IndyCar summer break roundtable, before final four races

Leave a comment

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has been a whirlwind thus far. Between nine different winners in 13 races, a championship battle that sees the top six covered by a mere 58 points and features a mix of cagey veterans and young hot shots, an always epic Indianapolis 500 that witnessed Fernando Alonso in the field, foregoing the Monaco Grand Prix to do, and the 2018 aero kit breaking cover are among a few of the noteworthy highlights so far.

The current two-week break ahead of the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) not only gives IndyCar drivers and teams a chance to catch our breath, but it also gives my MotorsportsTalk colleagues and I a chance to reflect on a busy summer stretch.

Of all the story lines from 2017, which one has stood out the most? 

Tony DiZinno

For me it’s the emergence of Josef Newgarden at Team Penske. His arrival will perhaps unfairly be compared to Simon Pagenaud’s – Newgarden stepping into an established, championship-caliber team while Pagenaud’s was a brand new fourth team out of the box. But consider that Newgarden’s won three races and is leading the points heading into the final month of the season, and it’s not something I would have predicted. We’re seeing a changing of the guard in NASCAR as a younger crowd moves into more seats but Newgarden’s success this year could provide the first swing to one in IndyCar too as he’d be the first champion under 30 in nearly a decade, if he can pull it off.

Luke Smith

This might be picking the obvious, but I have to go with Fernando Alonso’s shock entry to the Indianapolis 500 back in May. Alonso had long-stated that he would like to have a shot in the famous race, yet few could have seen it happening so long as he was still racing in F1 – let alone with McLaren, let alone to miss Monaco!

Alonso’s entry gave a real shot in the arm to the 101st running of the ‘500, given it was without any major storyline before then, and did much to take the race to a new, large audience. It really captured the imagination and attention of the entire racing world, which was really, really cool to see.

To make matters even better, Alonso delivered on-track too. Sure, he’s a two-time Formula 1 champion – but to turn up, qualify fifth, lead for a good stint and be in the mix at the front? That’s special. A story we will look back on for years to come, I am sure.

Kyle Lavigne

I can’t help but be impressed by Dale Coyne Racing. Fast out of the box, Sebastien Bourdais won the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg and was an early season championship contender before his brutal qualifying crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sidelined him with hip and pelvis fractures.

Rookie teammate Ed Jones quietly impressed from the outset, scoring consecutive top tens at St. Petersburg and Long Beach (the first rookie to start his career with back-to-back top tens since Nigel Mansell in 1993). He then announced his presence to the world with an excellent run to finish third at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, a run that might have even been better if his car hadn’t sustained a hole in its nose late in the day.

Esteban Gutierrez has adapted nicely to the IndyCar ranks, while James Davison (Indianapolis) and Tristan Vautier (Texas Motor Speedway) have also been fast in one-off rides with Dale Coyne’s operation.

Unfortunately, Dale Coyne Racing has incurred a lot of crash damage this year, its total far surpassing the seven figure mark. Nonetheless, the speed of Coyne’s cars has not gone unnoticed, and IndyCar’s lovable underdog has been a regular player near the front.

Which Silly Season story do you find the most intriguing?

Tony

I find it fascinating that this year might be the last year for the pair of 40-year-old Brazilians and longtime friends, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, both will be in IndyCar full-time. And it’s weird how it’s played out. With Kanaan advertising his “TK20” from the start of the year and embracing the fact he’s been near the end, it seems as though it’s shown on-track. Compared to last year, Kanaan’s not been as consistently strong or on top of the Honda package as the Ganassi team has changed. Quite by contrast, Castroneves has been a title contender all year, may yet pull it off, finally, tried to downplay the 20-year number on his end and may be shifted out of IndyCar through no fault of his own.

Luke

As is often the case in racing, it seems the driver market will be largely led by the engine market for 2018, with much hinging on whether or not Andretti Autosport will make the switch to Chevrolet power and ditch Honda.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is locked in on a long-term deal and Marco is Marco, but Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato – particularly in the latter’s case – are big, big favorites of Honda. If Chevrolet did come in, Honda may push to get both out of Andretti for 2018, opening up two hot seats that many would clamor for.

Outside of Penske, it seems like things could be very fluid indeed with the driver market for 2018. Once the wheel sets in motion and Andretti makes an announcement, things should move from there.

Kyle 

Luke and I are in sync on this one. Because of the dominoes it could set in motion, whether or not Andretti Autosport moves back to Chevrolet may be the most compelling of all the Silly Season rumors. If they stay as a Honda team, it seems likely their lineup remains stable. If they switch, then it could set in motion a number of different moves.

With Alexander Rossi a favorite of Honda’s and Takuma Sato tied to Honda at the hip, each would likely be looking for another IndyCar ride, and a number of options would be on the table for each. On the Andretti side, suddenly having one, or likely two vacant seats, would see their phone ringing off the hook from drivers looking for rides in 2018.

Other teams, such as Chip Ganassi Racing, face several unknowns as the off-season approaches. But the biggest domino might be which manufacturer Andretti Autosport signs with.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 aero package?

Photo: IndyCar

Tony

It looks great at first glance. The reports I’ve heard are almost 100 percent positive – which is rare in IndyCar circles – and the fact the top-end speed is up, the braking power is even better as IndyCar is now fully unified with PFC rather than the split PFC/Brembo package as was in play this year, and the cars have so much less downforce means we’re going to see a return of wicked slideways action in 2018. The look and the feel of the new package looks proper; futuristic while also capturing enough from the past to recall the heralded “good ‘ol days.”

Luke

It’s fantastic. It’s simple, sleek, sexy – it’s everything that aero should be. We don’t want endless numbers of elements spurning off the car at every angle, regardless of the boost they may offer. The 2018 package proves that it is possible to deliver an effective, good look while still offering high levels of performance, with the noises coming out of the tests being very positive indeed.

Kyle

Quite simply, the 2018 aero package has been a home run so far. Good looking and sleek, it has also been a high performer. For example, the original test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was scheduled for two days. But, things progressed so well on the first that the second day was deemed unnecessary. A subsequent test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course also was deemed a success.

Remembering the teething problems that surfaced during initial testing of the DW12 during the 2011 offseason, the current car being so strong out of the box is quite a boon for the series.

And as much as test drivers Oriol Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya have been beaming about its performance so far, things bode well for a racy package next year.

Who wins the 2017 championship?

Tony

A tough one to say the least with four races to go, and with the lottery of double points at Sonoma still keeping a couple others outside the top four – who at the moment are only covered by 17 points – still within shouting range.

Preseason I picked Will Power to pull it off, but he’s had too many lost points in crucial moments this year – and now has too many drivers to climb over – to recover from 52 points down in four races. The same problem applies for Graham Rahal, who’s been statistically the best driver in the series since the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but had a nightmare opening four races that’s left him playing catch-up all year.

That leaves the top four, in Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, to vie for the crown. I’m torn on Newgarden because for the series’ longer-term health, it behooves them to have a young American star win the title. But there’s just something that doesn’t feel right about him winning it in his first year when Castroneves never has, Pagenaud did in his second year and Power did in his sixth. And with Newgarden now fully ensconced in his first late-season title fight as opposed to on the fringes, it’s hard to see him winning it in his first crack.

Pagenaud’s title defense year has been a very weird one. He’s lacked the pace from last year by leaps and bounds, but he’s been the king of picking up under-the-radar top fives. I don’t think he has enough speed to overcome the gap.

Which leaves Castroneves and Dixon. Is it worth picking the driver who’d be the sentimental choice of the two? Castroneves has had two rough races at the worst time the last two, while Dixon has made up points he otherwise could have lost in Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

Dixon won the title in 2013 and 2015, both times coming from behind. I think the “Ice Man” coolly denies the Penske quartet once again in his latest chapter written in a storybook career, even if a fifth title somehow would find a way to get overlooked in the national consciousness.

Luke

This is so, so hard to pick, given just 52 points separate the top five drivers in the championship. The bullets may be loaded in Team Penske’s favor, given all four of its racers are in the mix, but I’m going to go for the fifth man: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.

Dixon has been his usual, consistent self through much of the campaign, even if things have dipped off a little since his victory at Road America. The Honda package has been strong on ovals this year, and if his demolition job of last year’s race at Watkins Glen is anything to go by, Dixon could be in a very good position come Sonoma.

A fifth title would only add to the legend of Scott Dixon. For the sake of the narrative, let’s hope it’s a ‘veteran versus youngster’ showdown with Josef Newgarden also in with a shot of a maiden crown.

Kyle

With double points on the docket for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (September 17, NBCSN), it’s conceivable that the six current title contenders (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Graham Rahal) all enter Sonoma with at least a mathematical shot at a championship, making any prediction somewhat of a toss-up at the moment.

What’s more, the variety of tracks left on the schedule only complicate matters. Gateway Motorsports Park is a short oval, Pocono Raceway a super speedway, and Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway natural terrain road courses. That’s three different types of circuits in the final four races.

While my colleagues have both selected Dixon as their champion, I’ll go a different route. The last time a driver won a championship in his first year with Team Penske was in 2000, when Gil de Ferran captured that championship in the CART FedEx Championship Series. This year, Josef Newgarden repeats de Ferran’s feat and wins the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship.

 

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
Leave a comment

Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”