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Verizon IndyCar Series 2016 Year in Review

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After the half-term report at the, obviously, mid-year point of 2016, it’s only appropriate to do a full-year report of the mostly goods that happened in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

We rattled through all driver reviews in the immediate days afterwards, and now at the end of the year, here’s a full recap of what we witnessed this season.

PAGENAUD’S BREAKOUT CAMPAIGN

Anyone who’d followed Simon Pagenaud in his Atlantic, early Champ Car or sports car career knew he had race-winning and title-contending potential, and his first three full-time seasons in IndyCar bore that out once he made his comeback in 2012. One difficult season at Team Penske shifted the narrative slightly but the motivation and confidence was still there that 2016 would be – had to be – much better.

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the IndyCar Series championship with his crew and team onwer roger Penske after his victory at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 18, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Pagenaud and the championship-winning team. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Even so, the run of form that kicked off the year – five first or second-place finishes in the first five races – was beyond anyone’s wildest guess, not least because it’s that hard to pull off in the super deep, super competitive IndyCar field.

Pagenaud stamped his authority as the title favorite by May and never really looked like losing it. He fended off teammate Will Power’s summer comeback with an aggressive, title-defining move on one of the toughest and most physically challenging weekends of his career at Mid-Ohio, then put an exclamation point on his season with his most dominant campaign at Sonoma. He was – and is – a thoroughly deserved champion.

POWER’S ROLLER COASTER RIDE

. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Power at Texas. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

From missing the season opener at St. Petersburg to then making up more than 100 points to teammate Pagenaud, Will Power’s 2016 season was one of the most abnormal in his career.

Once he regained his full strength and physical form, his on-track form came back along with it. The more serene, having already won a title Power was a more complete driver than he was earlier in his career. Savvy victories replaced out-and-out dominant ones and he’d come up second this year by determination and fightback, not heartache. His title-winning season of 2014 was good but this was arguably even more impressive. By the 2017 season opener, he’ll be a dad after wife Liz gives birth to their first child.

ROSSI AND THE 100TH INDY 500 STAR TURNS

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Napa Dallara Honda celebrates in victory circle after winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Rossi takes a moment to sink it all in. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Few laps as slow as Alexander Rossi’s at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 will ever match the drama and magnitude of the moment. That surreal lap, making it home on fumes following the expert coaching of Bryan Herta on the radio, witnessed one of the more unlikely Indianapolis 500 triumphs in history. With time, the magnitude of what Rossi and the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda team achieved has properly sunk in.

HINCH’S COMEBACK, THEN DANCING TURN

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Hinch on Carb Day. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s weird to say that if James Hinchcliffe hadn’t had his life-threatening accident in 2015 during practice for the Indianapolis 500, he wouldn’t be on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he and Sharna Burgess starred. But that’s probably a reason why he was. Alas, Hinchcliffe’s return to driving, his emotional pole for the race and his entering the millions of homes this fall was one of the stories of the year. Setting aside the “big picture” storylines, those in the paddock witnessed a driver who was thoroughly better on all circuits in his second year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and desperately unlucky to not win a race and end 13th in points.

NEWGARDEN’S IRONMAN EFFORTS

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12: Connor Daly, driver of the #18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda, slides after contact with Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
Newgarden came back from this to race a week and a half later. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)

Suffer the scariest accident of the season, then be back in a car 12 days later. Just another two weeks in the life of Josef Newgarden, whose comeback after his accident in Texas to then race at Road America, then wipe the floors of the field at Iowa in early July was unreal. Newgarden’s star potential has long been obvious and he’s gotten better year-on-year on-track as well, thus culminating with a thoroughly deserved promotion to Team Penske in 2017. He finished a career-best fourth in points this season.

PEACE IN THE PADDOCK, AND ON THE SCHEDULE

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Jay Frye. Photo: INDYCAR

The unsung hero of the 2016 season was Jay Frye, promoted to INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, who helped make the paddock a happier and less negative place throughout the season. When the only real complaint was that there was too much in-season testing, you know things are a lot better than in years past.

From the peaceful transition to a new Race Control with the same three stewards, to somehow managing to turn the cancellation of Boston into a multi-year agreement at Watkins Glen, to getting the 2017 schedule out earlier than ever (in August, with date and venue continuity!), to outlining plans for a common aero kit spec in 2018 after the manufacturer aero kits end, to dogged pursuit of a third OEM to join Honda and Chevrolet, Frye was at the forefront of positive business and internal moves for INDYCAR this year. And this doesn’t even mention some of the additional commercial interest in the series, which was great to see.

“We want their opinion… we buy in from the paddock. There’s a lot of smart people there,” Frye told a handful of reporters at Sonoma, the season finale. “Why not go to them to help us graft our future and our plan? We have this multi-year plan in place. Part of it has been announced. There are still some more things to come. I think people understand there’s this direction. They’ve been part of the process to come up with it!”

OTHER SEASON NOTES

Dixon signed off as champ, and Target signed off as sponsor, at Sonoma. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Between Hinchcliffe on “Dancing with the Stars,” plus separate “Celebrity Family Feud” and “American Ninja Warrior” appearances, IndyCar drivers got a good amount of national TV notoriety this year.
  • Road America, Watkins Glen and Phoenix made welcome returns to the schedule.
  • Chevrolet and Honda were closer this year than the 14-2 win differential would illustrate, but Chevrolet has remained ahead in the aero kit war. Honda’s superspeedway strength was offset by its deficiency on the short ovals. Chevrolet captured its fifth straight Manufacturer’s Championship.
  • Veterans Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan continued to defy their age and remain at the top of their game.
  • It speaks volumes of what we expect from Scott Dixon when sixth in points with two wins is considered a disappointing year.
  • Seeing Target leave Chip Ganassi Racing at year’s end is tough, but thanks for the memories. But seeing commitments from Menards, DHL and hhgregg among others is positive from a commercial standpoint.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg but endured a tough rest of the year, ultimately now leaving full-time.
  • Graham Rahal was unlucky to have ended down a spot from 2015 but followed that year up strongly this year, with his Texas win an incredible effort in the spite of personal tragedy (grandmother died, which he found out the next day). More often than not, he and the RLL team again carried the flag for Honda this season.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay endured a difficult year but still produced a number of star drives, particularly at Pocono.
  • The younger Americans born in the 1990s such as Newgarden, Rossi, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and RC Enerson all stood out at various points this season.
  • Sebastien Bourdais remains underrated and did a lot with a little in his last season at KVSH Racing, per usual. Additionally, seeing what he and Dixon did in the Ford GT at Le Mans this year was great.
  • Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin provided more “wow” moments than usual “wow” moment generator Takuma Sato, who along with Marco Andretti endured forgettable campaigns.
  • The loss of Bryan Clauson stung the paddock, but Daly, then-teammate Pippa Mann and the rest of the paddock paid admirable tribute at Pocono. Additionally well-done on that weekend was the one year-on tribute to Justin Wilson, with most of the paddock wearing the Wilson USWAG tribute socks.
  • Brad Keselowski tested an IndyCar at Road America. It was the only bit of NASCAR-to-IndyCar crossover this year.
  • There were changes of the guard at Firestone (Dale Harrigle to Cara Adams) and for INDYCAR’s brake partner (Brembo to PFC) for 2017.
  • The infamous domed skids were a big talking point going into the Indianapolis 500, and then almost never heard from again.

STATS OF NOTE

  • Eight winners in 16 races, seven other podium finishers.
  • First to second in points gap: 127 points (659-532). Second to 14th: 128 points (532-404).
  • Wins by Team Penske: 10 of 16. Poles by Team Penske: 11 of 16. Laps Led by Team Penske: 1028 of 2070. Firestone Fast Six appearances by Team Penske: 28 of 60.
  • Pagenaud started 1st through 3rd in 11 of 16 races, and made nine of 10 Firestone Fast Six appearances.
  • Laps Led by Manufacturers: Chevrolet 1467, Honda 603. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 14 non-500 mile races: Chevrolet 1318, Honda 352. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 2 500-mile races: Honda 251, Chevrolet 149.
  • Rookie of the Year breakdown: Overall, Rossi 430, Daly 313. In 14 single-points races: Daly 275, Rossi 246. In 2 double-points races: Rossi 184, Daly 38.

Vettel in no rush to sign new Ferrari F1 contract

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Sebastian Vettel is in no rush to sign a new Formula 1 contract with Ferrari despite his current deal expiring at the end of the season.

Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 on a three-year deal, and currently leads the F1 drivers’ championship for the Italian marque ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel’s future has been subject to much speculation as part of the annual ‘silly season’ driver rumor mill, but the four-time world champion has shown few signs of wanting to leave Ferrari.

In order to focus on his bid for a fifth title, Vettel is not looking to sign a new contract with Ferrari any time soon, believing there to be no need for an immediate decision.

“We have other things to do. In the summer there’s a bit more time, there’s a couple of weeks rest where there’s no race,” Vettel said in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“But for now, focus is extremely high on working on the car. A piece of paper can be signed fairly quickly, so that’s not a problem.

“I’m not in a rush, I don’t think the team is in a rush as far as I understand. I think they would tell me otherwise.

“There’s no problem. Nothing’s wrong.”

Vettel is currently paired at Ferrari with Kimi Raikkonen, whose contract is also up at the end of the year.

‘Dinner with Racers’ rides again for third season

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Spencer Pumpelly killing a guy… allegedly. Johnny O’Connell attempting to run over Dario Franchitti… again, allegedly. Copious mentions of Bill Riley. Chicken sandwiches.

All these inside jokes, along with awesome stories and food selections, are staples of the “Dinner with Racers” podcast series, which is presented by Continental Tire, and will roll on once again this fall for a third season.

The key addition to this year from co-creators Sean Heckman, PR veteran and partner in TMB Creative, Inc. (The Media Barons) and Ryan Eversley, Acura factory driver for RealTime Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge, is the launch of an official guest submission contest (fans can submit their guest recommendations here), as well as other fan contests to be revealed as they get closer to hitting the road.

Quotes from both Eversley and Heckman in the official release go true to form if you know both individuals, their styles and sense of humor, and if you’ve listened to any of the podcasts from seasons one and two.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” stated co-host Eversley. “It’s honestly a lot of fun to do this, and in many ways very refreshing. The enthusiasm we find in every guest we meet, no matter how accomplished, is incredible, and something that reminds us both how great it is to work in this sport. The only thing more satisfying is the tremendous fan response we’ve had over the years. We honestly had no clue how many people would not only listen, but respond so positively, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. This year we’re trying to do a little more to include our fan-base, we hope they enjoy it.”

“I agree, it’s a lot of fun,” continued Heckman. “For the first week.”

The cross-country trip will occur this fall and episodes are generally released around the holidays, either on the front side or back side of Thanksgiving but before Christmas.

Ferrucci steps up to Formula 2 with Trident for rest of season

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American racer Santino Ferrucci will make the step up to FIA Formula 2 for the remainder of the 2017 season, linking up with Trident.

Ferrucci, 19, made his GP3 debut in 2016 and has raced in the series ever since, balancing development duties with the Haas Formula 1 team.

The native of Woodbury, Connecticut will make his F2 debut this weekend in Hungary, securing a seat with Trident for the rest of the season.

“We are really proud to announce the agreement reached between Team Trident and the American racer Santino Ferrucci for the final five rounds of the FIA Formula 2 season,” Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci.

“The 19-year-old already had the chance to test one of our GP3 Series cars in last November’s collective postseason test at Abu Dhabi.

“Back then, he impressed the team’s staff, bringing home great results and keeping his name among the top-5 at all times.

“He is now set to make his Formula 2 debut at Budapest, on the same track where he led the way in GP3 Series testing.

“I am sure that Santino has all the skills needed to adapt to a Formula 2 car very quickly. Also, thanks to his Formula 1 experience, he will not have problems in managing more power and carbon fiber brakes.”

Pirelli confirms Brazil, Abu Dhabi tire selections to finish 2017

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Pirelli has confirmed the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix tire selections for the final two races of the season, which brings to a conclusion all the selected sets for the rest of the way.

Pirelli will have the supersoft, soft and medium compounds on offer at Sao Paulo in Brazil with the ultrasoft back for Abu Dhabi with the supersoft and soft compounds.

The Abu Dhabi selections will match those at Austin and Mexico City for that back-to-back in October.

Here are the remaining tire selections for after the summer break. At Hungary this weekend, teams can run the supersoft, soft and medium.

  • August 27: Belgium, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft
  • Sept. 3: Italy, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Sept. 17: Singapore, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft 
  • Oct. 1: Malaysia, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Oct. 8: Japan, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Oct. 22: USA, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft 
  • Oct. 29: Mexico, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft
  • Nov. 12: Brazil, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Nov. 26: Abu Dhabi, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft