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Even without racing, IndyCar has a busy 2017-’18 offseason ahead

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So, there’s been a full week now complete since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended at Sonoma Raceway. The offseason is now underway.

Almost all the first round of pieces have been written or filmed in the wake of Josef Newgarden’s popular first championship, achieved in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Meanwhile official news has been sparse, but figures to intensify in the coming weeks as teams need to fill seats.

And with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit now set for its final test in INDYCAR’s hands on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway’s short course – the closest thing IndyCar has to a street course simulation – testing the new car will be a major topic over the months ahead.

Here’s what’s on tap for IndyCar’s offseason ahead:

TESTING, TESTING, 1…2…3…

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

As noted above, tomorrow marks the final day INDYCAR will run the testing program of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit at Sebring’s short course, before the new kits and cars are delivered to manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet for the next couple months of testing.

Team Penske (Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda, Oriol Servia) have operated the cars but with INDYCAR itself dictating the testing program through the first three tests done in July and August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (super speedway), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) and Iowa Speedway (short oval).

From here, Chevrolet and Honda have six tests each with the car through mid-November, before team testing begins in January, 2018. Teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet) will be those running the cars as part of the manufacturer testing program.

Part of the reason Spencer Pigot was confirmed by ECR as early as he was for 2018 was so that he could be part of this degree of manufacturer testing, and that’s good news for him in his development process. Pigot has already excelled driving one new car when it was introduced – the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in its first season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – and will now have his first full offseason to do IndyCar testing of its new car. Pigot has also helped to develop sports cars for Mazda in its prototype program the last couple years. Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, will have a key role to play for Chevrolet’s testing in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday at Sebring.

Ganassi has only formally confirmed Scott Dixon as part of its 2018 lineup so any new driver would be testing later, once confirmed. Ganassi managing director Mike Hull outlined the testing process over the coming months below.

2018 SCHEDULE RELEASE IMMINENT

The good news for Verizon IndyCar Series fans is that most of the 2018 IndyCar calendar is known already, via dates released either from tracks themselves or other series set to compete at said tracks.

The lone hold-up for the full release, which was expected out this week but NBC Sports now understands will be held a bit further, is whether Mexico will be added as an 18th race along with the 17 races set to return next year.

Given that country’s situation with its massive 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 and its associated aftershocks, it’s not a shock that the country has slightly bigger issues to press on with at the moment.

And the good news we’ve discovered in our talks with INDYCAR officials is that we’re heading into a schedule release without a large number of lingering questions. The schedule stability and date equity assembled over the last couple years has been a welcome contrast to the fluidity in years previous.

Along with the 2018 schedule, movement on IndyCar’s future TV direction and entitlement sponsorship are likely to be big items behind-the-scenes at the INDYCAR offices. The current TV contract with NBCSN and ABC ends after 2018, as does Verizon’s tenure as title sponsor.

OFFICIAL CONFIRMATIONS AT/OF CERTAIN TEAMS

Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series field is set for 2018 (silly season update one, post-Mid-Ohio and two, during Sonoma). There are 13 driver/team combinations made official thus far:

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, during qualifying 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)

Beyond that, there are a wealth of “all but official” scenarios including:

  • James Hinchcliffe all but set to stay with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Tony Kanaan set to move to Foyt
  • Ed Jones planning to re-up with Coyne
  • Max Chilton, Carlin announcing a likely step-up
  • Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing locking down its program
  • Brendon Hartley moving from sports cars into Ganassi
  • Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirming his team choice

What that means on Sept. 25 is that realistically there’s only three or four rides for 2018 yet to be determined if all those “all but official” scenarios become official in the coming weeks. Those would be the second seats at SPM and Foyt, the likely second seat at Carlin and the road/street course seat at Carpenter.

Like Harding and Carlin, Juncos Racing is also poised to run at least some IndyCar races, but whether it’s a full-season remains to be seen. And like Carlin and Juncos, there’s a wealth of Indy Lights drivers keen to make their way into IndyCar.

As it is, the fact most of the IndyCar grid is known or almost set before October 1 – even if many programs haven’t been officially announced – is both rare and awesome to see at the same time. Teams need as much time to test their drivers with the new kits in the offseason, and so there’s been a mad rush to get next year locked down ASAP.

It seems hard to believe, but the days of “TBA” appearing on an IndyCar entry list days before St. Petersburg may be at an end.

HELIO’S OFFICIALLY UNOFFICIAL SWAN SONG

What a couple weeks it’s been for Helio Castroneves. Despite yet another top-five finish in the championship, Castroneves’ Sonoma race felt like a goodbye to full-time competition in IndyCar, especially as he thanked members of the media in the race’s aftermath.

Still, reports emerged heading into the weekend a fourth car full-time with Team Penske was still on the table. And partners Hitachi and Pennzoil also tweeted about Castroneves and his excellent season, which Castroneves re-tweeted.

Castroneves has tested Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 sports car last week (video below) and his departure from full-time driving in IndyCar seems all but inevitable at this point.

Despite Castroneves’ best efforts, it appears as though he’s had his swan song. He’ll be an asset to the Penske Acura program provided he winds up there, but IndyCar would feel his loss on the full-time grid. He’s been someone to appreciate for 20 years, the last 18 at Team Penske.

This is VERY interesting!! Oia isso!!

A post shared by Helio Castroneves (@heliocastroneves) on

OTHER INDYCAR DRIVERS IN SPORTS CARS

With Motul Petit Le Mans set for October 7, at least three IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay – will be in action at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Road Atlanta. Dixon and Bourdais will be third drivers in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Hunter-Reay will be third driver in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, with the Taylor brothers.

Petit Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona always offer up a bevy of IndyCar drivers making guest appearances in sports car land. The latter event, with Team Penske premiering the aforementioned Acura ARX-05 there, figures to have a wealth of IndyCar interest – and quite likely IndyCar drivers – split among its two cars.

WHAT OFFSEASON FUN, ANTICS ARE IN STORE?

Last year, IndyCar had James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” to carry it through the offseason.

Some of the other items IndyCar has released in recent years included Damien Power’s offbeat “Exclusive: Behind the Scenes” interview series with drivers in 2015 and “The Offseason” digital shorts as modeled after NBC’s “The Office.”

There’s usually some degree of entertainment, fun and games that emerges from the IndyCar offices over the offseason and what the creative minds there come up with will be interesting to see.

Or, there’s always more Visor Cam, which was utilized in-race this year starting at the Indianapolis 500 through to the Sonoma finale. Thanks to IMS Productions, this was one of racing’s coolest innovations in years. Considering how much testing is scheduled, some more Visor Cam would easily satisfy the appetite of the IndyCar fan base heading into the five or six-month period without IndyCar racing.

MRTI’S OFFSEASON PLANS

We’ll have more on this separately, but the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires also has a bit to look forward to this offseason. The two key items are the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, the traditional event that takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course October 20-22, and the delivery and debut for teams with the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series. Some teams have taken delivery of those now in anticipation of running next month.

Driver movement will also be afoot there as the next generation of IndyCar drivers seek to position themselves for 2019 and beyond.

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

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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