Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar Preview: Honda Indy Toronto

Leave a comment

The Verizon IndyCar Series makes its annual trek north of the border this weekend for the Honda Indy Toronto, the lone event outside of the United States on the IndyCar calendar. With only six events remaining in the 2018 season, the championship picture is very much at the forefront.

Last year, this race saw Josef Newgarden’s title push begin – his Toronto win was the first of three in a four race span, with second place finishes at Pocono Raceway and Sonoma Raceway also bolstering his late-season push. And with 53 points currently separating the top five, any one of them could make a big dent in the points chase.

Talking points ahead of the Honda Indy Toronto are below.

Dixon Looks to Rebound from Troublesome Day in Iowa

Scott Dixon languished in 12th at the end of the Iowa Corn Indy 300, his worst outing of the season. Photo: IndyCar

Iowa Speedway saw points leader Scott Dixon have his worst race of the year. Starting sixth, Dixon started going backward early and fell outside of the top 10 after the first round of pit stops. A combination of poor handling and a mistake on their final scheduled stop – his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda team mistakenly swapped the right front and left front tires – ultimately saw Dixon finish 12th, four laps off the lead.

Along with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, where he finished 11th, it’s Dixon’s only other finish outside of the top 10 – and his Long Beach result was down to falling victim to an untimely caution that hurt the team’s strategy. Rest assured, Iowa was the rare instance where Dixon and the Chip Ganassi Racing team were just off.

“I don’t think we really had the weekend we wanted to in Iowa after having a string of five or so podiums over the last six races,” Dixon said of the Iowa result. “We stayed with it as best we could, though, in the PNC Bank car and had a reasonable points day with some of the other top point contenders having issues in the race. So, it’s on to Toronto where we’ve had some success in the past. It’s a great city that I know we all love coming to, and I hope it’s a good show Sunday and a good performance for the No. 9 team.”

It would be a genuine surprise if Dixon struggled for a second weekend in a row. He is a previous Toronto winner – he swept both races in the 2013 Toronto double header – and the event provides a great opportunity for him to put Iowa to bed.

The Canadian Contingent

Toronto natives James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens look to wow the home crowd this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

This weekend will be a case of metaphorical “home cooking” for three IndyCar drivers, as Canada welcomes back homegrown sons James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, and Zachary Claman De Melo.

Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of the home crowd’s attention might be directed toward the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of Hinchcliffe and Wickens. Hinch is the most recent IndyCar winner, having taken his sixth career win at Iowa Speedway, while Wickens has done everything but win in 2018, though he has come tantalizingly close on multiple occasions.

Hinchcliffe has back-to-back podiums at Toronto and has his sights set on his first back-to-back wins of his career. Wickens, meanwhile, looks to get the monkey off his back and take his first IndyCar win.

Wickens is particularly amped up to compete in Canada – it will be his first race on home soil since 2009, when he raced at what is now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the Atlantic Championship.

“I can’t express enough how excited I am to race the Lucas Oil car in front of my hometown in Toronto,” Wickens revealed. “The team is coming off a great result in Iowa with both cars in the top five and James’ win. It’s already been a crazy week here, and the rest of the week is going to be so much fun. I can’t wait to get my helmet on and get on with practice because it’s a track I’ve always wanted to drive an Indy car on. It’s a bucket list item of mine to race as a professional driver in front of my hometown, so I’m really looking forward to checking that off the list.”

However, while Hinch and Wickens may get the most attention, don’t sleep on the third Canadian driver in the field. Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo, a native on Montreal, gets better with every IndyCar outing, and is a genuine dark horse entering the weekend. He finished second and third in the two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races last year, and he’s keen to make a strong showing in front of the Canadian crowd again and score his first IndyCar top 10.

Zachary Claman De Melo is looking for a career-best finish in front a home crowd in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m extremely excited to go to Toronto. I have a lot of friends and family there that will be watching, so it’s a really special race for me,” Claman De Melo said of competing at Toronto. “I love the track and I think it should be a fun race. I got a double podium in Toronto last year in Indy Lights, so hopefully I can be strong there again and get a really good result for the team in front of my friends and family.”

Dixon’s Championship Rivals Aim to Gain Ground

As previously described, four drivers are within 53 points of Scott Dixon for the championship lead. Josef Newgarden (-33), Alexander Rossi (-41), Ryan Hunter-Reay (-52), and Will Power (-53) are all within range of Dixon, and recent street course history, both in Toronto and elsewhere, has been kind to all of them.

Newgarden is the defending Toronto winner, and currently leads the series in wins (with four). Rossi and Hunter-Reay are winners at prior street races this year (Rossi at Long Beach and Hunter-Reay in Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit), and Hunter-Reay is a previous winner in Toronto (2012). Power, meanwhile, has won three times on the streets of Toronto (2007, 2010, and 2016).

In short, Toronto has historically been a strong event for everyone in the title chase, and Sunday’s race could be a titanic battle amongst the title contenders.

Misc.

  • Conor Daly returns to the Verizon IndyCar Series in what is currently a one-off effort with Harding Racing, standing in for Gabby Chaves. (Note: Harding has stated that they’re not looking to replace Chaves, but are rather evaluating options for a second full-time driver next year).
  • To date, Honda powered cars have won the four previous street races in 2018 (Sebastien Bourdais in St. Petersburg, Rossi in Long Beach, and Dixon and Hunter-Reay in Detroit). Honda nearly swept the street courses last year – Newgarden’s Toronto triumph spoiled that effort – and a Honda win on Sunday would complete the 2018 street course sweep.
  • Several cars sport new and/or different sponsor liveries this weekend. Sebastien Bourdais’ No. 18 Honda for Dalye Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan features Mouser Electronics and Molex. Charlie Kimball sports Novo Nordisk colors, departing from his now usual Tresiba livery, on his No. 23 Carlin Chevrolet. Marco Andretti sees Oberta Beef Jerky on his No. 98 Andretti Autosport Honda. And Spencer Pigot sees Preferred Freezer Services return to his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet.

The Final Word…

From Iowa winner and two-time third place finisher at Toronto James Hinchcliffe:

“It’s been pretty nonstop since the win in Iowa, but the momentum we have is hopefully going to carry over into the race this weekend in Toronto. It’s always so special to be able to race in front of my hometown, and I’m really looking forward to sharing that with Robbie (Wickens). The support coming home is always so incredible. The Arrow Electronics crew have been working really hard all year, and after the win, we are all hungrier than ever.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule:

Friday, July 13
10:40 – 11:25 a.m. ET – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:30 – 3:15 p.m. ET – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, July 14
9:50 – 10:35 a.m. ET – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:55 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); NBCSN (Same-day delay, 5:00 p.m. ET)

Sunday, July 15
11:40 a.m. – 12:10 p.m. ET – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:00 p.m. ET – NBCSN on air
3:35 p.m. – Honda Indy Toronto (85 laps/151.81 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Alexander Rossi
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Marco Andretti
5. Simon Pagenaud (pole)
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay
7. Max Chilton
8. Helio Castroneves
9. Graham Rahal
10. Scott Dixon

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Graham Rahal
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Will Power
5. Scott Dixon
6. James Hinchcliffe

Follow@KyleMLavigne

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
Leave a comment

With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski