Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Greatest Driver-Team Lineups

So, I was thinking about the greatest driver-team lineups we've seen in IndyCar, and I created a list. I based it on statistical success, team success, and how the drivers panned out in their careers. Feel free to share comments on the list. Also, since my expertise is on the CART Era and beyond of IndyCar (1979-2016), I have based the list on those years. I'm sure there are great teams before the CART Era, but I honestly don't know enough to say one way or the other. Here's the list!


12) Pagenaud - Power (Team Austrailia / Walker Racing - 2007)

Despite not being statistical juggernauts, this team lineup at Walker Racing in the final year of Champ Car would turn out to be one of the best one-two punches in IndyCar. Will Power was one of the few drivers who could actually challenge Sebastien Bourdais for a championship in the dying ages of Champ Car. Simon Pagenaud began his career in IndyCar in 2007 with the iconic green and yellow colors. Despite modest results from both in 2007, they would both end up being champions in the sport. It's rare to find two eventual champions start out as teammates many years before they blossom.

Teammates turned rivals turned teammates again (Photo: Champ Car)


11) Franchitti - Tracy (Team KOOL Green - 1998-2002)

Dario Franchitti's switch to Team KOOL Green and Barry Green marked a dramatic switch to the team for years to come, as brash veteran Paul Tracy also joined the team. The iconic green and white cars were often seen battling up front, despite not winning any championships. Still, history has been very kind to this team, their drivers, and their cars will never be forgotten. The two managed 15 wins over 5 seasons.

A couple of beasts (Photo: Team KOOL Green)


10) Andretti - Andretti (Newman-Haas Racing - 1989-1992)

How often have we seen a father-son team lineup in which bother drivers were full-time? We got to see this for several years at Paul Newman and Carl Haas's team between Formula 1, IndyCar, and Indianapolis 500 champion Mario Andretti, and seasoned youngster and son of Mario, Michael Andretti. Michael would win the championship in 1991 and would be a consistent championship threat, while Michael's arrival to the team signaled the downward trend of Mario's career. Still, this team stands among the few that had two legends driving for them. While Mario never won (Michael earned the team all 20 wins over the four seasons), he was a consistent podium threat and was as fast as ever.

Michael in the #1 and Mario in the #2 (Photo: Brinkworth Models)


9) Rahal - Unser Jr. (Galles-Kraco Racing - 1990-1991)

One of the more underrated driver combos was the legends of Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. at the Galles-Kraco Racing stable from 1990 and 1991. In their first season together, Unser Jr. won the championship and Bobby finished fourth. In 1991, Rahal finished second in the championship and Little Al third. In just two seasons, the duo amassed 9 wins and 35 podiums in 33 races before Rahal went off to start his own team in 1992.

Little Al leads teammate Bobby Rahal (second car in line) at Mid-Ohio in 1991 (Photo: Jerry Winker)


8) Castroneves - de Ferran (Team Penske - 2000-2003) 

Roger Penske was looking for a new direction after struggling for many years. In 2000, he ditched the Penske Chassis, the Mercedes engines, and his old drivers and brought in proven veteran Gil de Ferran and scrappy youngster Helio Castroneves (then known as Castro-Neves). Ever since starting in 2000, the duo were dominant. In the midst of a tricky political landscape, both drivers performed well in a host of different cars, tracks, and situations. Gil de Ferran would win both of the CART Championships for Penske in 2000-2001, and would be a championship contender in both seasons in the IRL, including winning the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Helio Castroneves won both the 2000 and 2001 Indianapolis 500s, but could not capture a championship. Wherever these two went, success followed.

de Ferran and Castroneves lead the field into turn one at Laguna Seca in 2001 (Photo: Champ Car)


7) Andretti - Mansell (Newman-Haas Racing - 1993-1994)

One of the most iconic duos in the history of IndyCar was the world-class driver Nigel Mansell and the legendary Mario Andretti. After much drama over in Europe, Nigel Mansell packed his bags and came to CART to race for Newman-Haas Racing. While Mario Andretti was once again solid in both seasons, it was Mansell who was the man to watch. He picked up CART like he had been doing it for decades. He dominated the 1993 season on his way to the championship as a rookie**** (****he was far from a rookie persay). While 1994 would be the last season for both drivers in IndyCar, seeing a legendary driver in Formula 1 leave in his prime to race in IndyCar is something that we may never see again.

Andretti on the inside and Mansell on the outside (Photo: motorsportretro)


6) Castroneves - Montoya - Pagenaud - Power (Team Penske - 2015-2016)

The most recent team to join this list is the dominant Team Penske juggarnaut lineup from 2015 to 2016. As if three Penske cars wasn't terrifying enough, the legendary outfit added a fourth car in 2015 for proven stud Simon Pagenaud. Couple this with proven winner Helio Castroneves, and former champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power meant this team was epic. Despite throwing away a championship in 2015, 2016 was a dominant year for the outfit that saw Pagenaud win his first championship. In two years, the four drivers amassed 13 wins and 37 podiums in 32 races.

Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma
Castroneves leads Power and Pagenaud in practice. Not pictured is
Montoya (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America) 


5) Mears - Sullivan - Unser (Team Penske - 1985-1989)

All you have to do is say the three names on this team roster to understand why they are on this list: Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, and Al Unser Sr. The three drivers all won one Indianapolis 500 during these five seasons (Sullivan '85, Unser '87, and Mears '88). Unser and Sullivan would both win championships. Unser's only full-time season in these years was in 1985, though he was still a threat to win races while part-time.

One of the first ever "Death Star" teams in modern IndyCar. Mears on the inside,
Sullivan in the middle, and Unser on the outside (Photo: IMS)


4) Vasser - Zanardi (Target Chip Ganassi Racing - 1996-1998)

1996 officially marked the arrival of the Chip Ganassi Racing that we know of nowadays. With Jimmy Vasser returning from his first season with the team and newcomer and relative unknown to the CART community Alex Zanardi. Zanardi proved to be blisteringly quick, but he failed to finish in key situations. Meanwhile, Vasser was the model of consistency and went on to win the 1996 championship. The next two seasons were all Zanardi, winning two straight championships through savage speed,  aggressive moves, and breathtaking passes. Overall, the two drivers won three straight championships, won 23 races, and podiumed 43 times out of a total of 52 races. Ganassi was now the team to beat in IndyCar.

Vasser and Zanardi in Portland, 1997 (Photo: JungleKey)


3) Fittipaldi - Unser Jr. - Tracy (Team Penske - 1994)

I think the 1994 Team Penske lineup had statistically the greatest single season in IndyCar history. I can think of nothing as dominant as that Mercedes engine, Penske chassis, and three iconic drivers wheeling the cars. Formula 1, IndyCar, and Indianapolis 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, Indycar and Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr., and young gun and future champion Paul Tracy all had a chance to show what they were made of in 1994.

Al Unser Jr. would do The Double, winning the Indianapolis 500 and the Championship in the same season. Emerson Fittipaldi would finish second in the championship, and Paul Tracy would finish third. Think about that: a one-two-three finish in the championship against names like Andretti, Mansell, Rahal, Vasser, Luyendyk, and Villeneuve, and it wasn't even close. In sixteen races, the threesome won 13 of the 16 races. Of the possible 48 podium finishes earned by a team, Penske collected 29 of them, including four 1-2-3 finishes.

Some historians argue that the Mercedes-Ilmor engine in the back of that Penske is what drove Tony George to creating the IRL to rival the CART Series starting in 1996. If you haven't read The Beast by Jade Gurss, do so immediately. But this individual season by the 1994 Team Penske lineup is one of the greatest of all-time.

Al Unser Jr. in one of "The Beasts" in 1994 (Photo credit not given)


2) Dixon - Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing - 2009-2010*, 2011-2013**)

It is pretty unprecedented to see two teammates win four championships in five seasons (five of six if you count Scott Dixon's championship in 2008 when Dario wasn't there). But Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti went on an absolute tear in 2009 and onwards. Franchitti would win the 2009, 2010, and 2011 championships and the 2010 and 2012 Indianapolis 500. Dixon won the Indianapolis 500 and the Championship in 2008 (even though Dario wasn't his teammate) and the 2013 Championship.

It's rare to see such dominance, especially in an era of IndyCar where most everything was controlled: everyone had the same chassis, same tires, and same engines in 2009-2011 and relatively same power units between 2012-2013 despite multiple manufacturers. But it became apparent that the Target cars were always going to contend no matter what track it was and how well the other teams were racing.

The statistics for these two drivers through their five years as teammates is staggering. In five seasons and 85 races, these two collected 29 wins and 72 podiums. These two will go down as two of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history, and this five year stretch has a lot to do with that.

*Two-car team.
**Starting in 2011, Chip Ganassi Racing expanded to four cars, but the two additional cars were a part of the satellite program and thus not included in the statistics.

Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma - Day 3
The iconic red Target cars of Franchitti and Dixon (Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images North America)


1) Franchitti - Herta - Kanaan - Wheldon (Andretti-Green Racing - 2003-2005)

This team, while being statistically one of the best teams, wasn't as good as others on this list. This team didn't have drivers that at the time would be considered elite, top-class drivers. This team didn't include big money sponsors. They were not a vastly experienced, well established team like that of Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske, who dominates the majority of this list. What this team did have was something you don't find too often in the cutthroat world of racing: cohesiveness, a family-like mentality, personality that attracted fans from everywhere, and a passion for winning.

This team lineup was the brainchild of retired driver Michael Andretti. CART veterans Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, and Tony Kanaan jumped over to the rising oval-only IRL Series in 2003 (they would introduce road courses in 2005) with relatively unknown Brit Dan Wheldon joined forces for their first full-time season in the IRL under the Andretti-Green Racing banner. With injuries, retirements (Andretti did race a couple of races before his first retirement for IRL), and a "breaking-in" period, 2003 wasn't a good measuring stick for the squad. In 2004, the team would be utterly dominant. Tony Kanaan would win the championship and established a record that will likely never be beaten: he finished every lap in the season. Kanaan ran away with the championship, while Wheldon finished second, Franchitti sixth, and Herta ninth.

2005 was the year Dan Wheldon established himself as an IndyCar great. He won four of the first five races, including his first of two Indianapolis 500 wins. He would continue to wow fans with his aggressive, no-holds-barred driving style on his way to two more wins and the championship. Kanaan would finish second, Franchitti fourth, and Herta eighth. After 2005, Wheldon went to Ganassi and then various other teams before losing his life in 2011, Herta would drive for the team one more year before retiring and becoming an owner, Franchitti would switch to NASCAR in 2008 and then Ganassi in 2009-2013 before a forced retirement, while Kanaan still drives today for, you guessed it, Ganassi.

Still, these four drivers and their team owner did something special. It was unprecedented to see four full-time cars at all, let alone four full-time cars who worked so well together to push the team forward. This officially marked the dawn of Andretti-Green Racing (now known as Andretti Autosport) as a super-team in IndyCar. As individuals, these drivers may not stack well against the Zanardis, Meers, Andrettis, or Foyts of the world, but make no mistake, this was the greatest driver lineup ever assembled in IndyCar.

Over the three seasons, the foursome amassed 21 wins and 63 podiums in 49 races. They were also the first team to complete a 1-2-3-4 finish, doing it at the inaugural IRL road race in St. Petersburg in 2005.

#7 Bryan Herta (Photo: Getty Images)

#11 Tony Kanaan (Photo: Speed Sport Magazine)

#26 Dan Wheldon (Photo: Motorsport)

#27 Dario Franchitti (Photo: Motorsport)

(L to R) Franchitti, Kanaan, Andretti, Wheldon, and Herta (Photo: Motorsport.com)

One of the last known photos of the four of them together
(Photo from Bryan Herta's Twitter Account)

 Let me know what you think!

-Matthew Hickey

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