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..

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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

Random Musings on Indycar News

Some thoughts on a few Indycar news items:

Holmatro Safety Team- 5 More Years

Indycar and the Holmatro Safety Team have agreed to a 5 year renewal of their partnership. I can’t imagine a race being run without them at the ready to clean up a crash site and tend to the driver. The Holmatro is the best in racing at what they do. I have gotten to know a few of the crew. Great guys. Indycar has developed many long term partnerships, and this is one of the most essential.

Tires

Continental Tires has expressed interest in being Indycar’s tire supplier after its contract with IMSA expires at the end of this season. I don’t know what makes them think there is any chance of that happening. Firestone produces a reliable safe tire that the drivers and owners depend on. In 20101 when Firestone nearly left the series, Continental was considered by Randy Bernard. The drivers were strongly against a new supplier, and the series forged a new  deal with Firestone.

Continental had several tire issues at the Rolex 24 in January this year. Wayne Taylor Racing, where Ryan Hunter-Reay drove, had seven left rear tires fail. The multiple failures caused the car to retire from excessive bodywork damage. Continental disputed that it was the tire’s fault. Firestone has admitted when its tires were not compatible for the track and worked to fix the problem.

I have seen some comments on social media about how great a tire war would be. There is no place for a tire war in Indycar. It could lead to failures at high speed that will result in serious injuries. I’m all for engine competition and even chassis competition, but let’s stick one tire that we know is safe and reliable.

Cosworth

Like a spring bulb, this story can be counted on to return almost every year. Cosworth has an Indycar ready engine and they are eager to get it in a car. The problem is a manufacturer needs to agree to badge the engine, which means funding the development project. Indycar rules require engines to have a manufacturer badge. This is at least the third time I have seen this story. We know they want to join. Let’s wait until they can announce a partner before we hear this story again. Then it will be news.

I will be thrilled when a third OEM joins the series. The advantages are many. We could see increased car counts all season and a guarantee of at least 36 cars at Indy. It seems there is more interest on a larger scale this year and not enough equipment.

Honda Advantage?

Scott Dixon thinks having a spec aero package favors Honda overall in the series. Chevrolet had a distinct advantage on the high downforce circuits the last three years, but they still won their share of low downforce races. Will Power has won the last two Pocono races, one of the tracks where Honda had a distinct edge.

While Chevy has not qualified well at Indianapolis in the manufacturer aerokit period, on Carb Day and race day they were very fast and competitive.

I think we’ll still see a Chevy team near the front most of the season, although Honda should take a few more poles this year.

TV Deal

I think Indycar is close to reaching a broadcast agreement for 2019 and beyond.   I know many people, including me,  hope for a single network, especially an exclusive deal with NBC. I have no idea what the package will look like, but I imagine there might be some digital component as well.

It appears it will be an exclusive partner and will be one of the two currently airing the series. With the budget cutting ABC/ESPN  has been doing and their lack of commitment to improving the product, I hope they are not chosen.. Replacing Cheever and Goodyear in the booth would have shown that they had some interest in making their coverage better. NBCSN always produces a much better race broadcast with a better team in the booth and great pit reporting. The opportunity to get more races on a main network throughout the season would be an advantage.

I wonder if Indycar learned anything from NBC’s was negotiations with Formua l , where F1 wanted a digital stream to compete with NBC’s own digital network.  As a result, the great NBC broadcasts are no more, and F1 will be on ESPN as a feed from SkySports.

Rahal Sponsors

I like the approach Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing takes toward getting sponsors. Rather than finding one sponsor for the entire season, they have found multiple sponsors for certain races. The team seems quite adept at doing business this way. Other smaller teams might want to adapt this method. You’re not hitting one company with a huge price tag.

Some of Rahal’s sponsors so far for 2018 and the races they will be primary sponsor for:

Total- Long Beach

United Rentals- Indianapolis 500, GP of Indy, St. Pete, Detroit

Luther Automotive Group- Iowa

Fleet Cost & Care- Texas

One Cure- Phoenix, Portland

Mi-Jack

More Power?

David Malsher at Motorsport reported yesterday that Indycar is looking to add 100-150 horsepower in the next generation engine, which could be in the series as early as 2020. Frye is getting input from Honda and Chevy and also from potential new OEMs to create a formula with the add boost.  I will be thrilled if this happens. I have felt all along that more power is what would help make the cars more difficult to drive and eliminate the lack of lifting in the corners. With this year’s new aero package and more power, the cars may become closer to the beasts of the 90’s.

I will be back next week with a two part season preview including my always inaccurate St. Pete and season champion picks.

 

A Bumpy Saturday?

Has it only been seven years? 2011 was the last year there was bumping at the Speedway for the 500. On Bump Day that year Marco Andretti bumped teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay out of the race as time ran out. Mike Conway, another Andretti driver, also failed to qualify. Hunter-Reay still drove in the race when Andretti bought the A. J. Foyt car qualified by Bruno Junqueira.

It  appears likely there will be at least 34 entries, maybe a couple more for  this year’s race.  If things work out and there are more than 33, the format of the last few years will need some adjustments. I’m not talking a major overhaul, just a couple things to attempt to restore the drama of Bump Day. The current format, though lacking a lot of drama,  is fine if every entry is going to make the race. I think that was its purpose. But with more cars than spots, some changes are in order.

First, limit each car to no more than three attempts instead of an unlimited number. This will allow all entrants a fairer shot at making the race. Second, If you want more than one attempt, you must withdraw your previous time.  I never liked the rule where a car could keep its time when it went out for a second run and then keep the better one. This is the year to ditch that rule. Third, have a 4:30 deadline to set the Fast Nine for Sunday, leaving the last 90 minutes for bumping. These changes will bring back the  drama that has been lacking under the current format. We knew everyone was going to be in. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat hoping a driver would improve from 17th to 16th.  Seven of the top nine were pretty much a given, though there might be some drama there this year with the depth of the field. I’m looking forward to the most exciting Saturday qualifying in quite some time.

Now, my favorite part where I get to spend other people’s money. The cars that  make a qualifying run but do not make the race should get something for their efforts. Cars that put up a qualifying run but failed to qualify used to get a token amount from the Speedway. A minimum today should probably be around $25,000, which not cover much of the team’s expenses.

Where are the extra cars coming from? To get to 36, as some people think will happen, Honda would likely need to supply 19 engines and Chevrolet 17. I think those numbers are a stretch for both companies. If there is that much interest in entering the race, the urgency to find a third OEM becomes that much stronger.

Here are the entries as of Thursday evening. * -unconfirmed entries

Penske  -4- Castroneves, Power, Newgarden, Pagenaud

Andretti 6- Munoz, Wilson, Veach, Andretti, Hunter-Reay, Rossi

Ganassi  2- Jones, Dixon

Rahal  2- Sato, Rahal

Foyt    2- Leist, Kanaan

Schmidt  3- Howard*, Wickens, Hinchcliffe

Carlin  2- Jones, Kimball

Harding 1- Chaves

Shank 1- Harvey

Coyne Vasser Sullivan 3- Mann* Fittipaldi, Bourdais

Carpenter 3- Patrick, Pigot, Carpenter

DRR  2*- Karam* Hilderbrand*

Lazier 1*- Lazier*

Juncos 1- Kaiser

This is 33. There are rumors of a fourth car at Coyne, possibly for Conor Daly, and a possible second Harding car. The other possibility is a third Rahal car for Oriol Servia. I think the Lazier entry is shaky and that would probably be one of the cars not making the race. I am confident of 34. Time will tell.

There is lots of news to discuss next week, including interest in Indycar from another tire company. Have a great weekend. I’ll be back Tuesday.

 

 

Thoughts on the Phoenix Open Test and Other Matters

It’s like baseball’s Spring Training, only with race cars. The open test at Phoenix is reason enough to keep racing there. All the teams are there in their new liveries and they are practicing. This year’s test session was even more important since it was the first major workout for the new aerokit. I was especially looking forward to finding out how the new package performed in traffic. I have read many conflicting reports, but based on what I was able to watch and putting all I’ve read together, it seems Indycar is on the right path.

Three things I heard give me some hope for better racing:

The car is a handful to drive.

Drivers are lifting in turns 1 and 3.

This year driver skill will truly be on display.

Keep in mind Phoenix has never been known for passing. It has always been a one groove track. That doesn’t mean we will see the same type of race we saw the last two years. The new aero package allows a trailing car to get closer to the car ahead without upsetting the handling as much. Tire degradation will also play into passing. Firestone may still be working on a better tire design. They are still learning how the new kit works, too. I’m hopeful of a better race.

I think the speeds will be close to last year and there will be some wild action near the end of a stint.

Liveries

I like most of the new liveries. There are fewer blue and white cars, which is a welcome change from the grid at the end of last year. The one livery I’m not crazy about is the 26,driven by Zach Veach. I think it’s rather plain and dull.  Some of the best:

Ed Carpenter has a distinct color for each car. Spencer Pigot’s number 21 is a light green, and the shared number 20 (Jordan King on road/street/Ed Carpenter on ovals) is black.

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Back- Spencer Pigot Front- Ed Carpenter/ Jordan King

A.J. Foyt Racing retains the basic color scheme but the 14 Tony Kanaan drives has red as the main color on the nose and the 4 of Mattheus Leist has blue.

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Mattheus Leist
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Tony Kanaan

The Carpenter and Foyt teams were the most difficult to distinguish last year. I’m glad to see there will be some differentiation this season.

Scott Dixon’s new livery is growing on me. I was put off by it when I first saw it. I thought the blue and the orange should be reversed, but after seeing the car on track, I like it the way it is.

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Sebastien Bourdais’s number 18 is probably the wildest of all. The black and yellow stripes give the car a menacing look. It reminds me of a shark.

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Windscreen test

Scott Dixon drove the car with the new windscreen attached in its first on track test Friday night. The results were quite positive in the three lighting conditions- daylight, dusk, and under the lights. Dixon reported no distortion, but did complain about the heat in the cockpit. Some type of ventilation will have to be worked out. He also said there was no buffeting and that it was quieter in the car. Indycar is planning a test for he windscreen on one of the early season street courses. That type of course is my biggest concern for this device. the field of vision is limited with the tight turns and walls on a street circuit. More advanced ballistics test also will be conducted. The screen is at least a year away from full implementation.

Danica has a Deal to Do her Double

Danica Patrick announced late last week that she has a deal to drive in the 500. The team and terms were not announced. During a press conference yesterday in Daytona, Danica accidently mentioned that she will be driving for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Other Notes

Ed Carpenter Racing will give rookie Jordan King an oval test this week. King was hired to drive the shared ride on the road and street circuits. The announcement fueled speculation about a third car for ECR in the 500, but the possibility of Danica Patrick in the third car would seem to end that thought. Another thought- Is this Ed’s last year in the car and is King going to be full time next year? That would be surprising considering the experienced talent waiting for a ride. I would think they would want to see how the first part of the season goes before making a long term commitment.

ABC announced the same broadcast booth for their telecasts with Alan Bestwick, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear. The pit reporters remain the same. Retaining Cheever and Goodyear tells me that they have no interest in improving their telecasts. I wonder if they are truly interested in continuing their relationship with Indycar. They did upgrade their 500 team with the addition of Nicloe Briscoe.

The track build for the St. Pete race began Tuesday, and the weekend schedule came out today. We are 25 days away from race day and 21 days away from the first practice.

 

Note: Photos captured from various internet sources.

 

 

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.

24 Hours, 24 Photos

So many hours, so many cars, so many photos. I chose 24 of what I think are the best ones. Enjoy.. I had fun taking them. Click on a photo to enlarge it.

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Dusk into Night

 

Vintage