With 2011 in the books, it’s time to take a look back and give credit where it is due – and also point out the moments that found motorsports in the pits.
While there were great performances by some and boneheaded moves by others, this year will likely be remembered for the tragic loss of two talented racers.
So, beginning with the low point of the year, here is the best and worst of racing in 2011.
The Worst Month — October
T.S. Eliot may have called April the cruellest month, but October 2011 gets the nod from the racing world. In the span of a week, motorsport lost two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon and rising MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli.
early in the season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The fatal accident came just after Wheldon, of England, signed a deal to race full-time in IndyCar with Andretti Autosport in 2012. He was 33.
Simoncelli perished in a crash a few laps into the MotoGP race in Malaysia after losing control of his bike and veering into the path of two other riders. The 24-year-old Italian had won titles in both the 125cc and 250cc motorcycle classes and was pegged by many to be a future MotoGP champion.
Roughest Start to a Season — Robert Kubica
Or maybe this one should be roughest non-start to a season? One of the sport’s top talents, Kubica’s 2011 never got off the ground due to a just weeks before the start of the Formula One season. The likeable Polish driver almost lost an arm when an Armco barrier pierced the floor of his car in the accident during the Ronde di Andora Rally.
The 28-year-old needed emergency surgery to save his right hand and several subsequent operations to repair the extensive damage. He went under the knife for a final time in August as surgeons made repairs to help him regain full mobility in his right elbow. As his long recovery process continues, Kubica will not start the 2012 F1 season. The good news is that once he is back in top shape and able to drive a grand prix car again, rumours have him slipping into a seat at Ferrari in 2013.
Driver of the Year —
Vettel dominated Formula One in a manner not seen since Michael Schumacher won five straight titles at Ferrari — and the Red Bull megastar is just getting started. Already the youngest ever to do just about everything in F1 — score a point, start on pole, win a race, take a title, be a double champion — there’s no doubt that the German has the killer instinct behind the wheel and a overdeveloped drive to win.
Just ask Australian Mark Webber, who took one win and three poles, while his Red Bull teammate reeled off 11 victories and started at the front a record 15 times in 19 races. Off the track, Vettel is a down-to-earth guy who resembles a kid in a candy store in the paddock. With the exception of Robert Kubica, you won’t find anyone in F1 more appreciative of his situation than Vettel.
Driver Who Deserves More Respect — Dario Franchitti
The easy-going Scotsman took his third consecutive IndyCar crown in 2011 and his fourth in a row competing in the series after skipping a year in 2008 to try NASCAR. In those four seasons, Franchitti has scored 16 wins, 10 poles and 52 top-5 finishes in 68 starts.
In every title year, he also went into the season finale needing to outperform his rivals to win the championship and delivered on each occasion. He twice won the finale to grab the crown, while the third saw him cruise home after rival crashed out of the event.
This year, Franchitti was the points leader going into the Las Vegas season finale, which was cancelled following the death of Dan Wheldon early in the race. Ask anyone who races against the Ganassi Racing driver and they’ll say he’s one of the most consistent performers on track, who rarely, if ever, makes a mistake. And that’s why he’s a safe bet to win title No. 5 in 2012.
Worst Family Performance — NASCAR’s Busch brothers
Never the friendliest kind of folk, Kyle and Kurt Busch did their utmost in 2011 to highlight their need to spend a few weeks in charm school rehab. Kurt put the spotlight his classlessness by throwing toddler-style temper tantrums at his Penske crew chief over the radio. His pièce de résistance came when he berated a respected ESPN pitlane reporter with a that was caught on video and uploaded to YouTube.
Just to show the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (or Busch in this case?), little brother Kyle displayed his bad manners in Texas by wrecking NASCAR Truck Series championship contender Ron Hornaday during a caution period. The pair had bumped seconds earlier when Hornaday got loose while lapping a slower truck and Busch retaliated by ignoring his crew chief’s pleas to calm down and spinning his rival headlong into the wall as the yellow waved. The incident could have caused serious injuries to Hornaday but luckily it only ruined his chances at the Truck Series title.
If there were a Dysfunctional Family Award, the Busch brothers would have no challengers.
Worst Decision of the Year — Brian Barnhart
While having the IndyCar Series race director in the news this year for his continued inconsistent application of the rules wasn’t new, . His reckless decision to restart the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225 in a drizzle at Loudon caused a five-car accident that never should have happened.
Had Barnhart actually listened to the protests of the drivers and teams who said it was too wet to race at the tight 1.058-mile oval, common sense would have prevailed and a dangerous accident avoided. More incredibly, Barnhart then erased his mistake from the record books by ruling that the whole thing never happened and using the race order from before the ill-fated restart as the final classification. Even more unbelievable than that: The IndyCar rulebook actually allowed him to do it.
Most honest reaction — Will Power
Speaking of the fiasco that was the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225, Penske driver Power gave the IndyCar Series’ race director Brian Barnhart a good old fashioned blast when asked about the restart of the race in dangerous conditions. The Australian pulled no punches, saying it was a shameful decision that should have been the final straw that finally pushed the series to fire Barnhart.
If that weren’t enough, the Australian gave the series its best publicity of the year when he illustrated his displeasure with the boneheaded move by directing an to the race control tower on national television. He was fined for the outburst, but IndyCar should have paid him for all the free publicity he garnered for the sport.
Best Pressure Performance — Tony Stewart
There’s no matching the now three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion’s performance when the chips were down. Stewart had a sub-par season by his standards and even mused openly that his regular season performance really didn’t merit a spot in the 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff that decides the season champion.
But once he got an invite to the party, . The veteran, who failed to win a race in the first 26 NASCAR Cup weekends, started the 10-race Chase with a pair of wins and then added three more in the next eight starts. In the end, he needed a tie-breaker to win his third title, but no one can dispute his ability to deliver the goods when it counts the most.
Surprise Teammate of the Year — Jenson Button
When Button joined Formula One’s powerful McLaren team, he arrived at an outfit that looked to be built around 2008 world champion and team boss Ron Dennis’ protégé, Lewis Hamilton. Although many felt Button would be creamed by his new racing partner when he suited up for the team in 2010, the newcomer held his own in the first season with McLaren, scoring two wins to Hamilton’s three and finishing fifth in points just 26 behind his teammate who was fourth.
In 2011, Hamilton’s year was marked by over aggression and frequent visits to the steward’s office. Meanwhile, Button drove superbly in all conditions and circumstances and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time when an opportunity presented itself. While both McLaren drivers scored three wins, Button’s more mature, consistent performances saw him end the year second overall in points, 43 ahead of Hamilton, who ended the season fifth.
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