This year the IZOD IndyCar Series will welcome at least five full-time rookie drivers, with two others running limited schedules at the very least. A diverse crowd featuring drivers from four different continents will battle for rookie of the year honors in one of the greatest rookie classes that any form of American motorsport has seen in years.
The group is led by Japanese star Takuma Sato, a longtime veteran of Formula 1 who will join KV Racing Technology in its No. 5 Dallara-Honda. Sato spent parts of seven seasons in F1, all for Honda-powered teams, scoring a grand total of 44 points. His best season was 2004, where he scored 34 points to finish eighth overall, and his lone career podium at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sato was quick in preseason testing, besting many series veterans.
Joining Sato at KVRT will be British standout James Rossiter, whose F1 dreams fell through this year with the collapse of USF1. Rossiter was a former Honda test driver in the series who also ran in the American Le Mans Series for the former Andretti Green Racing team. Rossiter has experience in Formula 3, World Series by Renault, and British Formula Renault, where he formerly competed against 2008 F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Mario Romancini is among the Firestone Indy Lights Series graduates to step up this year, joining Conquest Racing for the full season. Romancini won two Lights races last season to finish sixth in points with Andersen Racing. Since beginning his racing career in 2006, he has scored five wins in 55 starts over four different series.
Richard Antinucci is the other full-time Lights graduate to run for rookie of the year, though he made five starts last season. He will rejoin Team 3G for a program that starts after the Brazil race. His best finish last year was a 15th at Infineon Raceway. He finished second in Lights in 2008, and has four career wins in 25 starts in the series.
The final full-time driver to compete for this year's rookie of the year honors is Swiss pilot Simona de Silvestro, already painted as the chief female rival to Danica Patrick. De Silvestro dominated much of last year's Atlantic Championship, taking the title fight to the final race. She scored four wins last season, making her arguably the most successful driver last year of all potential rookie candidates.
Each driver has something going for them to suggest their capability of winning the award. Sato and Rossiter drive for the best team competing for the award; Romancini and Antinucci are most familiar with the tracks; de Silvestro has the most momentum from a highly successful 2009. All are worthy candidates, and all should contend for the award.
As for the part-timers, Sebastian Saavedra will move up for up to five races with Bryan Herta Autosport while attempting to win this year's Lights title. He won two races last season for Andretti Green to finish third in points. One win took place on the oval in Kansas; the other win was taken from the pole on the streets of Toronto.
Jay Howard will make up for an aborted rookie campaign in 2008 to run five races for Sarah Fisher Racing in a second car. Howard scored two 13th-place finishes in 2008 before losing his ride at Roth Racing to John Andretti. The 2007 Lights champion then returned to the series for 2009, starting the first five races and accruing two top fives and four top-10s.
Finally, Ana Beatriz will compete in the season-opening Brazil race for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, with the possibility of more events if she can bring funding. Beatriz raced in Lights the past two years, finishing third in 2008 and eighth last year. She scored one win each year, and had six top five finishes last year despite missing two races.