In many sports, there is the idea of a “sophomore slump”; the idea that there is an inherent letdown in an athlete’s performance in their second season. While debate remains as to just how real this sort of phenomena really is, it’s a widespread notion through many sports.
Last year, there were six full-time rookies competing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe gave us a tremendous battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year, with Hinch finally pulling ahead for those honors. They were joined by full-time rookies Charlie Kimball, Sebastian Saavedra, James Jakes, and Ana Beatriz, and all of them should be back in an IndyCar at some point this season.
So what sort of second season can these erstwhile rookies expect in INDYCAR? Here’s a look at Year 2 for these drivers, and why they might hope to avoid the ever-dreaded “sophomore slump”:
James Hinchcliffe: What can we say about Hinch that hasn’t been mentioned before? He won top rookie honors despite missing the St. Petersburg opener, and in most races looked like a steely veteran. He’s going to have a lot of publicity this year as the successor to the Go Daddy #27 ride at Andretti Autosport, but let’s be honest: if anyone in the Series is born to have the spotlight on them, it’s the perpetually-entertaining Hinch. He won’t wilt. Early reports are that the “Three Amigos” grouping of Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Hinchcliffe are working together very well at Andretti, and that bodes well for their combined success this year.
J.R. Hildebrand: We all know how close Hildebrand and Panther Racing came to winning last year’s Indianapolis 500. We know that Panther and J.R. should be strong at Indy, but their road/street course program is still a work in progress. Still, it’s an all-new car, and a late-season P8 on the Motegi road course should be a confidence builder, and there’s a general feeling of confidence that Hildebrand should be a rising star for the Series during the next few seasons. We’ll find out soon if the mix of the DW12 and Hildebrand’s all-around racing ability gives Panther the full-season performance they desire.
Charlie Kimball: Kimball’s rookie season was the learning curve many expected, though he did snag two Top 10 finishes. He’ll be up against an even deeper field this year, but he has a full season under his belt and should be in excellent equipment, so don’t consign him further back in the field just yet. Kimball has stated he wants to “finish consistently in the top-10 with a few podiums thrown in”. Like many young drivers at this point, it’s all about first finding that consistency if he wants to reach that goal.
Ana Beatriz: Bia’s situation in 2011 was pretty bleak. There was the early wrist injury, which caused her to miss the Grand Prix of Alabama. Her Dreyer & Reinbold team seemed cursed with engineering woes, and more than a little bit of bad luck. Bia’s been spotted hanging around during this week’s Media Day, and it seems likely that we’ll see her at least with a one-off at Indy or a partial program. You have to hope she’s put in a position to succeed, as last year didn’t seem indicative of the promise we saw in her Firestone Indy Lights and other racing campaigns.
James Jakes: A virtual unknown to your run-of-the-mill American open wheel fan before his INDYCAR debut, Jakes was a quiet non-factor for much of the first part of 2011. However, he did exactly what you want to see from a rookie: he quietly improved over the course of the season. His last few races didn’t show it, but he was racing well, and likely would have finished on the podium in Motegi had he not suffered a stall in the pits. We normally haven’t equated Dale Coyne Racing with a threat to win in this Series, but watch out: they’ve got a Honda engine deal, Justin Wilson back on their team, and some excellent engineering help with Bill Pappas. If Coyne lives up to their suddenly-heightened expectations, Jakes might be a dark horse to keep your eye on.
Sebastian Saavedra: The 21 year-old Colombian racer has a story of a different sort; after a full season in the IZOD IndyCar Series with Conquest Racing, he’s stepped back this year, running a full Firestone Indy Light season with Andretti Autosport, plus the Indianapolis 500 and possibly 2-3 other IZOD IndyCar Series races as the team’s fourth entry. In terms of managing his career, this may end up being a good move for Saavedra; he still gets to try for the biggest race of the year, plus he should have a solid shot at the Lights championship while getting some additional seasoning. It’s not what we’re used to, but in the long run, it just might pay off for Saavedra’s future.
All of last year’s rookies will have a chance to either continue or change their career trajectory in the season to come. Whether skill, circumstance, and luck come together for them should not only be fun to watch, but could give a firmer idea on the identities of IndyCar’s next wave of stars.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.