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

 

A Home Game for SPM Drivers- Honda Indy Toronto Preview

Photo above from Honda Indy Toronto website

The Verizon Indycar series makes its only trip outside the United States this weekend in Toronto. James Hinchcliffe gets to race at home coming off his victory in Iowa. Teammate Robert Wickens also can claim Toronto as his home track. Look for great results from this pair this weekend.  With Zachary Claman DeMelo also in the field, this is the first time in several years that three Canadian drivers have been in this race.

Indycar has had a long history at Exhibition Place beginning in 1986. The race was off the calendar in 2008, but returned the next year following the merger. This was one of the venues where double headers took place in 2013 and 2014.  Michael Andretti won at Toronto seven times, including three sets of back to back wins in 1991 and 92, 1994 and 95, and 2000 and 2001.

Active drivers who have won previously are Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Josef Newgarden, and  Scott Dixon. Power leads active drivers with three wins. Newgarden and Dixon each have won twice. Dixon swept the 2013 doubleheader for his two victories.

The event has the buzz of Indy about it, making it a fun race to attend. After track activity, there is Toronto to explore. This race is definitely worth a trip. Public transportation makes it easy to get to.

Does Honda Street Course Domination Continue?

Hondas have dominated on street circuits this season. Power has had the strongest Chevy on the streets with two seconds and a seventh place finish. He has qualified second twice and third once. Newgarden has not qualified well and although he has three top ten finishes, he hasn’t really been a factor in any of the street events.

Honda has won the pole for all four street races.  Alexander Rossi has won two poles.  This trend should continue. Hondas seem to like tracks with slow corners and short straightaways.

A Great Weekend for the Home Team?

The momentum SPM and Hinchcliffe have from winning Iowa and Honda’s strength on this type of track point to a great weekend for the team. Robert Wickens excelled at St. Pete and is one of the favorites to win his first career Indycar race Sunday.  Wickens has been in contention in most races this season and will be a factor on race day.

Indy 500 2018 190

Robert Wickens is one of the favorites for his hometown race. Photo: Mike Silver

Can Dixon Extend His Points Lead?

We are in the part of the season where points are as important as who wins the race. Dixon’s big lead suffered a slight drop last Sunday, but not enough to put his spot in jeopardy. It would be a shock if he had two bad races in a row. I’m not sure if he’ll extend his lead, but he may have a different runner-up chasing him to Mid-Ohio.

Is the Duel Back On?

My picks- Rossi on pole and Wickens winning the race. In a perfect world, they will both start on the front row. Rossi and Wickens could develop into a great rivalry with their different driving styles. Rossi has gained a reputation for his aggressive, unapologetic style on track, while Wickens drives steadily and doesn’t push the envelope.

Daly to drive for Harding

Conor Daly will drive the 88 Harding car this weekend, replacing Gabby Chaves. In a statement from Harding the team states they are looking to audition drivers for a second car next year and want some fresh input on the car. They are also looking at some Indy Lights drivers. Chaves will be back in the car at some point this season has a contract for 2019 with Harding.

Look for my Toronto recap on wildfirradiosports.com early next week. I will catch up on Indycar news in this space mid week, and I plan to have a feature story on a n historic turning point in 500 history.

Quick Thoughts on the Iowa Corn 300

This was the best oval race of the season, maybe the best race of the year to date. The lead was not safe, there were battles for position and lots of passing, both high and low. Cars were going different speeds allowing for separation. There were two on track passes for the lead, including one for the win. I don’t know what more anyone could want.

James Hinchcliffe could have done donuts for thirty minutes if he wanted to. He is the master of the comeback after being knocked down by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2016, the year after his near fatal crash, he won the pole for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. This year he gets bumped, but comes back to win a race.

It was evident early that Hinchcliffe had the fastest car. After the first pit stop, the car was not getting off turn 2 well, but the next stop corrected that problem. Josef Newgarden had a very fast car as well, but not as fast as Hinchcliffe’s. newgarden had the early advantage of track position. Once Hinchcliffe caught and passed him with 45 laps to go, it was game over.

Congratulations to Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot on his first career podium. Pigot drove a smooth race after starting 19th and fought with Hinchcliffe for second after the restart. I have expected great things from Pigot. It seemed something always kept him from getting a good result.

The Finish

I have no problem with the way the race finished. A caution with six laps to go on a larger track may not have been a problem to have a one or two lap shootout. A track the size of Iowa chews up laps quickly even under caution. Jay Frye and Ryan Novak explained their case after the race. They just ran out of time. No team was told that the race was going back to green. Those that pitted did so on their own hoping the race would resume.

Fans are not entitled to a green flag finish, Races end at the scheduled distance. I do not want to see this changed in Indycar.

Cutting Into Dixon’s Lead

Scott Dixon should put a table outside his hauler with a sign reading, “Please Put Your Points Here.”  Alexander Rossi and now Josef Newgarden have given back precious points. Rossi lost 22 points in Detroit Race 2 by trying to stay in front of Hunter-Reay. Newgarden lost the runner-up spot today with the late pit stop costing him eight points. Dixon now leads Newgarden by 33 points, but it could be closer.

None of the contenders  besides Newgarden had a good day.

The Crowd

Attendance seemed to be slightly better than the last two years, but still not great. The buzz is that there will be a race  next year and that it will be a night race. Moving today’s race up a couple hours helped, but I know a lot of people who still could not attend because of work Monday.

Watch for my full race recap on Wildfireradiosports.com on Tuesday.

Power Wins Iowa Pole; Newgarden Completes Another Penske Front Row

Their  positions from Road America are reversed, but the Team Penske duo of Will Power and Josef Newgarden again grabbed the front row spots for tomorrow afternoon’s Iowa Corn 300. Power won his 52nd career pole with an average of 182.371, edging Newgarden  by 0.24 seconds.  Only the top four qualifiers topped 180 mph.  Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third and Simon Pagenaud starts fourth.

In a qualifying session that pretty much followed expectations, the biggest surprises were the performances of Spencer Pigot and Marco Andretti.  Both were in the top ten in morning practice, but huge second lap drop-offs have them starting 18th and 19th respectively. Zach Veach, another front runner in the morning, will start 14th.

Notes

The top five in points will start in the top six positions. Pagenaud is the only top six starter not in the top five.

For the second race in a row, the fifth place driver in the standings won the pole.

Points leader Scott Dixon starts sixth. He has yet to win at Iowa Speedway.

Observations from Final Practice

Alexander Rossi put on quite a show passing lots of cars. he would stalk them for a few laps, then was able to pass on either side. His best pass was on Simon Pagenaud. he chased the Penske driver but quite the run he needed. When the pair came upon the slower car of Matheus Leist, Rossi got Pagenaud to end up directly behind Leist, slowing him enough for Rossi to dart around him. It was a thing of beauty.

Zach Veach looked very good, passing cars and running a consistent line.

Pagenaud lost an engine with less than 10 minutes left in the session.

 

Good Morning from Iowa

Welcome to Iowa Speedway for Indycar’s race weekend. This could be a pivotal weekend in the future of this event. Will the decent temperatures improve attendance? How will the new cars race here? Will Iowa return to a Saturday night race next year? If so, will the date change? We will have the answers to the first two questions by tomorrow afternoon. The last two will take a while.

I will have a qualifying wrapup later tonight. During the day I will be tweet updating. Follow along on @PitWindow.

The Dixon Domino; Other Thoughts

Silly Season began early with talk of new teams, especially McLaren, working with established teams. Now the first driver name has emerged as possibly moving to a new team. To the surprise of many, Scott Dixon’s name came up as the possible diver of the full time McLaren entry should Fernando Alonso only want to do the 500. The story seemed odd at first, but Dixon has confirmed that he has talked to Zak Brown’s team. he has also had talks with Andretti about next year. While everyone assumes McLaren will, partner with Andretti, that may not necessarily be the case.

Honda wants to keep Dixon as one of their drivers. Is Honda completely okay with  McLaren?  Although HPD, the U. S. arm of Honda that provides the engines for Indycar, would be welcoming, is the parent company okay with McLaren and Alonso after the Honda/McLaren debacle in Formula 1? Zak brown has had talks with Chevrolet as well, looking for the best fit for his Indycar team. I think they will definitely be at the 500, but the rest of the season is still a long way from being settled. What Dixon does will determine all other driver movement in the offseason. If Dixon stays at Ganassi, there shouldn’t be a lot of changes in the driver lineup.

There likely will be more intrigue with new teams and this year’s part time teams than with drivers heading to 2019.

An Andretti F1 Team?

Rumors flew the weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix when Michael Andretti and one of his team principals made an appearance. He spent a lot of time with McLaren and Alonso, but there was talk that he was also looking into buying the beleaguered Force India team. Somehow, the conversation turned to Andretti trying to buy McLaren.

I don’t think  buying McLaren is even a remote possibility. Purchasing Force India is probably not happening either. I don’t see how Andretti could swing that deal. The F1 team has huge debts that the new owner needs to assume. Andretti would be better off starting an IMSA team than drowning in the red ink of a Formula 1 entrprise.

The 2019 Schedule

A great weekend at Road America got even better with Sunday’s announcement that the Kohler GP will return for three more years. Next year’s event will be on the same weekend, June 20-23. The race has rapidly become the Crown Jewel of Indycar’s  road course races.

Speculation that Homestead will replace Phoenix as next season’s second race continues to grow. Homestead had the same attendance issues that caused Phoenix to be dropped. It would be putting an oval on the schedule just to replace an oval. Indycar might be better off finding a road course replacement until an oval venue that will be viable is found. The season doesn’t need to begin with two street races.

No word on where next year’s finale will take place. There is strong sentiment for Gateway. If the season ends in St. Louis, where does Sonoma go? It would be difficult for the tracks to just swap places. Does the series go down to just one race in California? I think that would be a mistake.

Bonus Point Watch

Apparently I had way too much time on my hands this week. I have compiled totals of each drivers’ bonus points for the year. I did this as a means to see how the bonus points affect the championship. The maximum bonus a driver can earn at the Indianapolis 500 is 12, nine for the pole, one for leading a lap, and two more for leading the most laps. In all, other races, the maximum is four, one for pole, 1 for leading, and one for leading the most laps. For Detroit’s races, a point also goes to the driver who led the qualifying group that did not include the pole winner. At Indianapolis, the fastest nine qualifiers receive points, with the polesitter getting nine points then one point les for each position.

In the ten races to date, a driver has earned the maximum bonus points eight times. Phoenix and Texas are the only times no driver received all bonus points possible. Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden have earned four bonus points twice, Rossi at Detroit Race 2 and Long Beach; Newgarden at Road America and Barber. Below are the top eight in bonus points through Road America:

Newgarden                       20

Will Power                         16

Rossi                                     13

Sebastien Bourdais          12

Ed Carpenter*                    12

Simon Pagenaud               11

Robert Wickens                  10

Dixon                              9

*Carpenter’s points all earned at Indianapolis 500

Dixon’s first bonus point was qualifying ninth for the Indianapolis 500. Newgarden has earned bonus points in seven races. Bourdais, Rossi,  and Ryan Hunter-Reay  in six each.

While bonus points may be important, consistent finishes lead to championships. They are the reason Dixon leads the championship at the moment.