Season Review: 2019 NTT IndyCar Series – Top Twelve Drivers – Part One

by Jordan Groves

Another exciting season of NTT IndyCar Series racing has come to pass. We were treated to another scintillating seventeen races in 2019, which ultimately paved the way for Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden to be crowned champion for the second time his career.

Newgarden would fight off rivals such as this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, as well as the likes of Alexander Rossi and reigning champion Scott Dixon on his way to securing the crown. In the meantime, the next stars of IndyCar were writing their names into contention for the future, with the likes of Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist and others pulling off incredible results despite a relative lack of experience in what is one of the toughest motorsport championships in the world.

So many drivers up and down the grid showcased their talents at various points during the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. Because of this, we here at The Checkered Flag have once again put together a list of the top twelve drivers that we believe performed the best throughout the year.

In part one, we will count down the drivers who occupy positions twelve to seven on our list. On Friday, we will see which drivers have made our top six and which driver we believe is number one for 2019.

Thirty-seven drivers took to the track in an official NTT IndyCar Series session at some point during 2019. Let’s begin our top twelve with one of the numerous part-time drivers who raced this year.

Jack Harvey (GBR), Meyer Shank Racing, 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, St. Petersburg
Credit: Karl Zemlin / Courtesy of IndyCar

12. Jack Harvey – Meyer Shank Racing

Our list starts off with a part-time driver who only raced in ten of the seventeen races. Jack Harvey and Meyer Shank Racing expanded their schedule for their second year of competing in the NTT IndyCar Series and, with it, they continued to go from strength to strength.

Harvey’s 2019 season kicked off strongly with a superb seventh-place qualifying result for the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He would go on to take his and MSR’s first top ten finish in the race; a result he would equal at the second round at the Circuit of the Americas, despite having started the race way down in twenty-third.

A pit-road speeding penalty and bad luck would see Harvey outside of the top ten at Alabama and Long Beach, but Harvey would bounce back in an unbelievable way at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The British driver would take a superb third place on the grid and would go on to spend much of the race running in second place.

In the end, Harvey would lose a position to the eventual race-winner, Simon Pagenaud. He would hold on to secure his and the team’s first podium in the NTT IndyCar Series; a true giant-killing performance for the part-time outfit.

The rest of the season would, sadly, not go as smoothly for Harvey and MSR. Jack took another top ten finish later in the season at Mid-Ohio, but his best chance of another great result at the penultimate round at Portland would be snatched away after being taken out by Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Despite the disappointing end to the year, Jack will end the year immensely happy with his and the team’s efforts. What’s more, Meyer Shank Racing announced earlier this month that they have taken the plunge and will be racing full-time in 2020; with Jack staying on to continue to drive the #60 Honda, now with support from Andretti Autosport. With technical support from one of the biggest teams on the grid, Jack and Meyer Shank Racing have the potential to really upset the apple cart in 2020. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they can do!

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

11. Santino Ferrucci – Dale Coyne Racing

A driver who entered 2019 with relatively low expectations from most observers was Dale Coyne Racing‘s, Santino Ferrucci. After his massively infamous antics whilst racing in Formula 2, Santino made his NTT IndyCar Series debut in 2018 and competed in four races before being picked up by Dale Coyne Racing full-time for 2019.

Whilst his performances in the road course and street circuit races were steady but unspectacular, Santino really made a name for himself in the oval races. Despite having never raced on an oval, Ferrucci would take a seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500, with his race highlighted by an impressive avoidance of a pile-up mid-race.

Ferrucci would follow this up by taking a strong fourth-place at Texas Motor Speedway a few weeks later. He would equal this result at Pocono Raceway later in the year after another fantastic performance; easily outpacing his veteran team-mate Sebastien Bourdais in the process.

Santino’s strongest performance came the following week at Gateway Motorsports Park. Ferrucci spent much of the race in contention for the win, but an ill-timed caution at the end of the race saw the previous leaders lose out on track position to the eventual top-three of Takuma Sato, Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan. Ferrucci would nevertheless finish in fourth-place once again.

Ferrucci’s hopes of claiming the rookie of the year honours took a serious hit when he failed to finish in the final two races of the season. Up until the final two rounds, Ferrucci had astonishingly completed all but two of all the laps raced in the year; such was his ability to keep out of trouble.

Ferrucci would ultimately take home thirteenth-place in the championship standings at the end of the season. It looks likely that he will continue with Dale Coyne Racing next year. If that is indeed the case, he will need to put more work into his road course and street circuit races if he wants to go to the next level and be more of a factor in the standings come the end of the season.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

10. Ryan Hunter-Reay – Andretti Autosport

After ending the 2018 season with a win at Sonoma Raceway and fourth place in the standings, it is fair to say that Ryan Hunter-Reay would have hoped that 2019 yield a much better result than eighth place overall.

The American, once again driving the #28 for Andretti Autosport, began the season as a consistent feature in the top ten race by race. An engine failure would cut his race short at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but a third-place finish at COTA would begin a run of seven finishes inside the top eight during the next eight races.

It was in the second half of the season where Hunter-Reay’s year began to fall off of the rails. The race weekend at Road America looked to be going the right direction after showing strong speed on Friday and Saturday, but Hunter-Reay would go on to finish down in eleventh place whilst his team-mate, Alexander Rossi, would utterly dominate the field to win the race by almost thirty seconds.

Ryan would return to the podium at Mid-Ohio with a third-place finish, but it would be his last appearance on the podium for the year. Just two more top ten finishes would follow in the remaining four races, with Ryan failing to finish at Pocono Raceway – after being caught up in the now infamous opening lap wreck – or at Portland. Portland, in particular, would be a low-point of the season for Ryan after he took out Jack Harvey early in the race and would go on to retire himself later on.

Ryan will be hoping to be on the pace with his championship challenging team-mate, Alexander Rossi, on a much more regular basis in 2020. The 2012 series champion cannot afford to rest on his laurels with so much young talent waiting in the wings ready to step up and potentially replace him. He and his #28 team have proven in the past that they are more than capable of getting the job done. Now they just need to find a way to more regularly perform at the level that they can and should be performing at.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

9. Marcus Ericsson – Arrow Schmidt Peterson

After having his five-year Formula 1 career ended by his replacement at Alfa Romeo Racing, Marcus Ericsson found a new home in the form of the NTT IndyCar Series for 2019. The Swede would take the place of the injured Robert Wickens at Arrow Schmidt Peterson in the renumbered #7 Honda and would make his debut at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg; a race that he would retire at after suffering mechanical issues.

It was at the second round of the season at the Circuit of the Americas where Ericsson truly arrived in IndyCar. An ill-timed red flag in qualifying would see him sadly fail to set a fast-lap and be forced to start the race down in sixteenth, but Ericsson would charge through the field on an alternate pit-strategy and with great pace to climb as high up as fifth-place as the race neared its end.

Sadly, Ericsson’s race would be ruined after his team appeared to release him too early from a late pit-stop. He would make contact with Spencer Pigot on pit-road and would be subsequently awarded a pass-through penalty; thus relegating Marcus to an eventual finish of sixteenth place. Ericsson commented after the race that he believed “a podium finish was on the cards” before his pit incident.

Ericsson would showcase his speed yet again the following weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. After qualifying down in twentieth, Ericsson moved early to a three-stop pit-strategy and would go on to charge his way through the field to finish in seventh; going wheel-to-wheel with series veterans such as Josef Newgarden and Will Power.

Ericsson’s high-point of the season was yet to come, however. In the second race of the doubleheader at Detroit, Ericsson would put in a sensational performance to go from twelfth on the grid to finish on the podium in second place. He avoided the carnage at the start of the race and then perfectly pulled off yet another alternate pit-strategy to take his first IndyCar podium; his first appearance on a podium since racing in the GP2 Series in 2013.

Marcus would follow up his Detroit podium with a solid seventh place on the high-speed oval of Texas Motor Speedway just one week later. Sadly and unbelievably, that would be his last top ten finish of the season. A mixture of bad luck and lack of speed in some cases, Ericsson’s end of the season would not match his start.

What made matters worse was that he was totally written out of contention for rookie of the year honours when he was forced to miss the penultimate race of the season at Portland after being summoned by Alfa Romeo Racing to Spa-Francorchamps to fulfil his third-driver role. Despite travelling all the way to the Belgian Grand Prix, Ericsson wouldn’t turn a lap and would frustratingly have to watch both the Formula 1 and IndyCar races as a spectator.

Marcus would end the season down in seventeenth place in the points standings; far from an accurate indicator of his speed throughout the season. It would be fair to say that not many people were expecting much from the Swede after a lacklustre Formula 1 career, but Marcus proved that he had the speed to compete in IndyCar.

Marcus will continue for a second season in 2020 and will move to a third-entry with the giants Chip Ganassi Racing. It will be really interesting to see what Marcus can do with a year of IndyCar racing under his belt.

Takuma Sato (JAP), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, Barber
Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

8. Takuma Sato – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Takuma Sato‘s second season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing really was a rollercoaster of a year. The Japanese driver experienced both the highest of highs and pretty much the lowest of lows during the season; sometimes experiencing both ends of the spectrum within just one week.

Mechanical issues would force his retirement from the season-opener, but COTA would prove more favourable for the driver of the #30 Honda. Takuma would finish the race in a solid seventh place, but team-mate Graham Rahal would be classified higher up in fourth.

The third race of the season would be Sato’s strongest of the 2019 season. In a topsy-turvy qualifying session at Barber Motorsports Park, it looked as though Rahal was on course to take pole position until Sato put in a stunner of a lap right at the death to steal pole for himself.

In the race, Sato would capitalize brilliantly on his spot at the front of the grid and would build a strong lead early on. A slow pit-stop saw Sato’s advantage trimmed all the way down, but such was his pace in the #30 Honda, Takuma would soon build up a gap once again.

Ultimately, neither a mid-race caution of a brief off-track excursion late in the race would deny Takuma of the race win. He would take the victory with an advantage of two seconds over second-place Scott Dixon; with his team-mate, Rahal, sadly failing to finish after his car inexplicably died mid-race.

Sato was a key player once again at the Indianapolis 500, taking a solid third-place after snapping at the heals of the race-winner Simon Pagenaud and runner-up Alexander Rossi. Another third-place would follow less than a week later in the first race of the doubleheader in Detroit; showcasing the versatility of both car and driver.

A rough patch in the mid to late stages of the season would see Sato lose touch with the leaders in the championship standings. His toughest race of the season would come at Pocono Raceway, with Sato being loudly criticised by drivers and fans alike for his involvement in a lap one pile-up that claimed the races of himself, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe. Sato’s actions were labelled as “disgraceful” by some, with Sato taking to Twitter to defend himself in the following days after the race.

Sato, responsible for the wreck or not, would have the opportunity to redeem himself less than a week after the race at Gateway Motorsports Park. Takuma would qualify in fifth-place but fell all the way to last place early on after an unplanned pit-stop. However, this pit-stop put him off sequence with everyone else and ultimately left him out on the race track when a caution came out toward the end of the race.

Takuma was leading the race after the former leaders had pitted, with Sato then able to pit during the caution and maintain the lead for the restart with a handful of laps remaining. Ultimately, Sato would edge out Ed Carpenter in a photo-finish to claim his second victory of the season; a victory that Sato would say was emotional after his tough week after Pocono.

Sato would end the season in ninth place in the standings despite his tough end to the season. If he and the team can eliminate the mistakes and bad luck that plagued them this year, Takuma and RLLR could absolutely be dark horses in the title race next season due to their usual speed on every type of track that IndyCar visits.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

7. Will Power – Team Penske

Will Power could very well have been right in the hunt for the championship given his speed at various points this season. Despite this, 2019 was the closest Will has come to suffering a winless season in his IndyCar career.

His season began with a strong podium at St. Petersburg and he looked to be on course to take victory at the second race of the season at COTA. After leading much of the race in a comfortable fashion, a late caution looked as though it would cost him his race lead. However, Power wasn’t even able to emerge from the pits during the final pit-cycle, with his #12 Team Penske Chevrolet suffering a driveshaft failure that would put him into retirement.

Tyre-issues and a mid-race spin would relegate Power to a frustrating eleventh place at Barber. Things wouldn’t be much easier at Long Beach. After qualifying in third-place, Will finished in seventh place after making a mistake and sending himself into the run-off area at turn one whilst battling with Scott Dixon.

Power’s month of May would be decent but unspectacular. The Australian hoped to repeat his 2018 feat of winning on both the road course and the oval, but Will never really seemed to have the pace to properly challenge for either win. The Grand Prix would end in a seventh-place finish, with the 500 yielding a slightly stronger fifth-place.

Will would return to the podium in the Sunday race at Detroit and at Road America, but poor finishes outside of the top ten at the first race at Detroit as well as at Toronto, Iowa and Gateway would put him well behind the title contenders; realistically writing him out of contention fairly early on.

As the season neared its end, it genuinely started to look as though Power could fail to find the top step of the podium in 2019. However, a late-race charge would see Power fly up into the race lead right as rain began to fall. The race would subsequently be ended early, with Power being declared the winner.

Another win would follow a few weeks later at the penultimate race of the year at Portland, with Power comfortably besting the competition despite a caution within the final ten laps. A similarly strong performance would come at the season finale at Laguna Seca, with Power challenging rookie Colton Herta all race long to finish just half a second behind the race-winner.

Power demonstrated numerous times throughout 2019 that he still has incredible speed. However, a mixture of bad luck and driver error put him out of contention for the title this year. Despite all his issues, however, Will still managed to end the year in fifth place in the standings. He will be hoping to be in the hunt for his second championship next year and will be relying on much better fortunes in order to do so.

Our list will continue on Friday with part two, which will count down our top six drivers of 2019. 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.

Credit: Stephen King / Courtesy of IndyCar

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