The Long Beach Winding Road

Just two races into what has been an entertaining Indycar season to date, we have seen a great mix of new names and familiar names. It’s hard to believe Alexander Rossi is only in his third year in Indycar. We’ve heard Robert Wickens’ name so much it’s hard to remember he is a rookie in this series. I think we will once again be hearing those two names, along with the names of some veterans we haven’t heard from much yet this year at Long Beach this weekend.

While a pair of races don’t create a trend, there are some things forming a consistent pattern. Wickens is a darn good driver. Rossi has quickly learned the tracks and has fully embraced Indycar. In  2016, no one would have been shocked if he didn’t come back in 2017. But then the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 happened, and Indycar had a new star.

We can also see strength from the smaller teams which appears to be sustainable over the long run. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan have had two strong weekends and that should continue in California. While neither may have the season champion driver, they will be in contention for a long time. These teams will be more than spoilers.

Long Beach is the second longest running event on the Indycar schedule. This will be the 35th Indycar race on the streets.  There has been a race at Long Beach since 1975, when Brian Redman won the Formula 5000 race. The following year F1 began an eight year run. In 1984 CART took over and Indycar in some form has raced in Long Beach ever since.

Sebastien Bourdais is one of several current drivers who have won here. Bourdais has three victories, and Will Power has two. Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud also have won.  Can the young guns overcome all the experience on this narrow track?

We know the new cars race better than the Honda/Chevy kit versions, but will that make for a better race? I don’t expect the kind of show we saw at St. Pete. Long Beach doesn’t have a long wide runway for a front stretch. Passing will rely on mistakes, tire degradation, and pit strategy. There have been some dramatic races here as well as some parades.

Who will win? Alexander Rossi should pull into Victory Circle this time. He was in a position to win last year before engine failure knocked him  out of the race. With the win, Rossi will take the points lead to Barber next weekend. Wickens will have another strong race, but might miss the podium.  Oh, some of the veterans might make a splash as well.

Back Monday with a recap. The race is on NBCSN at 4:30 pm ET Sunday.

 

Photo: Ryan Hunter-Reay  pit stop in Phoenix last Saturday.   Photo by Mike Silver

 

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Season Preview, Part 2- Smaller Teams Look for Bigger Results

First, some personal news:

Beginning this weekend I will be covering Indycar for Wildfire Sports, a sports site carrying podcasts and written content. I am very excited for this opportunity. Please give them a look at wildfireradiosports.com. I plan to continue this blog, probably with a slight change in content. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. You helped make this happen.

 

The four smallest established teams in the paddock expect better results this year thanks to the new aero package. TheHonda teams are especially optimistic that equal aero with superior Honda power will yield higher finishes. Each of the teams featured today have at least one driver new to the team. All but one driver was not in Indycar last year.

A. J. Foyt Racing

Foyt turned over their driver lineup for the second year in a row. They now have former series champion and 2013 500 winner Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist. Kanaan has struggled the last few years with Ganassi. He is looking for a fresh starts. I’m not sure this is the best team to get better results with, but his talent may help improve the team’s standing.

Leist drove in Indy Lights in 2017 and won the Freedom 100 in dominating fashion. He also won at Iowa. Still, I think he could have benefitted from another season in Lights. Leist spun four times at the Phoenix test. He will have a challenging year.

Overall I don’t look for much improvement from Foyt Racing. The constant change of personnel makes it difficult to produce decent results. Kanaan may be able to get a few top 10s, but anything beyond that would be a major accomplishment.

Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan

This team has some unfinished business. Sebastien Bourdais was poised to be a championship contender last year, winning the St. Pete opener and on his way to the pole at Indy when the horrendous crash occurred. Bourdais was sidelined until Labor Day weekend.

2018 begins with a full time sponsor and a partnership with former team owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan. This may be the boost that Coyne needs to move his organization closer to the front consistently. Look for Bourdais to be in the thick of the title fight.

The second car will have two part time drivers, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. DeMelo drove in Indy Lights last year and had an Indycar debut at Sonoma with Rahal :Letterman Lanigan. After a slow start to the weekend he showed a decent race pace. I thought he was one of the most improved Lights drivers last year, but I still think he could use another year’s experience. DeMelo will run at St. Pete, Long Beach, Barber, Detroit, Road America, Pocono, Toronto, and Gateway.

Fittipaldi is the grandson of former series, world, 2-time 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi. He raced in Europe last season and did well. He performed well in testing, but he is still a rookie on a low budget team. I think he will be interesting to watch. Fittipaldi’s seven races are Phoenix, GP of Indy, the 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma.

Ed Carpenter Racing

2018 sees some shuffling and one part time addition to the Fuzzy’s Vodka backed team. Owner Ed Carpenter will continue to drive the ovals in car 20 and rookie Jordan King, who comes from F3 and F2 with respectable credentials, will take over the car fro the road and street schedule.

The 21 car will have Spencer Pigot, last year’s road and street driver of the 20. Pigot is a major talent who should do well in a full time seat. Last year a series of mechanical issues cost him some great finishes. I anticipate fewer problems and some top 5s this season.

Carpenter always qualifies well at Indianapolis, but has very little good fortune in the race. Could this be the year their fortune changes?

The 20 and the 21 will have different liveries this year. Last year the two cars were a spotter’s nightmare as they were pretty much indistinguishable in the race. When both cars carry the Fuzzy’s sponsorship, the 21 will be green and the 20 will be black.

Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports

I always start the new season with high hopes for this team.  There are some flashes of brilliance but not a consistent result for the entire schedule. 2018 could be different. James Hinchcliffe returns and his teammate, Robert Wickens, is someone he grew up with. Wickens was headed for an open wheel career which got derailed and spent last year in DTM.  This is the strongest two car lineup SPM has had in a while.

Adding Leena Gade as lead engineer is a huge hire for SPM. She is one of the top engineers in the world. It will not take her long to get these cars competitive. Gade is also a strong, articulate  advocate for equal opportunities for women in sport. I am very glad she is in the Indycar paddock.

There were some issues with Hinchcliffe’s car at Phoenix, which hopefully will be resolved by the April race. Wickens showed good speed at the Sebring test. He has a smooth style.

The team has added several partners in the offseason. The biggest deal is with New Era as the team’s apparel provider.

I think Hinchcliffe will win a race this year as he did last year. Wickens will have several good runs and likely finish second in the season Rookie of the Year chase.

Tomorrow concludes my team previews with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport. On Friday I will have a full season preview with predictions you can take to the bank, or anywhere else that has a trash can..

Windscreen Testing, News, and Thoughts

Indycar continues to make progress in safety with its announcement Friday of the first windscreen on track test next Thursday at Phoenix.  The trial for the new safety component comes the day before the open test at ISM Raceway ( still can’t used to calling Phoenix that yet). One of the major questions is whether the drivers see out of the screen in all directions and during daylight and night conditions. Is the view blurry or distorted? The wind tunnel tests apparently were satisfactory enough to proceed to on track testing. I’m at least as interested in this test as I am seeing how the cars will race at Phoenix. Chip Ganassi Racing with Scott Dixon driving will have testing honors. The test will be three sessions of 5-10 laps, one in full sun, one at dusk, and one at night. The runs will occur between rookie sessions.  The series still needs to test for how the screen performs in the rain and do more intense ballistic tests.

I love the look of the screen. It reminds me of the windscreens on the roadsters of the ’50s and early 60’s. The size of the screen almost gives the car a roadster look, adding to the retro feel of the new aero design.

The screen is manufactured by PPG, and it is composed of a material called Opticor. This is the same material used in fighter jet canopies. Indycar has not set a timetable for putting the windscreen on the cars. I would not look for them this year. I applaud the series taking a careful, well thought approach to this safety feature. They have come up with an aesthetically pleasing screen that I hope serves its intended purpose well.

News

Updates:

Some big news broke after I published this morning.

First, Scott Dixon will have a full year primary sponsor, PNC Bank. No terms were announced although Chip Ganassi Racing has an announcement scheduled for tomorrow at IMS. This will be Dixon’s first full time sponsor since Target left. Here is the car:

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I think reversing the red and blue would be a better look. The car reminds me of Charlie Kimball’s old livery.

The second bit of news involves Dale Coyne Racing and a return of two familiar names top Indycar. Jimmy Vasser and James Sulivan have partnered with Coyne and Sebastien Bourdais  The new team name is Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan. Seal Master will sponsor the number 18 for nine races including the Indianapolis 500. Speculation continues that Coyne will enter a fourth car at Indianapolis for a driver that has driven for the team before. I’m excited I might get to wear my Dracone shirt again. A source hinted about this at Daytona.

 

Dale Coyne announced, as expected, car 19 will be shared by Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. Still to be determined is which races each will drive. DeMelo drove in Indy Lights last year, winning at Road America. He also drove in the Indycar season finale at Sonoma for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, DeMelo maintained a respectable race pace. Fittipaldi,  grandson of 2 -time 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi,  spent last season in Formula V8  3.5, notching six victories and winning the championship. He will have an oval test at Phoenix. Coyne said he was not opposed to running both driver in the Indianapolis 500. He also indicated Pippa Mann will also be in the race.

This announcement means Conor Daly will not have a full time ride  for 2018 unless a last minute deal emerges at Harding for a second car. Indycar needs to find a way to do a better job of keeping its popular drivers. It is a money over talent game, and Conor lost out. Daly still might get something for the 500.

Chip Ganassi Racing has scheduled a major announcement tomorrow morning at IMS. Speculation is that they have a sponsor for Scott Dixon.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports unveiled the liveries for their three cars last Thursday. The big news is that Robert Wickens will have number 6 instead of Schmidt’s traditional 7 this year. Speculation is the 7 is being saved for Danica Patrick. If that is the case, I don’t see where any one-off has the right to demand a number be reserved for them. Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso took whatever number they were offered. Sometimes the series tries too hard to attract certain drivers at the expense of others.

The SPM cars look great. James Hinchcliffe will be in the same Arrow livery of the past few years. Wickens’s car is red with Lucas Oil sponsorship, and Jack Harvey’s number 60 displays Sirius XM on the sidepod. Harvey currently has six races planned with an eye toward possibly adding more.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan announced the return of Total Oil as the primary sponsor on the 15 at Long Beach. Total sponsored Bobby during his 1992 championship season. RLL will have more sponsor announcements soon. It sounds as if they had a great off season procuring sponsorships.

I will be exploring the Everglades and Key West the rest of the week. If I’m not eaten by a Burmese Python, I will be back on the 14th with thoughts on the Phoenix test. The test will be live streamed on Indycar.com. Because of the time difference, I hope to watch the evening practice.