When Ryan Briscoe lost the 2009 IndyCar Series title race to Dario Franchitti at the final round at Homestead, many pointed fingers to an error he made at the end of the previous round in Motegi as the turning point. It was at the Japanese race that Briscoe made an unforced error while on the way to a race win; as he exited the pitlane, the Australian put his foot hard on the throttle and spun himself around into the concrete wall, clouting his left front wheel in the process. The Penske driver may not have taken the title had he won that day, but it would have put him so far ahead of the Ganassi duo of Franchitti and Scott Dixon, that it would have only necessitated an easy run to the flag in Miami to claim the 2009 Championship. Sadly for Briscoe, a second place finish in the final race was not enough and Franchitti claimed his second IndyCar title as a result.
It’s a far cry from the Ryan Briscoe of some years ago. When the Australian won the Formula EuroSeries in 2003, Briscoe became the test driver for the Toyota Formula 1 team and at several races acted as the team’s third driver at a time when reserves could run during Friday morning sessions. Despite some rather impressive runs, he never secured a seat with the works team for 2005 and even whispers of a drive at Jordan Grand Prix disappeared when it became clear that money was an issue for the struggling Irish squad.
Rather than sitting out another year, the Australian made a move for the US to drive for the down on power Target Chip Ganassi team in the Indy Racing League and had a very frustrated season, which saw Briscoe score a highest finish of 8th place at Nashville; but for the most part, it was a season full of spins and crashes. However, no amount of frustration could have prepared Briscoe for the fiery accident he suffered in Chicagoland – an attempted move on Alex Barron at the Super Speedway saw Briscoe’s car lift up and vault into the catch fencing. It resulted in the Ganassi driver breaking his ribs, while also sustaining a concussion and a bruised lung and prematurely ended his season – it also earned him the nickname “Briscoe Inferno”. While the Australian was in recovery, Ganassi dropped Briscoe in favour on Dan Wheldon and with the 2006 season approaching, the former-Toyota pilot was without a drive.
The next two seasons saw Briscoe pick up occasional drives in A1GP, Champ Car, V8 Supercars and Sportscars and in 2007, he signed to Roger Penske’s American Le Mans Series team, securing 2nd in the Championship that year, before being offered a full time seat with Penske’s IndyCar Series team. A difficult 2008 season saw him have more spins and accidents, but also pick up his first victories as he took a solid 5th in Championship and with a very good 2009 behind him, Briscoe went into 2010 as one of the favourites for the IndyCar Series title.
Yet this year has been difficult for the Australian and it has seen the return of some of his poorer traits. Accidents while leading in Brazil and a crash while running well at Indianapolis along with solid, if unspectacular results in the other events has left Ryan Briscoe 7th in the Championship hunt, a long way behind title leader and team mate Will Power – and this is where Briscoe’s real issues may lie. Power was hired at the start of last season to temporarily replace Helio Castroneves, who was at the time facing charges for tax fraud – so good were Power’s performances that Penske secured further races later on during the season, before the temporary driver was made full-time for 2010. With pressure growing, Briscoe needs to perform to maintain his seat in the future and while he is safe at Penske for 2011, one wonders how secure his seat will be for the 2012 year.
This weekend may be the turning point for the Australian’s year – pole position for tonight’s 550 kilometre event at Texas Motor Speedway does not mean much when the race gets into gear, but it’s just the start he needs to kickstart his season – a victory would also garner him much needed attention. The last thing the Australian wants is to fall further behind in the title hunt and while Roger Penske may be running three cars this year, they are traditionally a two car squad. With Helio Castroneves unlikely to give up soon and Power gaining momentum, Briscoe needs to be sure he does not fall out of Penske’s favour and a win tonight might be just the trick.
The IndyCar Texas Firestone 550k starts live on Sky Sports 1 at 1.30am (GMT) tonight (tomorrow morning?) and is also available to stream on indycar.com