IndyCar: 2014 sees mix of old guard, future generation set for battle

1 Comment

As the days begin to count down for IndyCar before its season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, most of the field is set and most will have gotten in anywhere from two to three offseason tests – some more so, depending on available budget.

What sets up is a fascinating battle between three distinct generations: the older guard, closer to the end of their careers than the beginnings, the veterans who all have substantial experience and are in the middle of their careers, and the younger generation, who have shown glimpses of brilliance but not contended for wins and championships on a weekly basis. Yet.

THE VETERAN TRIO: TONY KANAAN, HELIO CASTRONEVES, JUAN PABLO MONTOYA

The two Brazilians have been inextricably linked since they moved to America in the mid-1990s, coming up through Indy Lights and then into CART in 1998. Then in 1999, a then-unheralded Colombian named JPM stormed ashore and swept to the CART title as a rookie.

In 2014, their goals are different. “TK,” who at present would take over the series’ unofficial elder statesman role at 39, has a long-awaited chance with one of the best seats in IndyCar, taking over the No. 10 Target car from Dario Franchitti. He’s got a great chance to win his second championship, 10 years after his first.

For Penske’s pair of Castroneves and Montoya, both 38, the stories are different. Helio seeks that elusive first championship in what, like Kanaan, will be his 17th season of racing, and his now proving-to-be-elusive fourth Indianapolis 500. For Montoya? It’ll be about getting reacclimated to open-wheel after an eight-year layoff, and showcasing the sublime driving ability he showed from his two CART years in 1999 and 2000.

THE MID-CAREER VETERANS: TAKUMA SATO, JUSTIN WILSON, SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, SCOTT DIXON, RYAN HUNTER-REAY, RYAN BRISCOE, WILL POWER, ED CARPENTER, MIKE CONWAY

This group all ranges from age 30 (Conway) up to 36 (Sato), and you figure they have anywhere from maybe four to up to 10 years still to go. And all still have something to prove after their careers in top-level American open-wheel have stretched back as far as 2001 (Dixon’s rookie year in CART).

Dixon, 33, and the defending series champion, is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers … but so too is Power, also 33, who came on like wildfire at the tail end of the 2013 season. A proper Dixon vs. Power title battle would be the treat IndyCar fans have waited to see for years.

But don’t discount the Ryans. Hunter-Reay, 33, is keen to rebound from a 2013 mired with bad luck and recapture the title-winning form of 2012; Briscoe, 32, could stealthily slide under the radar, pick up a win or two and play himself into title contention in Ganassi’s fourth car.

Wilson, 35, remains criminally underrated, and will have to perform miracles once again to threaten the establishment with Dale Coyne Racing. But he should work well with new engineer Michael Cannon. Bourdais, also 35 and now at KV, is a championship dark horse. If he wins a race early in the year, he could play spoiler.

For Sato, it’s about establishing further consistency and building on the success of his first year at A.J. Foyt Racing, that included the popular Long Beach win and Houston Race 1 pole. Carpenter, 31 today, has established a team now that can contend for wins at every race, with his oval expertise in those six races and Conway’s road and street course prowess in the other 12.

THE NEW WAVE: SIMON PAGENAUD, CHARLIE KIMBALL, JAMES HINCHCLIFFE, MARCO ANDRETTI, MIKHAIL ALESHIN, GRAHAM RAHAL, SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA, JOSEF NEWGARDEN, CARLOS MUNOZ

The youngsters, all under 30. At 29, Pagenaud is just entering the peak of his powers and at 22, Munoz is the youngest current driver in the field. Between this group of 9 drivers, there are only 9 career victories (Pagenaud 2, Kimball 1, Hinchcliffe 3, Andretti 2, Rahal 1). But it feels like that number could grow substantially this year.

Pagenaud’s technical ability is renowned and after two years of consistent growth with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, nothing less than a championship challenge will suffice. For Aleshin, 26, proving better than Tristan Vautier over the course of the season should be his goal.

Andretti’s trio of Marco, 26, “Hinch,” 27, and Munoz set that team up best for long-term potential growth as a collective unit, while the Ganassi and Penske teams have opted more for veteran, sage experience (Kimball is the only one of their seven combined drivers under 30, and he’s 29). This is a big year for Marco in particular, who made a big step forward in 2013 with fifth in points, but needs to be winning races – plural – something he’s not done in his career dating to 2006.

Same story for Rahal, 25, who should finally have the necessary ingredients to put it all together and recapture the heights he achieved at times in 2008 and 2009. He has the engineering depth, the primary sponsor of the National Guard, and for now at least doesn’t have the distraction or burden of a second car. He’s the sole focus for RLL’s 2014 full-season effort.

Newgarden and Saavedra, both 23, will likely find the road toughest in 2014, primarily because of extenuating circumstances more than their own ability levels. Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team will need to dig deep and emerge stronger from offseason personnel shakeups, but in year three, he should make a leap close to the one Hinchcliffe and Kimball did a year ago.

As for Saavedra, the KV equipment at his disposal should provide an increase over where he was with Dragon Racing last year, but the field is so deep and tight that it will take some phenomenal efforts to emerge even in the top-10 on a regular basis.

THE WILD CARDS: THE TBAS

Dale Coyne’s second car and Bryan Herta Autosport’s sole entry are yet to be confirmed. At least initially, the drivers of these two will probably find the road toughest because of the lack of testing time by comparison to the field this winter.

But as the field sets out in St. Petersburg later this month, the generation battle on display will be as interesting to watch as the battle between the teams. Last year, it was Hinchcliffe taking one from Castroneves. We’ll see who breaks through in only a few more weeks.

Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

AF Corse
Leave a comment

AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”