It’s March people! Specifically it’s almost the second weekend of March and that means IndyCar returns after another extraordinarily long off-season.
For a championship that has 17 races it’s hard to believe that this Sunday will mark 168 days since Josef Newgarden won the championship at Sonoma. 168! That’s too long. But anyway, the championship starts this weekend on 11 March in St. Petersburg. That’s in Florida, not Russia. There’s been a huge amount of changes in those 168 days, so here’s a guide to what’s happened and what to look out for over the next 7 months.
Let’s start with teams and drivers. Reigning champ Newgarden is joined by just two teammates at Penske this year with Helio Castroneves joining The Captain’s sportscar programme. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power will need to step up and get their elbows out against this wonderkid from Tennessee. Long-time rivals Ganassi have scaled down to just two cars. Scott Dixon stays obviously but is joined by last year’s Rookie of the Year Ed Jones, who after fading a little towards the end of last year will have to be rejuvenated at the sharp end. The final superteam, Andretti, took a long time deciding which engine to use and as a result, rookie Zach Veach joins Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alex Rossi and Marco Andretti. The only other change at Michael’s team is Rossi and Marco switching numbers and crews, which will give Marco some form and Rossi a proper shot at the title.
Moving on to Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Graham Rahal stays with his dad’s team for a sixth season and will be delighted to have a teammate after running on his own for so long. That teammate will be Honda stalwart Takuma Sato, rejoining RLL after first leaving them in 2012. Schmidt has gone all Maple Leaf with The Mayor of Hinchtown, otherwise known as James Hinchcliffe, being partnered by buddy Robert Wickens who returns to open-wheel racing after six years of DTM. Foyt has replaced both drivers for the second consecutive year and now have two Brazilians, Freedom 100 winner Mat Leist and crowd-favourite TK, Tony Kanaan as he winds down his glittering career. What was wrong with young hotshots Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz? Ed Carpenter has taken inspiration from the Special Relationship with his line-up. He’ll continue to drive on ovals with Briton Jordan King coming over from Formula 2 to drive the road courses. The increasingly impressive Spencer Pigot replaces J. R. Hildebrand. Then of course we have Dale Coyne, who punches way, way above his miniscule budget. Sebastian Bourdais is kept on after his horrendous crash at Indy, to be joined at varying races by rookies Zachary Clemen deMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the grandson of 2-time Indy 500 winner Emmo.
Showing the increasing popularity of IndyCar is the arrival of new teams. First of all is Harding, who ran three ovals with driver Gabby Chaves last year but now are returning for a full season. Ricardo Juncos ran just Indy last year with two cars and although he’s now only running one car, it is running more races. Austrian Rene Binder and Indy Lights Champ Kyle Kaiser will share driving duties. Michael Shank entered Jack Harvey in a handful of races last year and will do the same this year, but more independently in the hope of a full season in 2019. Finally, Trevor Carlin. This junior racing giant is now wanting to run with the big boys in the big championships. Running two cars for the full season he’s got Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball from Ganassi to drive and both actually raced with Carlin early in their careers. It’s questionable though whether these two drivers will do the job. We’ll see.
Phew! Thankfully after all that little has changed as far as the races go apart from the appalling loss of Watkins Glen. Fortunately another great road course replaces it, Portland, but this goes to show the issues with IndyCar’s scheduling. More evidence of this is seen in Sonoma still hosting the final race. Get it sorted.
Then we come to the biggest change of all, the car. The last seven years haven’t been great as far as aesthetics go. Those rear wheel guards, known as the “Kardashians” were never popular and the downforce-crazy aerokit seasons just made everything worse. Not only did the cars look terrible, but the racing was made worse by the higher turbulence. Fear no longer though, for this year all the cars will have the same aerokit designed by IndyCar and built by Dallara. The result is and there’s no other way to say this, a hot, sexy race car. We can rejoice that the Kardashians are no more and having a proper roll-hoop with a sleek, flat engine cover together with beautifully sculptured, curvy sidepods makes the mouth water. The best thing about all this is that downforce has been drastically reduced. The downforce that remains is now generated through a shaped underbody rather than through adding more wing. The cars can follow more closely, braking distances are longer and drivers have to actually lift for corners on ovals, meaning better racing. Now you might be saying “great, but isn’t this just a spec series now?” Not quite, because engine competition between Honda and Chevrolet is still fierce and to be honest most fans would prefer to everyone running the same gorgeous car that can race rather than seeing ugly cars tailored by manufacturers for competition that can’t race.
The new bodykit was designed to incorporate some head protection for the driver. IndyCar has steadfastly refused to use the halo (yes!) and has come up with a windscreen that Scott Dixon tested at Phoenix last month. The screen is made of the same materials used in jet fighter canopies and that initial test was seen as a success. There’s still a long way to go and as such it’s unlikely to be raced until next year, but a good baseline. Top marks IndyCar.
So, who’s going to win? The great thing about IndyCar is you have no idea. Penske and Ganassi will be strong of course and hopefully Andretti will properly return to form. Teams like Schmidt, RLL and Carpenter will be up there too and you never know, one of the new teams might spring a surprise. Let’s stick the neck out a bit. Alex Rossi will win the title against Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay. James Hinchcliffe will win multiple races, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones will win at least once and Graham Rahal will win the Indy 500. There you go, enough crazy predictions there that at least one of them will hopefully turn out to be true. Otherwise OM will need to get a new reporter as this one will know nothing!