Dec 13, 2013, 12:30 PM EST
When all the dominos fell, and the announcement revealed, the confirmation was that Ryan Briscoe would take over the fourth seat at one of IndyCar’s two most successful teams.
A disclaimer first: I like Briscoe. He’s quick, unselfish, good with fans, one of the nicer drivers in the paddock, and a Green Bay Packers fan. These are things I appreciate from a media perspective.
I even wrote an opinion piece in 2012 for a past employer arguing Roger Penske could have kept him over Helio Castroneves if Penske dropped down to two cars for 2013. I based that on Briscoe’s head-to-head stats versus Castroneves in the three years the team had three cars, although Will Power crushed them both by comparison.
But Castroneves won Indy three times, and Briscoe won seven total races in five years with Penske. There’s your answer. And Briscoe, like Castroneves, and like Power, has failed to deliver “The Captain” an IndyCar championship anytime in the last seven years.
Briscoe has had, you could argue, three distinct shots at the big time in IndyCar. His first was a challenging rookie season with Ganassi in 2005, when the team’s Panoz-Toyota equipment wasn’t up to par. Then Briscoe exited after a fiery accident at Chicagoland; we were all thankful he’d recover, but it was a big career setback.
The second was at Team Penske, replacing Sam Hornish Jr. after he departed for NASCAR at the end of 2007. Briscoe’s starring part-time roles in 2006 and 2007, plus sports car races for Penske, pushed him into the seat. But outside of a handful of truly great drives, and a critical error at Japan in 2009 that cost him that year’s title, Briscoe was largely overshadowed in five years with Roger Penske’s squad.
Penske dropped him but guess who came back calling RB for Indianapolis this year: Ganassi, for the team’s fourth car. And there, Briscoe put in a fair effort but it didn’t seem the team had the setup or the power to keep up with the rest of the field. A thoroughly forgettable performance, really, because you very rarely remember who finished second in the Indianapolis 500, let alone 12th.
The carousel of Level 5 in sports cars and Panther Racing in IndyCars from there seemed a very odd strategy. By trying to do both it almost seemed as though the focus was on neither, and a further setback followed with his wrist injury suffered at Toronto that cost him seat time in both.
Briscoe’s 2013 season left him in an odd position heading into the offseason. He’s certainly good enough to merit an IndyCar seat, perhaps one of the six or seven best drivers in the series. If he was thrust into a mid-pack seat, he could help lift the performance of said operation or a young driver alongside. Imagine Briscoe and Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, or Briscoe and Graham Rahal at RLL Racing, for instance. A great mix of veteran experience and youthful potential could be a benefit to all.
But, frankly, we know what Briscoe can do in top flight machinery. Seven wins in nearly 100 starts with Ganassi and Penske isn’t bad, but it’s hardly the maximum of what could be achieved with those outfits. Seven wins with the lesser Dale Coyne, Newman/Haas Racing and RuSPORT teams, by contrast, is why Justin Wilson is held in such high regard by almost the entire paddock.
Perhaps Briscoe isn’t a bad choice to meet the objectives Ganassi seeks: supporting Dixon, good technical feedback and a familiarity with the branding and marketing goals associated with Target and now, NTT Data. Fair enough. And to be fair, drivers like Wilson aren’t available at the moment and would require a buyout. Wilson admitted as such on Friday:
— Justin Wilson (@justin_wilson) December 13, 2013
Still, the storylines of a fresh face at Ganassi – one of these “more than 50” candidates – could have done wonders for the team and series. Whether it was a veteran like Wilson, Oriol Servia or Alex Tagliani in a top flight ride for really the first time, a young American like a Newgarden (with a buyout), JR Hildebrand, Conor Daly or Sage Karam, or even an F1 refugee like Paul di Resta, you had the potential there to generate a wider buzz.
In an offseason where Penske has stolen the PR blitz with Juan Pablo Montoya returning to open-wheel for the first time in eight years, Ganassi has gone with the safe, tried-and-true Briscoe. He’ll be dependable, but he likely won’t do anything to get people talking beyond the people that already do in and about IndyCar.
So is this.
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