IndyCar Preseason Roundtable: St. Petersburg

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It’s the season opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series. The off-season saw a gigantic shuffle amongst teams and drivers, generating several questions and storylines about which combinations will perform the best. The MotorSportsTalk team will dive into a handful of them ahead of the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

1) How will Chip Ganassi Racing switching to Honda impact the balance of power among Chevrolet and Honda?

Kyle: Chip Ganassi Racing’s switch to Honda will put the problematic aero kit in the hands of perhaps the strongest and most-funded engineering staff outside of Team Penske. Can Ganassi’s depth boost Honda’s results? It will likely be a challenge early in the season as the team retool their setups to fit the new package. However, the gap between the manufacturers, especially in their results, should lesson as the year goes on, particularly when the series visits the larger ovals of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, places in which Honda appeared to have an edge over Chevrolet. It will be difficult to completely draw even, but Chip Ganassi Racing should give Honda a much needed boost in the win column and score multiple wins for the Japanese brand.

Tony Kanaan at Sebring test. Photo: IndyCar

Tony: After years where the field was largely split in half between the two manufacturers, Honda has a distinct numerical advantage and its best resource acquisition with Ganassi coming back on board. After 10-6 and 14-2 drubbings in the win category the last couple years, I’d love to see Honda close that gap back to even or close at 9-8, and Ganassi has a shot to do it. But with the aero kits frozen for this year it’s hard to see the engineering strength offset the existing deficiencies, although power gains are possible; if Ganassi, Andretti and either or all of Schmidt Peterson, Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Coyne can win, I could see Honda closing the win gap to say 10-7 or 11-6. But another two-win campaign can’t occur, and I don’t think it will.

Luke: Ganassi’s switch to Honda should bring some needed balance to the Verizon IndyCar Series this year, for it has felt like ‘Chevy or bust’ at times since the introduction of the aero kits. Honda now has both the Ganassi and Andretti stables to lean on, and should get stronger as the year ticks on, although the freeze will limit how much ground can be made up. The bigger ovals remain Honda’s best chance of hitting victory lane without a slice of fortune this year, but I don’t see the disparity between the two manufacturers being as great this year.

2) Of the drivers in new places or ones rejoining Verizon IndyCar Series for 2017, which one will fare the best?

Newgarden looks ahead to 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Kyle: There are several different ways to look at this question. Josef Newgarden may finish the best of anyone who switched teams, given that he is with the mighty Team Penske. Sebastien Bourdais, again teamed up with Craig Hampson, may get the “Did the most with the least” award as he rejoins a revamped Dale Coyne Racing that, while down on funding, possesses enormous spirit and cunning. And, JR Hildebrand may be the one most poised for a breakout year as he begins a full-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing.

In all, Newgarden looks set to have the best results of anyone who signed with a new team or is rejoining the series, and following this particular storyline could be one of the most intriguing aspects of the 2017 season.

Tony: The obvious pick here is Josef Newgarden; the pick I’ll go with is JR Hildebrand. Newgarden’s transition to Team Penske has a lot of potential built into it but also a lot of expectations. It’s funny where if Newgarden finishes fourth or better in the points, you expect it because he’s with Penske. But if Hildebrand gets a top-five points finish and wins his first race with Ed Carpenter Racing, he’ll have arguably had a better season – particularly given his lengthy stint outside the cockpit. He’s in a true team leader position, he has the better aero kit/engine package, he has a team that’s emerged as a title contender and he has a new engineer who will bring fresh ideas from the sports car world in Justin Taylor.

Luke: As both Tony and Kyle have noted, Josef Newgarden is the obvious pick to be the best driver in new colors this year. But his arrival at Penske should come with a word of warning. Simon Pagenaud may have crushed the field last year, yet his first season in the No. 22 was a very different story, yielding just two podium finishes.

Nevertheless, I’ll still go with Newgarden. My reckoning is that he’ll be in title contention come Sonoma. But I’d also give honorable mentions to Conor Daly and Sebastien Bourdais, both of whom deserve to really show what they can do this year with Foyt and Dale Coyne Racing respectively. JR Hildebrand should also make his experience of being Ed Carpenter Racing’s go-to test driver pay off this year and pay a trip to victory lane.

3) This race has seen 10 different winners since it debuted in 2003. Only Helio Castroneves (3), Will Power (2) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2) have won more than once. Will this race have it’s 11th different winner?

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 17: Simon Pagenaud of France drives his #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle: It’s hard to believe, but Simon Pagenaud has never won at St. Petersburg. But, he does boast a strong record there, finishing sixth or better in four of his five races. He finished fifth in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, and battled Juan Pablo Montoya for the win last year before finishing second.

This year, expect Simon Pagenaud to improve one more position and claim the top step on the podium as he begins his championship defense.

Tony: I’m with Kyle here. I see Simon Pagenaud coming out strong to kick off his title defense with a win here, particularly after learning his lesson from Juan Pablo Montoya’s pass of him on a restart. Given the new push-to-pass rules this year, I think Pagenaud will be savvier in how he uses it.

Luke: Nope. Sorry guys, but this race is Will Power’s for the taking. It would have been last year had it not been for his concussion, such was his qualifying pace. I’ll tip him to edge out Simon Pagenaud for victory on Sunday.



Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.