Former CART champion and now NBC Sports Network’s much respected IndyCar commentator, Paul Tracy, gave David Malsher his views on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, one month out from Round 1.
DM: What do you expect from the season ahead – just Ganassi vs Penske, or can the best Honda teams fight back?
PT: That’s the big question. Where are Honda with the aero kit? Nobody knows if they have been working on it since they started petitioning to get a new aero kit. Were they so certain they’d get approval that they spent a lot of money developing something new to cure their problems? The reason I ask, is that they didn’t get approved until very late, so if they sat on their hands waiting for approval, then they could be in worse shape than last year.
So I hope they’ve come up with something that will put them right in the ballpark… Not that I felt they were at much of a disadvantage by the end of last year. The Honda cars were pretty solid, particularly Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Yes, they were at a disadvantage but not as much as various people were making it out to be.
Certainly Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing appeared to have the issues licked not too far into the season.
PT: Yeah, but part of that was Graham driving really well all season, you’ve gotta say. Even when he had issues and dropped back through the field, he’d fight his way forward again – like at Iowa. These days, he’s a lot less fazed when things go wrong, and that comes from having confidence. He’s a changed driver from a couple of years ago, or even one year ago.
So hopefully now he’ll keep driving at that level and continue to improve. If he hits the ground running, doesn't have that slowish start he had last year, he should be a factor for the championship.
Penske appeared to have clearly faster cars in qualifying last year, but on race day it all evened out and a Ganassi driver won the title. Were you surprised?
PT: The difference is in the way they race. The table is laid out pretty clearly at Ganassi, isn’t it? Scott Dixon is clearly the No. 1 – four-time champion at the age of 35 – about the same age as when Dario [Franchitti] started winning his four titles! Dixon gets the job done, he’s a threat on all types of track, doesn’t have many bad days.
Tony Kanaan is a very solid driver, capable of winning the championship but it would be a stretch for him because he’s relying on ovals, where he’s super-strong, and one or two street courses. Then you’ve got two more junior drivers. So basically, Ganassi is focused around Dixon, and he delivers. Look at Sonoma – you couldn’t have asked a guy to do a better job from wherever he was on the grid [ninth]. A perfect drive.
Then you look at Penske and however talented Will Power is, Juan Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud… they’re fighting each other, stealing points from each other through the season. That’s a perfect example at Sonoma, when they get shuffled backward because of a yellow flag and their strategy, and immediately Power and Montoya trip over each other! Meanwhile, up front, there’s a 100 percent team effort from Ganassi to get their main man the championship.
So I don’t know if that will keep being the deciding factor, but if you have four guys on a team all allowed to go at each other and steal points away, then you’re pretty much always going to suffer against a team that’s centered around one guy.
But isn’t there something to be said for having four aces in one team compared with having all your focus on one guy for the majority of the year?
PT: Sure, it’s great that they’re all able to compare data at Penske and then go try and beat each other. But in terms of the team, they often beat themselves by the end of the season because there aren’t any team orders.
We’re kinda overlooking Pagenaud. He needs to turn things around. His first year at Penske was a complete letdown, but it wasn’t that he wasn’t quick enough. He was on the front row plenty of times, even on ovals, but he always seemed to be going backwards – he couldn’t seem to stay up front, except for Indy. And that day he clipped another car, bust his front wing and put himself out of the equation.
One guy who many fans hoped could be another ace for Ganassi was Sage Karam. Then he got let go, we thought Chip was downsizing to three cars, and then Max Chilton arrived from Indy Lights. So Ganassi has four cars, none of them for Sage. What do you think?
PT: I think something strange must have gone on behind the scenes! I’ve got to admit I’m a fan of Sage. He’s young, fast, brave, not afraid to say what he thinks, not afraid to mix it up with veteran drivers…. But he drives on the edge all the time which meant he damaged a lot of cars, and Chip does not like crashed cars. He’s never been one to stand behind a driver for very long if he keeps costing the team money, and I said that repeatedly on air last year.
So what now for Karam?
PT: Well I hate to say it because he’s only 20, but when a top-flight team lets you go it can be tough to rebound and find another big chance unless you’ve already won a pile of races.
When I first drove for Penske, I damaged a lot of cars, but I was fast and had won a bunch of races [eight in two years] by the time Roger let me go at the end of 1994 when he downsized the team from three to two cars. Having those wins meant I got picked up by Newman/Haas who needed someone to replace Mario when he retired.
For Sage, he’s not yet had that chance – he’s had one podium finish… plus there are no openings in big teams, or even midfield teams. He’s got that one-off with Dennis Reinbold at Indy, and that’s it. He’s been shuffled out of the deck and he’s not going to get back unless he brings money to the table. That’s a problem, because when you do it once, you’ve got to bring it every year.
Another American who created a positive story in IndyCar in 2015 was Josef Newgarden, when he nailed those two wins. There have been changes there in the off-season, with Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman departing. Can Josef keep on winning for Ed Carpenter?
PT: At the end of last year, there was plenty of talk about Josef possibly moving elsewhere, but the doors didn’t open for him. I think he has the potential to be a champion, but I think he needs to be with a top-tier team if he’s ever going to legitimately challenge for the title.
If Honda bring their A game, does that put Andretti Autosport right back in the mix, or do you think there’s something else missing there?
PT: Well it’s no secret that everyone in that camp said when Justin Wilson came onboard last year, he came with different ideas that really helped their performance. When you’ve been some place a long time – and even Munoz is going into his fourth year there – you can get set in your ways and think ‘This the way the car has to be,’ and you don’t think outside the box. Having new perspective in there helped them.
Marco was on the verge of turning the corner a few seasons ago and had a really strong season going and then last year was mediocre again. Certainly he’ll be strong at Indy, Iowa – all the ovals really – but I’d like to see him jump to a different level than he’s at currently.
Hunter-Reay is very well-rounded, can win on any track, but two-thirds of last year was a struggle to get the car the way he liked. He kept persevering and at the end of the year he was strong again, but I still think if he gets in a bit of a funk, Ryan finds it tough to dig his way out. When he’s confident, he’s tough to beat.
Do you think KVSH Racing’s situation will improve, switching to one car this year for just Sebastien Bourdais, who had a feast-or-famine year in 2015?
PT: Could be a little bit harder in some regards, but it was miserable for the other half of the team last year, continually fixing cars and burning up money instead of focusing on developments and trying out setups. It just drains the company, saps the energy of the whole team.
Sebastien is capable of winning just about anywhere – that Milwaukee performance last year was off-the-chart unbelievable! His Achilles Heel seems to be banked ovals like Texas, Iowa, Fontana and who knows what he might do at Phoenix? A championship isn’t out of the realms of possibility, but you can’t have weak spots if you want to beat Dixon, Power, Montoya, Hunter-Reay and so on.
Your fellow countryman, James Hinchcliffe is making his return – a great story after last year at Indy. Can he and Mikhail Aleshin push Schmidt Peterson Motorsports into being winners?
PT: Yeah I do, actually. Hinch is very capable of winning races. He won a race last year, and he won with Andretti Autosport. As long as his fitness level is right there at the start of the season – that’s my only small worry there. But with a few races under his wheels, Hinch will be fine. Aleshin was quick in his rookie season, pretty brave like Karam. He’s good enough to give Hinch a hard time.
The Conor Daly/Michael Cannon driver/engineer combo at Dale Coyne Racing seems to have some promise. Can they live up to it?
PT: Well again it’s somewhat dependent on Honda getting its sums right, but Conor definitely has a great engineer in Mike who’s very good at working with young drivers. He’s very patient and listens to what a driver wants. And Conor himself has the speed: he ran good in his races last year, especially Detroit. He seems to have the talent as well as the mind for it, maybe from the pedigree of his dad. He just needs to take it one step at a time.
The ultimate result is gonna hang on Dale, in how serious he is about it. If he runs it like when Justin and Bill Pappas were there, then Conor should find DCR is a good team. But you look at last season and the driver lineup showed you Dale wasn’t expecting to win, he was just keeping cars on the track, until he had [Tristan] Vautier onboard. Now, I’d say they have the capability of running really well.
Regarding IndyCar’s all-new/returning tracks, it’s cool to add an oval, a road course and a street course…
PT: Yeah, and Phoenix will be good – very pleasant temperatures out here at the moment and a good track for our cars. Road America is a classic – scenic, great for the drivers, the fans have been calling for its return, so that’s worthy. And Boston – well, I hope it can pick up local support because we need another Long Beach. You look at the support that St. Pete gets: it’s become part of the region’s calendar over the past 10 or 12 years and I think the locals approve. I hope Boston folk will give their race that same kind of chance.