IndyCar 2017 team preview: Team Penske

Pagenaud looks for a title encore. Photo: IndyCar
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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. First up are the defending champions from Team Penske, which had a phenomenal 2016 season with 10 wins, 11 poles and a 1-2-3 in the championship, as Simon Pagenaud romped to his first title.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

1-Simon Pagenaud (Ben Bretzman, Kyle Moyer)
2-Josef Newgarden (Brian Campe, Tim Cindric)
3-Helio Castroneves (Jonathan Diuguid, Roger Penske)
12-Will Power (David Faustino, Jon Bouslog)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Chevrolet

Sponsors: Menards, PPG, HPE (No. 1), Verizon, Hawk Performance, DeVilbiss, Discount Tire (No. 2), Hitachi, Shell, Rev Group (No. 3), Verizon (No. 12)

Power looks for a full season of consistency. Photo: IndyCar
Power looks for a full season of consistency. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Almost everything, really. With 10 wins, 11 poles and a 1-2-3 points finish in Team Penske’s 50th season of competition, Penske was first in class by a significant margin.

What went wrong in 2016: By Penske standards, the team was not as competitive at Indianapolis. That will have to change this year. Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth in points last year and would have been lower had it not been for a double points-aided podium finish in the season finale, was inconsistent over the season and Josef Newgarden will look to improve upon that.

Newgarden's Team Penske arrival is a key story line in 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Newgarden’s Team Penske arrival is a key story line in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

What’s changed for 2017: The Newgarden addition in the driver lineup and the crew swap between the Nos. 2 and 12 cars. Montoya continues in a fifth car for the Indianapolis 500, the first time Penske has expanded that far.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Keep at the same mantra of “effort equals results,” get all four drivers on the board winning-wise, regain the win at Indy and retain their championship belt. It seems hard to believe, but the last time Penske won back-to-back titles was in 2000 and 2001 with Gil de Ferran. Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Will Power (2014) and Simon Pagenaud (2016) have won Penske titles since.

The consistent Castroneves looks for more. Photo: IndyCar
The consistent Castroneves looks for more. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: Penske won’t again win 10 races in 2017; the field is too deep for that. But I’d still expect them to win the championship with Will Power getting on the board for the second time in his career, and I believe all four of their drivers will win at least once this year, for a total of anywhere between six to eight triumphs. They won’t however, win this year’s Indianapolis 500… and I’ll get to who I think will in a later prediction.

Kyle Lavigne: The only way Team Penske’s 2016 season could have been better is if they won the Indy 500. And if Helio Castroneves doesn’t suffer damage to one of his wheel pods late in the race, it may have happened.

Team Penske’s driver lineup is again stacked from top to bottom. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power are proven champions while Helio Castroneves has won everything except a championship. And new addition Josef Newgarden will be nipping at their heels while Juan Pablo Montoya rejoins the group for the Indy 500. While winning 10 races again is a stretch, it’s hard to imagine a “down” year.

Pagenaud and Power seem most likely to challenge for a championship, though any of their full time competitors could do it. Expect the 2017 champion to again come from the Penske lineup.

Luke Smith: Penske enters 2017 as the team to beat, and I don’t see that changing this year. Weak spots are very hard to find, even more so thanks to the addition of Newgarden. I think he can be in the title mix this year, even if it is his first in the ‘big time’. I’ll stick my neck out and say it’ll be between him, Power and Pagenaud fighting for the title come Sonoma – and Helio will win the 500 for a fourth time.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”