2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season preview, Part 1

This Sunday, the green flag waves to start the GP of St. Petersburg and the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. In the first half of Motorsport.com’s preview, David Malsher explains the changes since this time last year.

After six and a half months of deprivation, this weekend IndyCar fans finally get the chance to see their favorite racers in action on St. Petersburg’s 1.8-mile runway/street course in Clearwater, Fla.

On Wednesday, we’ll study the form guide of all the teams competing; now we look at the off-season’s significant changes.

Revised aero kits

There was an expectation that Chevrolet’s and Honda’s aero kits would converge in spec after their first year, particularly given HPD’s opportunity to rework more areas.

Notable by their absence this year are Honda’s armadillo-like front wing elements from 2015’s road/street/short-oval kits; the HPD front wings now look remarkably like those found on the Chevrolet kits. Honda has also adopted a narrower and more curvaceous sidepod profile when viewed from above, again emulating the Chevy shape.

But for those who want a point of identity, the two kits are instantly distinguishable in side profile, with the Honda version retaining the elongated and angular blade on the engine cover, while Chevy keeps the gentle curve, albeit with a shallow fin along its length.

New faces

America’s latest Formula 1 pilot Alexander Rossi has signed a one-year deal with Andretti Herta Autosport, which is the name of the fourth Andretti Autosport entry, following Bryan Herta’s late deal to merge his team with that of Michael Andretti.

It is believed that Chip Ganassi Racing has several million reasons to run Max Chilton in the #8 entry this year and Chip had always been upfront about that; if he found the money, then yes, he’d enter four cars again. When insurance firm Gallagher & Co. stepped forward to sponsor the car, the deal was done.

Dale Coyne Racing earned the goodwill of IndyCar Nation by hiring Conor Daly for 2016. And thanks to not starting more than eight IndyCar races, nor competing in more than four in one season, the Noblesville, Ind. native has a chance to gun for Rookie of the Year honors. 

Movers

Aside from the new arrivals mentioned above, the lineups at Ganassi and Andretti have remained as they were, and Team Penske has retained all four of its 2015 drivers. Beyond the aces, however, there has been plenty shuffling of the deck.

KVSH Racing has elected to go with just one full-time entry for Sebastien Bourdais, but the four-time Champ Car title-winner will be joined by Matt Brabham for GP of Indy and the Indy 500, under the PIRTEK Team Murray banner. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will also run just one full-time car (for Graham Rahal) but Spencer Pigot will pilot a second RLLR entry this weekend, as well as for GP Indy and the “500”, as part of his prize for winning last year’s Indy Lights title.

The Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing partnership dissolved after just a year, with Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman now gone to attend to other business, and so the Ed Carpenter Racing title has re-emerged. So far Ed doesn’t have anyone to drive the #20 on road and street course races, and so it is set to appear in just the five oval races in the hands of the team boss, alongside the team’s full-time entry, piloted by the ever-more impressive Josef Newgarden.

Carpenter’s former road-course ringer, Luca Filippi is due to embark on his first full season in IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing, while Schmidt Peterson Motorsport has a new/old look to it: James Hinchcliffe returns to the #5 car after his monstrous shunt and injury at Indy last year, while Mikhail Aleshin, who shone for Sam in 2014 and made a cameo appearance at Sonoma last year, is back for good.

Notable departures

There is currently no place on the grid for the fast but unruly Stefano Coletti; nine-time IndyCar race winner Ryan Briscoe, who will pilot a Ganassi Ford GT this season; Tristan Vautier, who signed with AKKA Racing to race in the Blancpain GT series; Sebastian Saavedra, who did a decent job in his four races with Ganassi last year; Simona de Silvestro, who is racing for Andretti Autosport in Formula E; JR Hildebrand, whose talent is sadly going to waste right now; and, of course, 2014 Indy Lights champ Gabby Chaves, who lost his ride with Herta when BHA merged with Andretti.

Needless to say, Justin Wilson is the IndyCar racer everyone will miss most this year. For the first time since 2003, the U.S. open-wheel scene will not be graced by the presence of this gentle, brilliant giant of a driver. But he shall not be forgotten.

Indy 500 one-offs

These include last year’s rookie at Ganassi, the 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam, who will drive for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing; Buddy Lazier in a self-run team; and two extras at Dale Coyne Racing – Pippa Mann, as has become something of a tradition, and Bryan Clauson, in conjunction with Jonathan Byrd Racing.

Grace Autosport, run by former Dodge SRT marketing director Beth Paretta, is also still aiming to be on the grid for the 100th Indy 500 with Katherine Legge at the wheel. And there are plenty more favorites waiting in the wings: Briscoe, Hildebrand, Vautier and de Silvestro, would all be strong choices, but so too would skillful veterans such as Townsend Bell and Oriol Servia

New/returning venues

The return of Phoenix International Raceway has been welcomed by all including – crucially – the race organizers. Promotion of the Phoenix Grand Prix has been solid, special offers have been generous, and the promise of an evening race featuring lap speeds of 190mph and held in latent warmth rather than in the blazing Arizona sunshine should attract a decent walk-up crowd. The racing itself? Well, the drivers have covered every point between ‘It should be hard but fun,’ to ‘It’s going to be a high-speed convoy’. So for now, no predictions.

Road America, as befits its name, is the classic road course in this country but since 2007, it has lacked top-rank open-wheel racing. Should all the people who have complained longest and loudest over the last eight years about its absence from the IndyCar schedule actually turn up, George Bruggenthies and his team could make a profit. Let’s hope so: the Elkhart Lake, Wisc., venue deserves a successful event and IndyCar needs to be routinely racing on prestigious tracks like this.

The Grand Prix of Boston has faced local opposition, although not perhaps as much as certain sections of the media would have you believe. Both Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud have given Tony Cotman’s track layout a thumbs up for its speed and also its potential passing opportunities, so that should appease purist fans who are skeptical about temporary street courses and their potential for spectacle. Those who live nearby and are against the event in principle may only be appeased if the race draws a huge crowd who spend their money on local businesses. 

Vanishing venues

You won’t be surprised to learn that last year’s trip to NOLA Motorsports Park was a one-off. There was nothing wrong with the 2.7-mile track layout, so from that perspective, its absence is regrettable. But everyone questioned the wisdom of holding the race in the region’s wettest season, their misgivings were justified by the lamentable yellow-plagued ‘race’. Only about 8000 people showed up to watch and once lawsuits started flying, the track’s place on the IndyCar schedule was doomed.

The Milwaukee Mile has gone, mourned by all who have a soul for racing, but not by those who had to foot the bill for holding the race in front of a crowd that sullenly refused to grow in number over the past four years.

Still, if we’re talking minuscule crowds, Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway brought a whole new meaning to the phrase in 2015 and so it has disappeared, too. Whether you’ll miss it in last year’s form depends on whether you think Russian Roulette is a game of high skill or merely a dance with chance. Should it return in 2017, IndyCar must ensure the aero package allows drivers to show their driving skills rather than just their ability to hold their right foot to the floor. The Fontana races at ACS over the 2012-’14 period were just fine.

Staff changes

Jay Frye has become the new president of competition at IndyCar, replacing Derrick Walker last November. As well as some proper consulting with the top drivers in the series, Frye’s reign has also featured the appointment of Bill Pappas as VP of competition and engineering, and the introduction of a new stewarding system.

Ex-Ford Racing boss Dan Davis will serve as chief steward, assisted by ex-Indy car drivers Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis as stewards. Brian Barnhart will be race director, and can call for a review of an incident, but will not be part of the decision-making process.

Tomorrow: 2016 IndyCar team-by-team guide 

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Dale Coyne Racing , KV Racing Technology , Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing , Ed Carpenter Racing , Schmidt Peterson Motorsports , Andretti Autosport
Article type Preview