On the eve of the 16-race 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, David Malsher studies the form guide for the teams contesting the full season.
This is the year of the 100th Indianapolis 500, and the iconic and beautiful Borg Warner Trophy will doubtless cast a long shadow across the first third of the season. And so it should.
But the five races that precede the Indy 500 will prove the foundation of a championship campaign. Champions like Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay can all tell you of years in which they stumbled through the first half of the season, leaving them with too much to do in the second half, even once they and their teams started getting the results they deserved.
Having said that, the previous two titles from Dixon have proven that he and the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing-Chevrolet can recover from an early-season deficit. Heck, the Kiwi came from 90 points behind to win the 2013 championship.
But although that makes the reigning champ a title favorite, there’s no such thing as the title favorite. The depth of quality is just too high.
As one race engineer remarked at Phoenix: “It’s going to be so tough to excel this year. Even the top teams have really struggled for consistency over the past couple of years.
“Look down the grid and there isn’t a single bad driver. When you go back just five years ago, that wasn’t the case. At all. And actually, all those people who keep banging on about CART’s greatest years need to look at the grid back then. There were quite a few wankers at the back of the field.
“Now, you just have a bunch of drivers that range from very competent to fantastic. The whole level has risen, and we’ve all had to respond to that or we will very quickly look like backmarkers.”
Chip Ganassi Racing-Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton
The kings of comebacks, whether that means over the course of a season or just a race weekend.
Whipped by Team Penske on qualifying speed in 2015, and missing something on street course set-up according to Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing nonetheless forced its way into contention and the Kiwi famously scored a last-gasp triumph at Sonoma Raceway.
The #9 has seen a major reshuffle of personnel as Chip’s boys have had the opportunity to switch to the Ford GT sportscar program, but they were internal moves, so everyone’s proven Ganassi standard.
And the Dixon-Chris Simmons-Travis Jacobson triumvirate remains intact, with team manager Mike Hull calling the shots from the pitwall. Expect another title challenge from the man who has finished top three in the championship for the last nine seasons.
Kanaan has only scored one win in his two seasons at Ganassi, yet bizarrely, that’s despite actually upping his game on street courses. He remains at his best on ovals, but watch out for him at St. Petersburg, a place for which he has a distinct affinity which even he can’t explain.
Kimball has rarely looked like the guy who won so impressively at Mid-Ohio in 2013, but he still has the capacity to surprise and he remains a very hard man to pass.
Chilton does not yet sound committed to a career in U.S. open-wheel but he’s not without talent, so his season’s fortunes will depend on the strength of his desire to learn at the feet of veteran teammates and engineers at Ganassi. That is what will decide whether he spends the season swimming or merely treading water.
Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud
If Dixon says street courses were Ganassi’s weak point last year, Penske’s would surely be ovals. Too often you’d see the quartet at the sharp end of the field at the start, and flailing around mid-pack by mid-race. (The obvious exception was the Indy 500!) It was as if the cars had been set up to run only in clean air.
But whatever the cause, it was costly; just a one-place improvement in the results of any of the season’s races would have delivered Montoya and Team Penske the title.
Expect Montoya to be a factor again this season, as his progress from his comeback year to 2015 was so notable. He very much has his eye on the big picture, and Sonoma apart, he rarely makes race-losing mistakes on track.
Castroneves remains as mercurial as ever, but his winless 2015 campaign shouldn’t count against him in your calculations. He’s sharp as ever, and his pole position in deteriorating track conditions at Barber last year proved he’s as brave as ever.
Power’s defense of his 2014 crown was hurt by misfortune but also the team’s general struggle on ovals. He remains the fastest driver out there but still needs to trust his own instincts more in terms of choosing race set-ups that suit him.
Pagenaud’s forgettable 2015 will surely not be repeated. He often had the pace last year but there were other races where he was barely noticeable. Taking full advantage of the facilities at his disposal, the four-time winner should once more find Victory Lane.
Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi
Taking half a season to figure out the Honda aero kit last year damaged the team’s championship chances irreparably. The apparently simplified kit for 2016 appears to have cured the pitch sensitivity that sapped the confidence of all HPD runners, but both Michael Andretti and team manager Rob Edwards have confessed to Motorsport.com that they’re still worried about aero drag.
Hunter-Reay remains one of the series’ top talents, and you can bet he and race engineer Ray Gosselin will get more wins under their belt. But both have remained non-committal on the subject of title chances.
Munoz, who never looks happy when he earns a podium but promised he would celebrate a win, looked fairly unexcited by his victory in Detroit last year. Why? “It was a win on a crazy day,” he says, “we won through tactics.” Well, enjoy it whenever you can. This writer believes Munoz, like Pagenaud, has the all around talent to become a champion, but perhaps needs more self-confidence to guide a team in terms of setup.
Marco Andretti will be strong on ovals, but remains an enigma on road and street courses. He proved the best of AA’s drivers when the cars were at their worst last year, but was unable to run with it once the team had a handle on the setups. The increased downforce provided by the second-gen aero kits should suit his style of requiring a trustworthy rear end to his car, but as ever with Andretti, you never can tell.
In the Andretti-Herta entry, Rossi, given time to learn the tracks and given experience with niceties such as red [soft] tires, could be capable of leading the quartet on road and street courses. It’s anyone’s guess how well he’ll adapt to ovals, but he’s definitely got the mental acuity and student-like approach to make it work.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda
Graham Rahal plus Spencer Pigot for three races
It’s probably time to stop expressing surprise at this team’s performance in 2015; it’s beginning to sound a bit insulting, if not patronizing. But still… a single-car team able to mount a challenge for the championship is a rare thing.
Can lightning strike twice? Well, a confident Graham Rahal is a very strong IndyCar driver – fast, yes, but also aggressive and incisive. Remember the closing stages of Barber last year, when he sliced through the previous three series champions, on a track where you supposedly can’t pass….
The combination of Rahal and race engineer Eddie Jones primarily because they believe in each other and listen to each other. There’s nothing to suggest they’ve lost their mojo in the off-season, so expect car #15 to be at the sharp end.
And expect #16 to look impressive, too. Pigot was a thoroughly deserving Lights champion, and provided he doesn’t get muscled out of the way by those seeking to take advantage of his rookie status, he can shine in his three races. But let’s hope there are more.
Sebastien Bourdais plus Matt Brabham for two races
In some regards, expect more of the same from KVSH – occasional wins without mounting a sustained championship challenge. But there should be improvements, too.
There’s no question that Bourdais and race engineer Olivier Boisson should be boosted by that incredible performance at Milwaukee last year, and team co-owner Jimmy Vasser often calls some tactical masterpieces - definitely a case of an ex-driver understanding what’s required and when.
Without the distraction of a second car in a pile of broken bits, the team should be sharper all around, and Brabham’s presence, even as a rookie, will be useful to Bourdais.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin
Two drivers on hiatus for much of 2015, yet also two drivers and a team who can spring surprises.
The ever popular Hinchcliffe appears to have lost nothing as a result of his shunt at Indy last year, so expect him to occasionally contend for victory when the circumstances are right.
Mikhail Aleshin can be very quick, very aggressive and also disturbingly fearless.
The question marks here are simply how good is the Honda package and if it’s not on point, are these the drivers who can guide the team forward? They can both wring its neck, should circumstance require it, but that’s inevitably a short-term policy.
Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet
Josef Newgarden plus Ed Carpenter for the five oval races
Ed Carpenter insists the change in team ownership, as Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman departed, has caused little disruption in the off-season, and that’s to be welcomed.
This team punched above its weight throughout 2015, and only champion Dixon scored more wins than Newgarden. OK, the Toronto triumph was somewhat fortunate in terms of strategy, but the number of times Josef qualified and raced with the Penske and Ganassi cars proved it was no fluke.
It’s no secret that the American’s contract was up for renewal at the end of 2015, and there continue to be rumors that he might eventually find a ride with Chip or Roger. But as spectators, we can also derive satisfaction from watching a rising star helping to elevate his team to where it can challenge the big teams
AJ Foyt Racing-Honda
Jack Hawksworth, Takuma Sato
Larry Foyt is confident his dad’s team is making progress, and has cited the hiring of ex-Andretti Autosport team manager George Klotz as an example of the team’s increasing strength in depth. He’s probably right, but the proof of progress will be in results.
It’s been three years since Sato’s impressive victory at Long Beach, and it’s hard to recall him coming close to replicating that in the more recent seasons. Both he and Hawksworth have flashes of real pace.
What this team still needs to show is an ability to make progress relative to other teams from Friday through to Sunday. Nail that, and they have the personnel to take advantage of their opportunities.
Dale Coyne Racing-Honda
Conor Daly, Luca Filippi
Providing Dale can nail down Filippi’s contract for the full season, then this is surely DCR’s strongest year-long lineup.
Daly has shown every sign of being the real deal, and certainly his previous team owners and engineers believe that to be the case. Sam Schmidt rated Daly at least as high as Josef Newgarden when he ran them both in Indy Lights, and recalls Daly as making fewer errors.
Filippi, meanwhile, displayed no intimidation at Phoenix during testing, and therefore seems ready for a complete season. With Michael Cannon and series returnee Kyle Brannan as race engineers, Coyne has a lot to be enthusiastic about right now.