IndyCar 2022 preview: ‘Big Three’ will face stiffer competition for the championship

IndyCar Big Three
Penske Entertainment

The driver who nearly dethroned the championship run of the “Big Three” in the NTT IndyCar Series isn’t quite ready to decree the balance of power has shifted.

Pato O’Ward won twice and finished third in the 2022 standings for Arrow McLaren SP, leading the points with three races remaining.

But yet …

“I don’t think it’s a ‘Big Four’ yet,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “I do think McLaren — the name, the prestige, the history — brings a lot of hype with it. But we don’t have our car performance up to that level where we want to be.

“We’re definitely working hard in order to get there, but we are not quite there.”

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The 2022 season marks two decades since a champion has come from outside Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske in the series that has included the Indy 500. The most recent was Sam Hornish Jr., whose 2002 title for Panther Racing came in a pre-merger Indy Racing League (with Penske in its first year on the circuit, and Ganassi and Andretti still on the CART circuit).

But there were signs beyond O’Ward’s emergence last season that the narrative finally could be changing. Meyer Shank Racing, which will expand to two full-time cars in 2022, won the Indy 500 with Helio Castroneves. With his first career victory, Rinus VeeKay ended a five-year winless streak for Ed Carpenter Racing.

And though Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was without a victory for the first time since 2014, the team will enter 2022 with a new third car and shop that will open this year.

“There’s been a pretty level playing field for teams to win races, but to win championships is kind of a different format,” six-time champion Scott Dixon told NBC Sports. “But I think we’ve even seen that change over the last year or two with the likes of McLaren. Rahal’s going to be very strong, and bigger teams have large engineering groups that can cover so many different areas and spread their testing wealth. So I think there’s a lot more depth to teams winning races, but teams winning championships as well.”

Graham Rahal said RLL’s expansion puts it on par with the infrastructure of Andretti, Ganassi and Penske.

“I would definitely say from a size perspective and a commitment perspective that we are there,” Rahal said. “We are right there. Clearly, we need the wins and the championships. I do think that we can get there when it comes to resources and everything else that ultimately we will get to the point where we can be on a level playing field with all of those guys.”

With IndyCar entering its 11th consecutive season with the same car (and still a year away from a hybrid engine revamp and spike in horsepower), major development essentially has been maxed out. Speed secrets that once belonged exclusively to powerhouse teams have filtered through the paddock in personnel changes.

McLaren also has strengthened connections to its Formula One team, which O’Ward hopes will help in navigating the varied schedule of street courses, road courses, superspeedways and short ovals.

“There’s so many different ways that you need to set up a car and that you have to perfect in order to try and challenge to win the championship,” O’Ward said. “So I think it’s more than just being one of the big teams. We’re definitely a bigger team now, but there’s so many things that come with that.”

A look at what’s new for IndyCar’s contender teams heading into the 2022 season:

Chip Ganassi Racing

Having won three of the past four titles with Dixon and defending champion Alex Palou, there understandably weren’t many offseason changes at Ganassi. The continuity is important to Palou, who will have the same car and team in consecutive seasons for the first time in his single-seater career.

“It feels amazing, and that helps me with confidence,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s going to be more comfortable, I’m going to have more experience than last year, and hopefully that’s going to be enough to defend the title.

After ranking third in intrasquad victories behind Palou and Marcus Ericsson, Dixon has worked with Dario Franchitti on adapting his teammates’ driving styles to improve tire management. Ericsson, who broke through for his first two career wins last season, will begin his third consecutive season with engineer Brad Goldberg, whom he credited with helping optimize the setups in his Dallara-Honda. “He really knows what I need from a race car to go fast,” Ericsson said. “We’ve been digging into the details even more than last year to learn from it.”

Moving to a full-time schedule that includes the Indy 500, Jimmie Johnson also will have a new crew chief in Mike Le Gallic, who moves from Dixon’s team.

“I had a bond with him right away, and I’ve always been drawn to talking to Mike,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “He’s a great fit for the 48 car.”

Team Penske

Downsizing from four to three cars should make the organization more nimble with drivers Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin.

“I didn’t feel we were overextended as a team, but it does give us an opportunity to be more focused and more tidy,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “We’re going to have a compact team with a big punch. When the three drivers are all hitting together on the same wavelength, we work really well together.”

Power, who has increased his fitness from last year, said his pace improved after a second-half change in setup philosophies. Entering his second year, McLaughlin will have a new engineer in Ben Bretzman (who helped Simon Pagenaud win the 2016 championship and 2019 Indy 500) and a new approach of being vocal in team debriefs. “I need to step up with Simon leaving the team,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports. “It’s time for me to add my input.”

Communication also will be critical for Newgarden, who will have a new engineer, but the two-time champion is optimistic that will help the team “figure out how to level up and get six or seven wins.

“You can’t get complacent when you have a new environment around you,” Newgarden said. “You have to be relaying all the information you have at your disposal. When you have that continuity, sometimes you take things for granted and don’t necessarily say everything or have every conversation necessary. I like that new challenge of having to be on my game and make sure I elevate our whole program. Sometimes you have a different chemistry and thought process that might work better.”

Andretti Autosport

Driver dynamics will be critical with Romain Grosjean and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco replacing Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe as teammates for Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi (who will be in a contract year).

“The biggest thing that’ll take time is me and Alex trusting what they have to say about feedback, especially on the ovals,” Herta told NBC Sports. “So it might take a while to understand their driving style, what they like out of the car, and if we can kind of expect to put stuff on our car that they like and like it. And that’s a big thing that I really like working with James and Ryan because they always gave great feedback, and they helped me out a bunch.”

No one was better on street courses last year than Herta, who said Andretti has shifted focus to short ovals, superspeedways and road courses for 2022 improvement. Engineer Olivier Boisson, who arrives with Grosjean, brings a reputation for solid cars at the Brickyard, where Andretti was unusually off in 2021.

“I don’t think we have bad cars anywhere; we just want the best cars everywhere,” Herta said. “That’s what we’re working toward, and we had a really good meeting with the team about what needs to happen. Everybody kind of brought up something good that they needed to do differently and better, and so the team is really confident going into this year.”

Arrow McLaren SP

In addition to McLaren taking over day-to-day majority ownership, the team has made significant engineering changes with Gavin Ward joining after winning the 2019 championship with Newgarden. Craig Hampson also has moved over as the chief engineer for Felix Rosenqvist, who struggled with the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet’s handling in his first year at McLaren.

“It was hard to control the car and to be on the limit without doing mistakes, and that was generally on the road courses,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports. “So that’s been a massive push and then just confidence in general. When you keep doing mistakes and having bad results, it just takes a hit on your confidence. It’s probably also about not overcomplicating and thinking too much and trying to get confidence back.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

The addition of rookie Christian Lundgaard and veteran Jack Harvey coincides with “more of a seniority role” for Graham Rahal, who enters his 10th consecutive season with the team started by his father and co-owned with David Letterman and Mike Lanigan. After the groundbreaking for the team’s new headquarters last year, Bobby Rahal immediately called his 33-year-old son to outline his long-term vision for handing off the reins.

“It never really was my mindset that someday I would be a team owner, but I accept it,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “My dad’s my hero and always has been. I’m focused on how we get the team to the next level.”

Meyer Shank Racing

Having been Penske teammates from 2015-20, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud bring a strong working relationship to MSR. But their partnership will be less about their shared understanding of setups than how they can complement each other in trying to build an up-and-coming team.

“It’s more about what can we do with both our qualities to help this team and take them to a higher level,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “Helio is really good with people and fantastic with sponsors. I’m really good with the technical side and the very little details, and I don’t leave any stone unturned. So if you gather all that together, that’s where I see that relationship with Helio really flourish and help the team.”

Ed Carpenter Racing

The signing of Conor Daly to a multiyear deal should enhance the stability of an organization that had rotating drivers in its second car since 2015. The timing also is good in a contract year for Rinus VeeKay, who spent much of the offseason in engineer Matt Barnes’ guest bedroom to strengthen team bonds after a disappointing second half in 2021. Team owner Ed Carpenter will drive a third car at the Indy 500 and possibly the other ovals.

“We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary and want to make sure we do everything we can to celebrate a 20- and 50-year anniversary,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “I have confidence, that’ll be able to put more things together for me. But when good opportunities come along, I have to look after the team and what’s best for the business. Whether it’s running an extra car at Indy or any race, we’ve got to be able to do it well and not be a distraction for my teammates, engineers and mechanics.”

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

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, 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, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had 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 inevitably will 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 chief 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.