest names in open-wheel racing. And yet, of the 33 drivers who raced in this year's 500, 22 of them scored points during the 2011 season. It's great to see drivers sticking around in Indycar and making careers for themselves.

The schedule has changed since 2011 as well. Indycar no longer races at Sao Paulo, Edmonton, New Hampshire, Baltimore, Motegi, Kentucky, and Las Vegas (all featured on the 2011 calendar). That's a lot of hits Indycar took in that department. They have since added Belle Isle, Auto Club Speedway, Pocono, Houston (which was taken off of the schedule in 2015), the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, NOLA, and Boston (2016). While I think the racing has gotten much better since 2011, one thing that hasn't gotten better is the schedule, which has long-been my biggest critique of Indycar in the last couple of season.

Baltimore Grand Prix - Day 3
One race that I really miss that was always full of drama was the Baltimore Gran Prix in downtown Baltimore,
which was booted off the schedule in 2014 (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America)

So, after doing some analysis of what Indycar was like back in 2011, we can determine that a lot has changed since then, while a lot has stayed the same. Drivers have come and gone, teams have closed shop and expanded, and tracks have been added and dropped. Still, Indycar remains every bit as good as it was in 2011. I've enjoyed this season as much as I did in 2011, which is one of my favorite seasons to watch. Let's hope there are bright days ahead for Indycar!

Let me know what you think!

-Matthew Hickey