IndyCar Positioning: Who can defeat Penske?
The 2018 IndyCar season is just around the corner and everything is new – our experts estimate what to expect from the teams before the new season
The 2018 season marks the start of a new era for the IndyCar series, but most of the favourites remain the same. The Penske team has been dominating for years and would have won all four titles of the past four years had it not been for the incredible collision between Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power in Sonoma 2015. Will everything change with the new Aerokit? We look at the teams in detail.
Team Penske (Chevrolet)
1 Josef Newgarden – 1 championship, 7 victories, 2 poles#12 Will Power – 1 championship, 32 victories, 50 poles#22 Simon Pagenaud – 1 championship, 11 victories, 8 poles
Without Helio Castroneves, who will race in Indianapolis, the captain’s team will be reduced to three cars. That may mathematically reduce the chances of a win, but did it really weaken the team? Looks like no. Penske marked best times at the test drives in Sebring, Sonoma and Barber Motorsports Park and was also in Phoenix with the music.
Chevrolet, a pattern of reliability, was a bit behind in top performance in 2017 – especially in Indianapolis. But even the best Honda rivals are certain that the Ilmor engines have reopened their doors to HPD – provided that the test drives have drawn a realistic picture. And let’s not forget: although Chevrolet had a small deficit until Pocono, Penske won ten races and placed four cars in the top five of the championship.
As a team, Penske is as strong as ever and has the greatest financial and human resources. This makes it most likely that they will understand the peculiarities of the new car the quickest. Drivers and race engineers consist exclusively of champions, they make almost no mistakes and on most weekends there are at least two Penske cars competing for the victory. It would come as no surprise if all three drivers with championship chances come to Sonoma.
Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda)
9 Scott Dixon – 4 championships, 41 victories, 26 poles#10 Ed Jones – best result: 3rd place, best starting position: 7th.
Like Penske, the Chip Ganassis Team has also been reduced in size, but in this case it’s half the size. Looking beyond Scott Dixon’s poor statistics for the 2017 season (just one win and one pole position), the combination of Ganassi, Dixon, race engineer Chris Simmons and chief strategist and team boss Mike Hull has done an excellent job of breaking into the Penske-Phalanx in the final score.
And all this despite the fact that the Honda aerokite was considered less efficient than Chevrolet’s, possible victories due to unfavorable yellow phases (St. Lewis) were not possible. Pete), wrong strategies (Long Beach) and the mistake of a competitor (Texas) were lost and the only loss of the season came about with the Indy 500, where there were double points. The 2017 season has shown how good Team #9 is and why it will most likely be the biggest threat to Penske again.
After only one victory in four years, Tony Kanaan was replaced at Ganassi in #10 by Ed Jones, who last year took third place in Indianapolis for Dale Coyne Racing. Since Dario Franchittis sudden resignation, Ganassi has been – understandably – focused on Dixon. But Jones, as the Indy-Lights-Master of 2016, can clearly mark his territory. It has a very clean and efficient driving style, which should be an advantage in the new era of higher tyre wear. The question remains whether the driving styles of the two are not too different to build in one direction during the set-up.
Andretti Autosport (Honda)
26 Zach Veach – Rookie, best result: 19th, best starting place: 19. #27 Alexander Rossi – 2 victories, 1 pole#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay – 1 championship, 16 victories, 6 poles#98 Marco Andretti – 2 victories, 4 poles
Andretti Autosport was not able to test the new car until January 2018. However, Bryan Herta – team boss of Marco Andrettis vehicle #98 – does not believe that this should be a disadvantage for the team. And the test drives seem to confirm his optimism.
Marco Andretti has resurrected since he can feel the limit of the car again. He had difficulties with the ultra-direct output centrifuges from the era of manufacturer aerokits. He has slowly had enough of false hopes, but even he admits that the best time on the last test day in Sebring had motivated him.
Ryan Hunter-Reay has not won a race for over two and a half years, although he and Ray Gosselin are one of the most respected combinations of driver and race engineer. Should Andretti Autosport really get back to the level of Penske, RHR is a potential winner on all kinds of tracks.
He should be prepared for team-internal competition from the increasingly strong Alexander Rossi, who has risen enormously in the second half of last season. The strong pole position and the victory in Watkins Glen were the crowning glory. Rossi seems to have all the qualities needed for a title. This year already? It all depends on the Andretti team.
Zach Veach, who replaces Indy-500 winner Takuma Sato, has only competed in two IndyCar races over the course of his career. The team will lead him slowly along the learning curve, but as soon as he has found a bit of confidence, we can see a lot of courage and speed from him, which he has already convinced with the Indy Lights.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Honda)
15 Graham Rahal – 6 wins, 3 poles #30 Takuma Sato – 2 wins, 7 poles
If you’re looking for a real secret favourite for the IndyCar title: Graham Rahal and the RLL team seem to have all the ingredients to beat up the Penske-Ganassi standard mush of titles a bit.
The RLL team is extremely strong: Ricardo Nault as team manager, Mike Talbott and Martin Pare as chief engineers, Tom German as technical director and race engineer for Graham Rahal and Eddie Jones as race engineer for Takuma Sato. Such a line-up has master quality. For the first time since 2013, RLL is again using two cars so that the work can be shared, more set-up experiments can be carried out and more data collected.
And this has already paid off. RLL marked best times in Sebring and dominated Phoenix. Sato’s aggressiveness can lead to either a top 5 result or a wall kiss in a race. Rahal should be the more consistent driver throughout the season. But it would not be a surprise if they land on Victory Lane or fight for pole positions.
Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports (Honda)
5 James Hinchcliffe – 5 victories, 1 pole #6 Robert Wickens – Rookie#60 Jack Harvey – Rookie; best result: 14th place on the grid: 18.
Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports has secured the services of DTM refugee Robert Wickens and relies on a complete Canadian driver duo. Wickens had to get used to monoposto vehicles during the test drives. He says that the hardest part was to get the best out of the qualifying tyres. But he is intelligent and his successes in the lower formula categories underpin his talent. There must be days when he can beat James Hinchcliffe. Wickens also seemed to be comfortable with his oval debut.
However, Hinch is a driver who can be really fast on all types of tracks. One only remembers his strong qualifying performances in the first half of 2017. He is extremely courageous in duels. He will be working with Leena Gade, who is new not only in the team but in the whole sport. However, both should be intelligent enough to get to know the new vehicle quickly.
Both could find themselves behind their part-time teammate Jack Harvey, driving for the team’s Michael Shank arm. Shank knows how to run an efficient racing team and Harvey – his British Formula 3 champion and two-time Indy Lights runners-up – gained a lot of experience last year in Indy, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. What Harvey now lacks is time in the new car, because Shank’s chassis was delivered very late, so that only two test days were possible.
Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet)
20 Ed Carpenter – 3 victories, 3 poles #20 Jordan King – Rookie#21 Spencer Pigot – best result: 7th place on the grid: 13th place.
Who would be a driver who, after a rather unedifying debut season in the second year, has risen significantly? A good answer would be Spencer Pigot. The 2015 Indy Lights champion has improved in every respect, especially in qualifying. He’s got J. R. Hildebrand replaced Carpenter as Carpenter’s full-time pilot at Carpenter.
Pigot says that he had a lot of fun with the new vehicle and that it reminds him of his former light bully. While he can rely on team owner Ed Carpenter when it comes to tuning the car to Oval, Pigot and race engineer Matt Barnes must now set the technical direction for circuit and road courses.
In the other car, Ed Carpenter will compete in the six oval races as usual, while GP2 runner-up Jordan King will drive the eleven other races. The Briton seemed to be able to keep up with Pigot’s pace during the test drives, but like any rookie he will face the difficult task of getting the best out of the soft tyres in qualifying. And there were no test drives on these.
A.J. Foyt Racing (Chevrolet)
4 Matheus Performance – Rookie #14 Tony Kanaan – 1 Championship, 17 wins, 15 poles
At the end of 2016, A. J. threw out Foyt Enterprises Honda, Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth overboard to make a fresh start with Chevrolet, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz. After a resinous season in which the team had to understand the Chevy aerokit, both drivers were replaced again.
The renewed Foyt team has teamed up with a purely Brazilian pairing. Tony Kanaan brings a wealth of experience as a former champion and Indy 500 winner, while Matheus Leist strives for success with the youthful charm of an Indy Light graduate. Performance has adjusted to the “big cars” without any problems, but a spin and three wall contacts during the Phoenix test proved that his courage is currently somewhat greater than his vehicle control. He is being held under the leadership of A. J. and Larry Foyt get to know his limits.
Kanaan brought his race engineer Eric Crowden from Ganassi. The combination knows how a good IndyCar should feel and react. The test drives show that the team is on the verge of a resurrection – especially on oval courses (this was already shown in the last oval races of the 2017 season). The Foyt team will serve as a reference point for the new teams, all of which will also rely on Chevrolet equipment.
Dale Coyne Racing (Honda)
18 Sebastien Bourdais – 4 championships, 36 victories, 33 poles#19 Zachary Claman DeMelo – rookie; best result: 17th, best grid position: 21. #19 Pietro Fittipaldi – rookie
Vehicle #19 at Dale Coyne is another car that will be split up this season (although not according to the classic Oval/Non-Oval classification). Between two rookies. Zachary Claman DeMelo is a wild dog from the Indy-Lights scene and will only be 20 years old next month. He will be racing ten races after making a good impression at RLL last year’s season finale.
The other seven races (including the Indy 500) will be contested by Formula V8-3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi. The grandson of two-time Formula 1 world champion Emerson Fittipaldi will start the year as a more complete driver. DeMelo could have taken another year with the Indy Lights, as his former employer Carlin believes. But he brings good sponsors with him and has made competence shine through. If there’s a combination that can channel his aggressiveness with a lot of care, it’s the one from Dale Coyne and race engineer Michael Cannon.
Sebastien Bourdais has successfully digested the monstrous accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. His vehicle will be used in partnership with Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, who stemmed the KVSH project in 2016. The character of the new vehicle contrasts with Bourdais’ preferred driving style. But champions can always adapt and race engineer Craig Hampson has a lot of experience in tuning a racing car to Seb’s taste. Bourdais should be quick enough to remind everyone why he became four-time ChampCar champion.
Carlin Racing (Chevrolet)
23 Charlie Kimball – 1 victory, 1 pole #59 Max Chilton – best result: 4th, best starting position: 4th place.
For the debut season, it’s not the worst choice to fall back on two riders who are familiar with Trevor Carlin’s philosophy and methods. In addition, they have nine years of experience in the IndyCar series. After all, Max Chilton’s father Grahame is a partner in the Carlin racing team. Charlie Kimball came to Carlin after the sponsors cut the budget and it wasn’t enough for another Ganassi season. At Carlin he clinched five victories and the runner-up place in the British Formula 3 Championship 2005.
It would be superficial to say that Chilton and Kimball are followers who have good days every now and then. Your good days can be very good. And you can’t see any general weaknesses in them. Both have already shown astonishing performance on all track types. Kimball normally blossoms on race day at the Indianapolis 500. In 2017, he was a potential winner until his engine gave up. And Chilton led more laps last year at the 500 than anyone else. He ended up fourth.
Otherwise, Chilton is at home on natural race tracks like Road America. Nevertheless, his best grid position was on the Iowa Speedway 2016, where he also won the Indy Lights. Kimball prefers tracks with a lot of grip, but has also been able to improve on road courses in recent years.
Harding Racing (Chevrolet)
88 Gabby Chaves – best result; 5th, best place on the grid: 8…
Gabby Chaves has joined Harding on a full-time basis. The combination made a strong impression on the three matches last year, all of which took place on ovals. Former IndyCar racing boss Brian Barnhart enjoys his return to the team side. Team manager Larry Curry has high expectations and will have no qualms about making tough decisions to move the team forward.
What speaks for the team is that Chaves makes very few mistakes. The Indy-Lights Champion of 2014 listens very well to his sire Al Unser jun. and knows the tracks by heart. Curry also says that his driver has a strong team spirit and is aware of how important he is to bring the team up in the first year of IndyCar. The team has the courage to enter the IndyCar series with just one vehicle. It’s hard not to wish them luck.
Juncos Racing (Chevrolet)
#32 Kyle Kaiser – Rookie#32 Rene Binder – Rookie
Juncos Racing has won both the Indy Lights (with Kyle Kaiser) and the Pro-Mazda-Championship (with Victor Franzoni) last season. This season, at least eight races will be held in the IndyCar series. Binder is sold in St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Toronto and Mid-Ohio in the cockpit (further missions are possible), Kaiser takes over the wheel in Phoenix, Long Beach and the two races in Indianapolis.
So what can you expect from another divided vehicle? It’s going to be very difficult: the team has so far competed in exactly one race (2017 on the Indy 500 with two cars) and both drivers are absolute rookies, one of which doesn’t know the tracks either.
But the whole team exudes the spirit of team owner Ricardo Juncos: first learning to walk before trying to run. In a field of 23 to 24 cars, a start from one of the first eight starting rows would be an immense success, as would one or two finishes in the top 12. These would be realistic targets. Anything else would require intervention from above – such as a yellow phase at the right time. But that’s the right thing to do. If Juncos 2019 wants to get in on a full-time basis, the team needs kilometres – and a few more sponsors.
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