The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series was yet another exciting and enthralling campaign that once again showed that America’s premier single-seater series is, pound for pound, one of the best motor racing championships in the world.
In a battle between veterans and young guns, Scott Dixon would beat out the likes of Alexander Rossi and others to take the title, but as is often the case in racing, the final championship table does not tell the whole story.
In light of this, The Checkered Flag has picked out who we believe were the top twelve best drivers of the 2018 IndyCar championship; regardless of where they may have placed on the championship tables at the end of the season.
In part one, we will count down our rankings from position twelve to seven. Let’s kick-off the list with a potentially surprising pick in the twelfth spot:
12. Patricio O’Ward – Harding Racing
Our list starts, perhaps surprisingly, with a driver that only competed in one round of the seventeen-race championship. Despite this, the Mexican teenager Patricio O’Ward made one hell of a first impression when he made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut at the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.
O’Ward’s debut came off of the back of him securing the 2018 Indy Lights championship two weeks previously at Portland International Raceway. Following the final race, both O’Ward and his nearest rival Colton Herta took part in tests with Harding Racing; who duly elected to field both young drivers in the final race of the IndyCar championship.
Whilst Herta had a clean but fairly innocuous debut weekend, O’Ward shocked many. Patricio put in a stunning performance in qualifying to secure fifth place on the grid, Harding Racing’s best-ever grid position at that point. A nervy start of the race saw him fall back into the chaos of the mid-field, but O’Ward would put in a solid drive to secure ninth place; Harding’s best finish of the year.
It was a debut that caught the eye of many, not least the bosses of the recently renamed Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Shortly after the season-finale, Harding would announce the signing of both O’Ward and Herta for the full 2019 championship. If O’Ward’s debut is anything to go by, Patricio could certainly be one to watch next year.
11. Sebastien Bourdais – Dale Coyne Racing
Sebastien Bourdais got his 2018 IndyCar campaign off to a better start than anybody else by winning the opening race at St. Petersburg. It was a remarkable recovery drive by the Dale Coyne Racing driver, who came back from an early puncture to inherit the lead of the race on the final restart following the now-infamous collision between Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens.
Bourdais’ fantastic start to the season looked set to continue at the second race at ISM Raceway, where Sebastien took pole position. However, a mishap in the pits would see the Frenchman penalised, which would ultimately end his chance of victory.
The Grand Prix of Long Beach, the third round of the year, saw a turnaround in fortunes for Sebastien. The Frenchman looked on course for another strong finish, having made his way through the order with some incredible overtakes, but an ill-timed caution saw him lose any chance of finishing on the podium.
A handful of decent results came during the remaining races of 2018, but there were too many poor results on his scorecard by the time the season-finale came around. Bourdais would suffer nine finishes outside of the top ten during the year, with his second trip to the podium at the penultimate race at Portland only doing enough to put him in seventh place in the standings by the end of the championship.
There were flashes of the brilliance that we have come to expect from Bourdais, but both he and Dale Coyne Racing will have to work on their consistency in 2019 if they want to become serious challengers for the title.
10. Simon Pagenaud – Team Penske
Simon Pagenaud, like his fellow Frenchman Bourdais, did not have the best of seasons in the 2018 IndyCar championship. Pagenaud found himself caught up in many unlucky incidents over the course of the year, perhaps the most notable of which being when he was rear-ended and taken out of the Grand Prix of Long Beach on lap one by Graham Rahal after having started near the front of the pack.
If you look at Pagenaud’s results, his tally of fourteen top ten finishes out of seventeen races – featuring a streak of ten consecutive top ten finishes in the final ten races – does not seem too shabby at all. However, only two of those races, Texas and Toronto, would see Simon stand on the podium.
The Team Penske driver rarely seemed to show the front-running pace of his team-mates Power and Newgarden, with the 2016 champion looking uncharacteristically lacklustre at times. Simon claimed to have found some speed in the final races of the season. He will be hoping to carry on any momentum that he may have found into the 2019 season to have any chance of being up at the front in the title race alongside his team-mates.
9. Charlie Kimball – Carlin
2018 saw the debut of British single-seater racing team Carlin in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The jump up to IndyCar was a major one for the team, with both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton suffering numerous issues throughout the season as the squad got acclimatized to the new series.
There were numerous occasions where the team showed great potential. On each of those occasions, it was Kimball leading the charge instead of Chilton. Despite routinely starting near the rear of the field as the team struggled with single-lap speed, Kimball would end 2018 with an impressive six top-ten finishes to his name; with a fantastic best finish of fifth place coming in Toronto despite having started way down in twentieth place.
Finishing the year in seventeenth in the standings, right in the mix with veteran teams and drivers, the partnership of Kimball and Carlin could continue to improve going into the 2019 season.
8. James Hinchcliffe – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series was a rollercoaster of a season for James Hinchcliffe. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver got off to a strong start with five top ten finishes in the first five races, including a podium at Barber Motorsports Park, but his hopes of contending for the championship took a major hit at the Indianapolis 500.
With an increased entry list for Indianapolis, qualifying would see the two slowest drivers not make the race. Unbelievably, despite having been on pole position for the race in 2016, Hinchcliffe joined Pippa Mann in being one of those two desperately unlucky drivers. Later describing his failure to qualify as “devastating”, James would have to watch from the sidelines as the field competed in the race which awarded double points at its end.
James bounced back from the disappointment of Indianapolis by taking fourth place at the next oval race at Texas Motor Speedway. His next oval race would go even better, with Hinchcliffe going from eleventh on the grid at Iowa Speedway to take an incredible victory after passing Josef Newgarden in the closing stages of the race.
The victory did a lot for James to get over the sadness of Indianapolis, stating afterwards that “it’s so nice to be back up top after the kind of season that we’ve had, and obviously the month of May that we had.”
Fourth place at his home race on the streets of Toronto would sadly be Hinchcliffe’s last top ten finish of the year. He was on course to finish lower in the standings than his highly impressive rookie team-mate Robert Wickens, but the infamous Pocono crash saw Wickens sidelined for the final three races; which unbelievably left the team-mates level on points in tenth and eleventh at the end of the year.
Despite the inconsistency, 2018 still saw Hinchcliffe improve upon his championship standing compared to the last few years. However, James will know that he will need to continue to improve in 2019, as he spent much of the season being overshadowed by his team-mate. The speed is clearly still there, as evidenced at Iowa and Barber, but that speed will need to be on display more regularly should Hinchcliffe hope to be in contention next year.
7. Zach Veach – Andretti Autosport
Andretti Autosport‘s newest driver, Zach Veach, graduated to the IndyCar Series after several years competing in the Indy Lights championship. The twenty-three-year-old soon proved that he was a worthy addition to the grid. In just the third race of the season, Veach’s fifth start in IndyCar, the rookie put in a sterling drive at Long Beach to finish in fourth place despite having started back in sixteenth place.
Veach would struggle to earn similarly strong results for much of the mid-season, suffering a run of eight consecutive finishes outside of the top ten; his only solace being when he took the fastest lap of the race at Road America.
Zach’s season took a turn for the better toward the end of the year with an impressive run of four top ten finishes at four completely different styles of race track. Veach would take seventh place on the streets of Toronto and would follow that up with a tenth place finish on the road course at Mid-Ohio. Zach would then showcase his prowess on the ovals, taking sixth on the Superspeedway at Pocono and then fifth at the short oval at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Vach’s late-season turnaround was sadly not enough to see him usurp Robert Wickens in the rookie of the year honours. He would end the championship in twelfth place in the standings, a relatively decent end-result given the mid-season frustrations he suffered. Additionally, Zach managed to star in one of the best pictures to have come out of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series when he escaped the opening lap carnage in Portland (shown above).
With Veach already confirmed in Andretti’s unchanged line-up for 2019, Zach will be hoping to continue to build upon his positive momentum to finish further up the standings in his sophomore season.
Our list will continue tomorrow with part two, which will count down our top six drivers of 2018. Do you agree with our top twelve ranking so far? What would you change for your own list? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter @TheCheckerFlag.