Dixon: Big tire change from 2012 to 2013

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Though nowhere near as dramatic – or newsworthy – as Pirelli’s new 2013 compounds have been in Formula 1, the newer compounds Firestone has brought to IndyCar this year have already made an impact on the racing.

Firestone’s primary blacks and alternate reds for Barber Motorsports Park this weekend are both softer than a year ago, and producing higher grip levels. The combo of the grippier tires and the resurfaced Barber track led to record lap times in testing last month.

“We did use the new tire I believe at the Barber Open Test, so those tires haven’t changed as much for the road course, even though the lap times we were about two seconds below pole time of last year,” said Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. “We think a lot of that is due to the surface upkeep, that they’ve sort of cut it a little bit or brushed it or something, and the track grip was up a huge amount at the test. So we’ll see if that probably lasts through this weekend, as well.

Dixon’s preference for oversteer (a looser car) was compromised at St. Petersburg.

“St. Pete definitely the street course tire has, for me has changed significantly in being that last year the car, we were constantly fighting sort of issues with rear grip,” he said. “I love to drive a loose car, so I think it sort of helped me, the new car last year with the combination of the tire. This year it’s a lot of rear grip, a lot of understeer. It seems like it wears the front tires off a lot quicker, as well. So we haven’t kind of seen that quite as much at the Barber test that we did have.”

For Barber, Dixon said the difference between Firestone’s two compounds need to be different enough to ensure as good a race as occurred last year.

“Maybe with the warmer temperatures going back a month or so later; I think the track was pretty cold then, so we were looking at 20 or 30 degrees warmer for this race weekend, which may change a little bit,” he admitted.

“But yeah, I guess the red tires were pretty key to last year and the great racing that we have. I think it’s important that Firestone work on that,” he said. “We see how the Formula 1 races go, and Pirelli are getting a little bit of flak, but the racing is fantastic. It’s more in the driver’s hands of managing the tires, looking after them, making sure they can get through a whole stint, teams working out strategies to figure out ways to get to the end quicker. It creates a lot of differences between teams and drivers and that creates racing on track.

“This weekend is a little bit unknown just because it’s the first road course race of the year. I hope there’s still quite a bit split between the reds and the blacks. I think at St. Pete it almost seemed like the gap between the reds and blacks was a lot less. I know they’re normally quite conservative at the start of the year, Firestone, to make sure we have a durable tire, but hopefully for me I’d hope that the reds fall off quickly and you have to really maintain a smart pace and a setup and manage the car well throughout the racing stint.”

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.