Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What Will The Rookie Class Look Like For 2012?

While listening to Trackside last night (great episode, by the way), I started making note of potential rookies mentioned for 2012. We're coming off a season where James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand gave us one of the best rookie fights we've had in a number of years for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Drivers such as Martin Plowman and Wade Cunningham also made positive impressions in limited campaigns.

But what will 2012 bring in terms of rookies? Will we see as intense a battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year as we did this year? Will there be a late, relative unknown enter the field, ala James Jakes for Dale Coyne Racing?

If you're talking prospective rookies, you have to start with Simon Pagenaud. Impressive in his few races this past season, the French driver has long been a favorite of Honda. Linked with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, there's been some good buzz in regards to him joining full-time in 2012. He'd be one of the more experienced rookies in the field, between ALMS and ChampCar. You have to think he'd be one of the early top prospects for Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

(The question has come up; given Simon's year in ChampCar, would INDYCAR still consider him a rookie? The answer appears to be yes, if you look at results from last year. He was noted as a rookie in the box scores as such for his 3 races).

In terms of rookies we might see full-time in 2012, right now Josef Newgarden has to be the #2 candidate. The Firestone Indy Lights champ will have some funding from his FIL scholarship, but where he ends up right now is anyone's guess. He's been mentioned everywhere from SSM to Foyt to Andretti Autosport, but nothing sounds too concrete.

After Pagenaud and Newgarden, it's pretty fuzzy. Martin Plowman seems to be working on some things, if a couple of Twitter hints mean anything. He was in the rumor mill as potentially full-time before the 2011 season began, and did well in his races with AFS/SSM. Plowey's gained some fans over the course of the year with his personality, character, and results, and seems at least a viable candidate for one of the open teams out there.
Will Newgarden find a full-time seat for 2012?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

For the rest, really, it's a crapshoot. Wade Cunningham waited a long time to make his IndyCar debut, and was quite impressive in his race at Kentucky. It would be a surprise right now, though (however pleasant), if he were to be full-time in 2012. Pippa Mann is a fan favorite, but as she works through her recovery on her injured finger, we'll have to wait and see what she's able to put together for next year. Ho-Pin Tung is a total cipher. As a believer in second chances, I'd love to see Dillon Battistini get at least a one-off at some point. And there's always the chance someone from Formula Renault 3.5 or GP3 shows up, ala Bertrand Baguette (2010) or James Jakes (2011). Ultimately, guess as we might, we can never 100% sure who might be showing up to the party.

It's always a smart idea to watch Conquest Racing as we get a bit closer to the season. In 2010, they ran Baguette and Mario Romancini (as well as Francesco Dracone). For 2011, we saw them give rookies Sebastian Saavedra, Mann, and Battistini a chance. Conquest might not be considered a top team, but they are a way for rookies to find a way out on track. Who they sign for 2012 might be a good indicator of how things pan out out for some of the other rookies' situations.

In Indy Lights, Esteban Guerrieri was rumored for Sonoma last year, but that didn't happen. My hunch is he stays another year in Lights. I can see the same developing with Stefan Wilson, and depending on their team, I'd say both those drivers have enough to win a Lights championship while looking forward to 2013.

With a new car and fewer "extras" likely in 2012, it might be a tough year for rookies to get some of the big opportunities we saw this year. But that doesn't mean there aren't some good options out there. It's one of the downers to silly season--at some point, you realize all the drivers you want to see likely won't be in the series at full time. But it does make you appreciate the ones you do get to see that much more.

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