Thursday, September 22, 2011

Another Look At James Jakes

Less than a month from now, either JR Hildebrand or James Hinchcliffe will have been crowned Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and it will be a well-deserved honor regardless of which of the two emerges victorious.

But being a rookie isn't just seeing who comes out ahead on points; it's also about progressively improving and learning as the season goes on. For me, I believe James Jakes has been the most improved rookie over the course of this season.

Let's face it: when 24 year-old Englishman was first announced as the driver of the #18 Acorn Stairlifts ride for Dale Coyne Racing, most of us scratched our heads and asked "who's that?". I personally even ran a photo of him during the Barber Open Test, with the caption "This is James Jakes. We think". Most of his experience was in GP2 Asia and GP3, where he had decent, if not sparkling, results.

Waggishness and background aside, "Jakesy" didn't do much in the first part of the season. He wasn't an embarrassment, but neither was he blasting through the field. No Top 10s, as Dale Coyne's team struggled in the early going. The form seemed to be poor qualifying efforts, followed by mostly mid-pack results. Then there was the Indy 500, where Jakes did not qualify.

However, I got to interview him and chat with him a bit at Indy, and I was struck by his attitude and perseverance throughout qualifying. Frankly, Dale Coyne's team was already struggling; his more-experienced teammate Alex Lloyd barely made the field in a car that was vibrating wildly. Jakes may not have made the field, but he handled himself well, and I believe garnered a lot of respect.

This is James Jakes. We're sure this time.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

The rough times didn't stop after Indy. Although he began to qualify a bit better, the finishes just weren't there. New Hampshire saw a promising run ruined with mechanical issues. He had great speed in practice at Sonoma, but like most everyone at Sonoma, couldn't find much room to pass in the actual race.

But he kept at it. He came within 16 hundredths of a second from knocking Dario Franchitti out of the first round of Baltimore qualifying. At Motegi, he qualified P8 overall, and was a pit stop stall away from a legitimate podium finish. Again, the box score might not show it, but Jakes has been flat-out impressive in recent outings.

You can't judge a driver on a single result, but looking at Jakes overall, he just seems more comfortable, more at home in the car, than he did earlier in the year. Some rookies never do get, and that needed improvement is never seen. No, he's not in contention for Rookie of the Year, but he has shown he can hold his own against the rest of the field.

James Jakes was a stranger to ovals before, so Kentucky and Las Vegas will still be challenges. But if you watch him out there, this is not some fly-by-night hack or no-talent field filler. He's an underdog on an underdog team, a little-known driver facing a huge learning curve, and yes, he's got his struggles still ahead of him. But he's proven himself to be one other thing as well: a legitimate IndyCar driver who has a place in this series. Will we see him in 2012? In April of this year I wouldn't have thought to care. Now, I'm hoping he gets to continue on his journey in the series. We'll just have to see how far it takes him.

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