Indycar Drivers’ Licenses and Thoughts on the Mad Silly Season

Catching up on a few items from Indycar over the past week:

Last week Indycar in conjunction with the five year plan for Indy Lights, introduced a procedure to obtain an Indycar driver’s license. The criteria grants automatic eligibility to drivers who race in Formula 1 or NASCAR or have a predetermined level of success and/or experience in other series.

Indy Lights drivers become automatically eligible by finishing in the top three in one full season or the top five over two full seasons. Drivers in other series can get a license by accumulating a set number of points over a two year period.

The license criteria allows for exceptions. Among this season’s drivers, Robert Wickens is an example of someone who would have needed an exception and most likely would receive one based on his experience. Santino Ferucci likely would not have gotten a license.

The point values  and criteria for exceptions have not been announced.

I like that Indycar is implementing this system. It should strengthen the grid. Will it prevent ride buying? Not necessarily. It might actually force owners who rely on ride buyers to hunt for sponsorship on their own. Another possible consequence is a case where an owner needs a driver to bring money, but that driver isn’t eligible for a license. How will that exception be handled? Could it cost the grid a car? Would that owner have to sit out?  Like the Road to Indy five year plan, this is still a work in progress, but it is a step in the right direction.

The Three Headed Silly Season- Drivers, Teams, Tracks

Usually Silly Season is all about drivers. This year it is about drivers, teams, and tracks. The one key driver is Scott Dixon, who is a free agent at the end of the season. Will he stay at Ganassi, take what’s rumored to be a gigantic offer from McLaren, or move to Team Penske, as Robin Miller mentioned on the NBCSN Mid-Ohio broadcast?  My guess is he sticks with Ganassi. The McLaren money is untouchable by anyone else, but there are a lot of unknowns with a new team. Dixon at Penske would sap a lot of the rivalry out of the series.

 

Which shade of orange will Scott Dixon wear next season?

Team Shuffles?

Andretti Autosport is planning on having McLaren bring two cars to Indycar next and assumes McLaren  will be in a technical partnership with AA. That would give Andretti eight drivers. Meanwhile, Harding Racing is looking for a technical partner, possibly with Andretti. Two Andretti cars could become a part of Harding’s stable along withe the potential two cars Harding plans to run next year. Got all that? This would give Andretti full or partial control of one third of the grid.

I admire Harding and Juncos Racing going alone this year. A partnership with an established team would help speed their development. However I think eight is too many cars for one owner to have a hand in. I have thought for years Andretti Autosport was spreading itself too thin, yet they keep producing results.

Belardi Racing is looking to expand its entry beyond the 500 next year. Belardi was affiliated with A.J. Foyt Racing for the 500 this year. the car was driven by James Davison. They are also looking to expand their Indy Lights program. This is what more Indycar owners need to do- have an Indy Lights program and develop a driver in their system. It would instantly give more value to a ride in Lights.

The Schedule

We know a little about the schedule from track announcements and an assist from the recently released IMSA schedule. It’s what we don’t know that is preventing a final announcement.

What replaces Phoenix in the Spring? I can’t imagine the series would go dark for five weeks from the St. Pete opener  March 10 to April 14 at Long Beach. The gap to Phoenix was too long at three weeks. With Iowa moving to July 20, does Mid Ohio keep its date the following weekend?

Speaking of Iowa, great news that this will be a Saturday night race again. The racing has always been better there at night.

While Belle Isle got the go ahead from the advisory committee, the race is not officially on until the Michigan department of Natural resources approves it. IMSA has their Belle Isle event listed as tentative on their schedule.

Is there another new track coming on board? Mark Miles has said there will be 17 races again.

The IMSA schedule shows the sports car series at Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca the week before the Indycar finale there. I don’t understand how either event will draw much of a crowd. Two major events on back to back weekends cannot help a track’s bottom line. The only remedy would be a discounted combo ticket or a season pass. This sounds iffy for a good crowd at the Indycar finale.

Notes

Colton Herta had his first Indycar test at Portland  with Harding Racing.

Sportscar driver Colin Braun has expressed interest in getting an Indycar ride for next year. The announcers on the IMSA telecast said he would be testing a car. I don’t think he has one scheduled at the moment.

Another sportscar team, Dragonspeed (not Jay Penske’s outfit) is also interested in forming an Indycar team.

With all the expansion planned by current teams and all the possible new entries, the grid could be quite crowded next year. realistically, probably not all of these will pan out, but I do look for a larger grid and even more entries at Indianapolis in 2019.

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Indycar News and Notes

Programming note- Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio will be televised live on CNBC at 3 pm ET and re-aired on NBCSN at 6:30 pm Sunday.

It seems as if Indycar has a news item or two every day lately. Here are a few tidbits.

Mo Nunn

Mo Nunn died last Wednesday after battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Nunn was the engineer who helped Chip Ganassi’s team first taste success with Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. Mike Hul credits Nunn for his current success Ganassi has.

A former Formula 1 driver and team owner, Nunn also owned teams in CART and the IRL. Tony Kanaaan drove for Nunn in CART before going to Andretti Green in 2003.

My friend George Phillips wrote a nice tribute to Nunn on Monday. you can read it here:

https://oilpressure.wordpress.com/

Mid Ohio Features Return of Three Drivers

The Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio will see the return of Jack Harvey in the number 60 Meyer-Shank racing entry. This is a home race for Michael Shank, who is looking to eventually become a full time Indycar team.

Pietro Fittipaldi, recovered from fracturing both legs in a practice accident at Spa two months ago, returns to the 19 car for Dale Coyne Racing. His absence allowed Zachary Claman De Melo toget more time in the car. DeMelo did a nice job. I’d like to see him in a full time ride.

Conor Daly will again be driving for Harding Racing. He took Gabby Chaves’ place in Toronto, giving the team its best qualifying and finishing position of the year. Chaves is still under contract with the team through 2019. He will be back in the car at some point. The team is pleased with the technical information Daly is providing. Harding is hopeful of having a two car team next season.

Rahal Says Steak n Shake May Return

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing owner Bobby Rahal said that Steak n Shake may return as a sponsor of Graham Rahal’s car in the future. The company withdrew this year to redirect funds elsewhere. It would be great to see them back. Steak n Shake did a lot of activation with signs and prerace weekend appearances by Rahal at their restaurants.

Wildfire Sports is My Home for Mid Ohio

I will be reporting for Wildfire Sports this weekend Friday through Sunday. You can find my columns at wildfireradiosports.com.

I will post quick thoughts here and live tweet during the weekend. Follow along on the blog’s Twitter account @PitWindow.

Mid Ohio usually produces some big announcements about the next season.  Stay tuned

 

Season Preview, Part 1- New Teams Hope New Aero Package Levels the Field

New teams, new drivers, new sponsors, and a new aero package are ready. The fans are more than ready. The 2018 Indycar season starts Friday when practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins.

In a three part series, I take a look at each team and make some predictions for the year.

Today I focus on the new teams. In all parts of this preview, team order is random and is not intended to be a prediction of season long results.

Michael Shank Racing

It has been a long road to Indycar for Michael Shank, beginning last year with the Indianapolis 500. Jack Harvey drives the Shank car, which has a technical partnership with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. The team has scheduled 6 races this year so far. Harvey will drive at St. Pete, Long Beach, The 500, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma. The team may add a couple more races. This will be an interesting team to watch. They might be able to grab a couple of top 10s, but I see them using this season to learn and build.

Juncos Racing

Ricardo Juncos may be pioneering the model for future Indycar teams. Juncos has been a long time steady participant in the Mazda Road to Indy, winning the 2017 Indy Lights championship with Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser and the team both move to Indycar this year. Juncos has eight scheduled races this year. Kaiser will drive in four, and newcomer Rene Binder will drive the other four. There is hope to add some more outings for Kaiser, the team’s primary driver.

Binder will open the season at St. Pete, then race at Barber, Toronto, and Mid-Ohio. Kaiser debuts at Phoenix, then goes to Long Beach, and finishes the season at Indianapolis, driving in the GP of Indy and the 500. The hope is to add more races for Kaiser. I hope that happens because he needs more seat time and needs to have races deeper into the season.

I think this team will struggle to get results, but they will build a solid foundation for the following years. Juncos still has a presence in the Mazda Road to Indy with Victor Franzoni headlining their Indy Lights program.

Carlin Racing

It was just a matter of time before Carlin moved to Indycar. After a successful two years in Indy Lights, including the 2016 championship with Ed Jones, they become a two car team with former Ganassi drivers Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. Carlin knows how to run races and their two drivers have Indycar experience.

Chilton is still learning the craft and showed improvement last year. Kimball is at a crossroads. Were his problems last season a part of being on Ganassi’s B team? This will be a pivotal year for him.

I think they will have some good results and will end up in the upper half of the field.

Harding Racing

A three race toe dip last season and now Harding is a full time entry with Gabby Chaves. In their brief time last year the team produced two top 10s and was running at the finish of every race. Chaves is a steady driver. The team strengthened their leadership hiring Brian Barnhart as president and Al Unser, Jr. as driving coach. That experience alone gives them a bit of an edge over the other new teams. Look for a consistent season with some very good results on occasion. Harding could be the best of the newcomers.

Tomorrow-

A. j. Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, Schmidt Peterson Racing, and Ed Carpenter Racing

The Season Begins- Testing at Sebring

0110181154a-1One of the perks of living in Florida during the winter is the opportunity to see Indycars on track in January. Wednesday I went to Sebring to watch the second day of testing. Ganassi and Andretti teams put in a busy day.  It was great seeing the new look cars and noticing how differently they need to be driven.

My impressions of the new bodywork:  this is a proper looking race car. The back end is opened, the front wings have a less cumbersome appearance, and the car looks fast. I had seen the road/street configuration on display at Mid-Ohio, but Wednesday was the first time I’d seen it on track. I saw the speedway version in a test at IMS in July. Both cars are sleek and beautiful. The liveries work better than I thought they would on this car. I still wish the car number on the endplates were larger. Fans furthest from the track may have a difficult time identifying some cars, especially if we see the multitude of blue and white combinations that dominated last year.

On track, drivers talked about the lower downforce giving the impression of a horsepower boost. That was very evident as they approached the hairpin. Ed Jones locked up the brakes several times in the morning session searching for the correct braking point. The brake zone is definitely longer. I think that should lead to more passing opportunities.  Back ends slid quite a bit coming out of the hairpin. For the first few races at least we will see a lot of action as the drivers figure out how to handle this new setup.  This car has to be driven, not just steered. I’m not sure the difference will be as noticeable on an oval. I will be watching the oval test at Phoenix with great interest. I hope the drivers have to lift in the corners.

The cars looked faster on the straight leading to the hairpin, and they also seemed to accelerate quicker off of what is turn 5 of the full course.  Drivers who have experience in lower downforce cars will have an early advantage. I think the new drivers from Europe, Jordan King and Rene Binder, will struggle for awhile.  I am really excited to see how turn 1 goes at the start of the St. Pete race. That might give us an indication of who knows what they are doing.

My friend Ed Murray from New York came up from his snowbird nest to watch the test. Ed is very knowledgeable about dirt tracks. He goes to the Knoxville Nationals every year. I learned a lot about dirt track racing talking to him. It was Ed’s first time at Sebring. He was quite impressed.

I hope to get in one more Sebring test this month, although with the Rolex 24 coming up it may be a challenge. We will see.

News

Harding Racing made the official announcement yesterday that they will be a one car full time team in the Verizon Indycar series in 2018. Gabby Chaves will drive the Chevrolet powered entry. Team president Brian Barnhart left the door open to a possible second car for the 500. There are now four new owners in the series, two full time and two part time.

The aeroscreen is still scheduled to tested at Phoenix, but it sounds like it won’t be implemented until 2019. I applaud Indycar’s cautious approach with this. It seems as if Formula 1 is rushing into their halo too quickly.

Danica Patrick’s chances for a ride in the 500 continue to dwindle. She has virtually no shot at the Daytona 500 at this point. Some people think there just a couple possibilities for Indy remaining. I’m not so sure. I will echo what my friend Patti Nolen said in her ikissedthebricks blog this morning:

Leave Stefan Wilson alone!  He paid his dues last year.

We are now just 58 days away from the first green flag!

 

 

 

Gateway Preview- Racing by the River

Indycar returns to Gateway Motorsports Park after a 14 year absence.  CART ran here from 1997-1999 the day before the Indianapolis 500 then moved to a September date in 200. The IRL raced at Gateway from 2001-2003.  The 2017 date corresponds to the date when the IRl raced here.  This weekend’s weather is going to be unusually pleasant for St. Louis at this time of year. It’s the last oval race of the year and the newest event on the Indycar schedule.

St. Louis is a market I’ve always wondered why Indycar in any of its iterations never paid more attention to. I remember on Pole Day at Indy in the 60s and 70s a large group sitting in the upper paddock just north of the start/finish line. They displayed a banner, “St. Louis Auto Race Fans”. There were a lot of fans in this area. I hope there still are. Seeing that group was a Pole Day tradition for me.

Indications are this will be a triumphant return. The track has gone all out promoting the race, getting lots of community involvement, including the St. Louis Cardinals. Ed Carpenter threw out the first pitch before Tuesday night’s game, and tonight there is an Indycar FanFest at Ballpark Village, a gathering place across the street from Busch stadium.This past week has had several community activities leading up to the race. Word is ticket sales are going very well.

After an initial Indycar test, the track was completely repaved after drivers were concerned about the surface. Another test on the newly paved track brought rave reviews from the drivers. The drivers think passing will be possible. I hope that’s the case. The series doesn’t need another Phoenix-like parade this season.

Honda drivers are pretty much conceding Chevy has a huge advantage one the 1.25 mile oval. The track probably works more like a road course than an oval due to the odd configuration of turns 1 and 2.  The shape of the track should produce better racing than Phoenix.

Who will win? Helio Castroneves won the 2003 race  and Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are the only other active drivers who have raced at Gateway. Dixon does not expect to have a car capable of a top 3 finish. I’m looking for a penske sweep of the podium, with Will Power getting his second straight win in his march toward the title.  Josef Newgarden will retain his points lead, but there will be some shuffling behind him.  This  race will be decided by when the yellows fall and as a result, fuel saving could play a part in the final result.

Notes:

In a surprise announcement last evening,   Sebastien Bourdais will return to the number 18 for the last three races of the season starting this weekend at Gateway.  This is just 14 weeks after his horrific 118 g crash at Indy. It never ceases to amaze me how resilient Indycar drivers are after crashes like that.  There will not be a third car for Esteban Gutierrez . Just when I learned how to spell his last name.

Sebastien Saavedra likely needs a strong showing to make up for his crash at Pocono if he wants any consideration for a job at Schmidt next year.

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing did very well in their 3 races this year. Two top 10s and strong qualifying effort at Pococno is a fine debut for the team looking to go full time next year. They also completed every lap in the three races.

This will be another baseball/racing weekend. I’m going to the Cardinals-Padres game Thursday night and possibly the Cardinals-Rays game Sunday.

Team Silver, my Indy 500 group will be well represented at Gateway.