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DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2018 New Year’s Wish List

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Happy Friday, folks. You’ve likely had your rounds of egg nog, batch of presents and hopefully good time with family and friends this holiday season. And unless you’re in California, Arizona or Florida, you’re likely freezing your keister off.

The sounds of race cars coming into your living room on TV, laptop or mobile device are but a few short weeks away. Testing for the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes in mid-January with the beginning of team testing, the series’ open test is in Phoenix in February, the season opener is in St. Petersburg in March and the series’ return to NBCSN is back at Phoenix in April, for what will be the first open-wheel race at the renamed ISM Raceway and the last ever race for the track with the start/finish line where it currently sits, before it’s moved.

With that, we thought we’d offer up a few new year’s resolutions and perhaps wishes for the 2018 season.

A RESHUFFLED DECK IN THE PLAYING FIELD

With a new car – in this case the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit adorning all bodies rather than the manufacturer-specific aero kits used the last three seasons – comes a new opportunity to see the field inverted or at least shaken up.

IndyCar has rarely lacked for parity, particularly since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012. Indeed all five of Honda’s teams won races in 2017 while only one of Chevrolet’s (Team Penske) did.

Still though by the end of the year, it’s largely come down to Team Penske teammates going for the title. This is not a bad thing whatsoever, but if the new kit upsets the apple cart a bit and drivers or teams you may not have expected wind up fighting for wins and staying in championship contention over the year, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

AN APPRECIATION OF THE MID-30-YEAR-OLD GREATS WHILE WE STILL CAN…

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Helio Castroneves’ being shifted over to Team Penske’s sports car program wasn’t necessarily a surprise – it seemed to be something of an open secret in the paddock as summer shifted to fall. The way it was handled wasn’t the best, unfortunately, for a driver who’d spent 18 years with Penske’s IndyCar program and 20 overall in IndyCar.

IndyCar’s new champion, teammate Josef Newgarden, is 27 – and at the leading edge of a tidal wave of young talent that’s poised to take over in the series’ changing of the guard over the next three to five years.

As Newgarden was the first sub-30-year-old champion since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 28, it’s worth noting Dixon and others likely have less of their career ahead of them than behind them at this point.

What we can’t do now is ignore the greats as they potentially begin to wind down their careers.

To wit, here’s the group of those 35-plus and their debut year:

  • Tony Kanaan, 43 on Sunday, 1998
  • Takuma Sato, 40, 2010
  • Sebastien Bourdais, 38, 2003
  • Scott Dixon, 37, 2001
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, 37, 2003
  • Will Power, 36, 2005
  • Ed Carpenter, 36, 2003

Those seven drivers will become this generation’s version of Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, Sullivan, Rahal, Fittipaldi, Tracy, Vasser and so on and so forth over the next couple years – the venerable superstars who are nearing the end of the road.

These seven listed above all have at least one IndyCar championship, one Indianapolis 500 win, one Indianapolis 500 pole, or perhaps some combination. They’re the clearly established star veterans of the sport at this juncture.

With Castroneves gone, and Juan Pablo Montoya also having been out of IndyCar full-time for more than a year now, it’s worth appreciating the greats and their presence while we still can.

… BUT ALSO GETTING TO KNOW THE NEW KIDS

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Excluding the batch of Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball – all of whom debuted between 2006 and 2011 and are now mid-range in their careers both in age (anywhere from Rahal at still only 28 to Pagenaud at 33) – IndyCar has its first real wave of young guns since the 2008 merger of IndyCar and Champ Car set to break through starting in 2018.

Newgarden, the 2017 champion and Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, have laid the groundwork these last two years. But with the new car and a significant number of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates not only getting to IndyCar but starting to stick, it’s about time we get to know the future studs of the sport.

Newgarden is 27 and Rossi 26, and both easily have a decade or more ahead of them at this level, and may well establish a rivalry between them depending on how their careers evolve. Here’s who else we can get excited about from 2018 and beyond:

  • Ed Jones, 22, 2017 rookie-of-the-year, 2016 Indy Lights champion
  • Zach Veach, 23, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Robert Wickens, 28, 2018 rookie, DTM winner, successful junior open-wheel pedigree
  • Spencer Pigot, 24, two years in the sport, 2014 Pro Mazda champion, 2015 Indy Lights champion
  • Matheus Leist, 19, 2018 rookie, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Max Chilton, 26, two years in the sport, led most laps at Indy 500, Indy Lights race winner
  • Gabby Chaves, 24, three years in the sport, 2015 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, 2014 Indy Lights champion
  • Kyle Kaiser, 21, 2018 rookie, 2017 Indy Lights champion
  • Jack Harvey, 24, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner

That’s nine additional drivers right there, all of whom have 33 or fewer starts and who haven’t completed more than two full seasons in the series, who will eventually become regulars at the front of the field in IndyCar.

And this batch doesn’t include Carlos Munoz or his 2017 teammate, fan favorite Conor Daly, who as of this moment sits a free agent but will be getting national TV exposure next month on CBS’ “The Amazing Race.” Then there are young guns such as Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, RC Enerson, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Santiago Urrutia who have either been up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee or are awaiting their first shot. Factor in the wave of other talents coming through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires now such as Colton Herta, Victor Franzoni, Nico Jamin, Aaron Telitz, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay among others and you know IndyCar’s future is bright.

A RESOLVING OF INDYCAR’S TITLE SPONSOR AND TV DEALS

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 hum by Verizon Chevrolet is interviewed following practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 15, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

It used to be a case where angst populated IndyCar offseasons in terms of the driver lineup and sponsorships. But with most seats filled as of this writing – only two outstanding seats are known (second Dale Coyne Racing Honda and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolet for road and street courses) – the two biggest question marks for IndyCar’s future revolve around its title sponsorship and TV contract.

Both Verizon, as title sponsor and the current NBCSN/ABC outlay, as TV partners, contracts’ are up at the end of 2018. Verizon has stated it will continue in a partner sponsorship role with Team Penske. Less clear is exactly what form the TV deal will take for 2019 and beyond, following the end of a 10-year deal where ABC has held exclusive network rights while NBCSN has been the exclusive cable home (first as VERSUS through 2011 before brand change prior to 2012).

One needs to come with the other, so you’d think, to end the question marks and uncertainty over either for 2019. You likely need a year to sell and promote what the future will look like for either element. Without either being set – or at least publicly revealed – it leaves the new year coming without two key tentpole items known beyond the last year of the current contracts. It seems obvious, but the sooner these elements are determined and revealed, the better for IndyCar from a long-term standpoint.

FEWER BLUE AND WHITE CARS, AND A 500 WITHOUT A SINGLE FOCUS ON ONE DRIVER

This doesn’t need to be a long subsection.

Dear IndyCar livery designers: figure out a way to be more imaginative than just going blue and white on your cars. And if you must go blue and white, make it pop on the new canvas of the new car.

And at the Indianapolis 500, provided Danica Patrick does return, I’ll repeat a plea I’ve said before when previous guest stars Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso came to the race. They can be a story but not the story of the month. Whereas Busch and Alonso were new to IndyCar from their respective NASCAR and Formula 1 disciplines, Patrick’s homecoming is a story enough in itself – even as the waiting game lingers wondering which team she’ll drive for.

A FINAL THOUGHT

IndyCar heads into the 2018 season some 10 years on after the merger that brought to an end the ugly, divisive, brutal 12-year split that created a tailspin which took years to recover. The last six seasons with the new Dallara DW12 and a return of manufacturer competition have brought relative stability, and outside of a rocky and turbulent 2015 season, more positive momentum than not for the series’ future.

The landscape in the sports and media worlds are changing. IndyCar stopped the bleeding after the split ended, but it took time for the scars to heal. Most have.

As IndyCar heads into 2018 and beyond, it has a mix of an exciting new look to its cars, a fresh generation of stars ready to emerge and a number of legends still to carry the torch for the old guard.

The key now is how IndyCar continues to push forward with its good elements and not fall back into its somewhat perpetual “one step forward, two steps backward” routine that seems to plague it just when things are going well. That will be the telltale for 2018 and beyond in what will be a pivotal, but exciting year ahead.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”