When we’re looking at the IndyCar season that was, it’s always interesting to see how it compares to campaigns of years past. More specifically, I like to try and gauge who was the most improved driver from the year before. It’s not easy, especially when you throw team considerations and luck into the mix.
At first glance, it would be easy to mark Ryan Hunter-Reay as Most Improved, since he went from P7 to P1 in the points, and went from a single victory to four, but I’m not sure that shoe fits. Hunter-Reay certainly moved it up a level, but this was a guy we all knew from years past could not only compete, but win. I’d like the “Most Improved” designator who showed real, drastic improvement.
What about Charlie Kimball? Finishing P19 in his 2011 rookie season, he often looked tentative and, well, like a rookie in his races prior to this year. This year, he looked a lot more assertive, had a fantastic first podium at Toronto, and tripled his number of Top 10 finishes from the year before. Then again, he once again finished P19 in the standings—though it was against a stronger field, most would argue. Still, Kimball is definitely making measured strides in his IndyCar career.
JR Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe also generally looked better than in their rookie seasons, but it didn’t seem as if either driver made what could be called huge strides. It felt like both could finish well as rookies, and the same could be said this year. Hinch did jump up to P8 in the final standings from P12 as a rookie, and Hildebrand went from P14 to P11. If anything, I’d say Hinch showed a bit more polish this year.
Sebastian Saavedra? He certainly seemed smoother out there in his limited 2012 schedule than he did in his disastrous 2011 campaign, even if the results don’t show that. However, three races seems a bit limited a sample to tell us anything at this point.
I’ll bring up one more name, though it will likely cause a fair amount of debate in its own right. Let’s talk about E.J. Viso. Now, yes, Viso finished P20 in the standings, two spots lower than in 2011. And he faded in the second half of the season, recording only a single Top 10 after Milwaukee. Again, results and points don’t tell the whole story. This was a more patient driver than in years past, less likely to pull a banzai move at the last minute resulting in multiple wrecked cars. No, he wasn’t perfect, and had his moments, but also dropped his DNFs from wrecks from four to only a single race in 2012.
So which driver stands out as Most Improved from 2011? Honestly, I’m not sure there is a clear winner here. My instinct is to go with Kimball or possibly Viso, but I think you can make an argument for any of the names I’ve mentioned here. This might be a question without a clear-cut answer, but I’d love to hear your opinion.