Looking back on the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season...
When we look back on the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, how will we remember it?
This year had a little bit of everything from all across the spectrum, but was it a success? There's no denying that from St. Pete to Sonoma, there was plenty to talk about.
I thoroughly enjoyed the racing during the 2015 season. The on-track product was captivating for the most part. We didn't have as much diversity in terms of who was winning the races but the battles that ensued were still nothing short of thrilling.
Fontana stands out as the most gripping racing of the entire season, but also highly controversial since it was due to the unwelcome return of pack racing. Pocono produced similar excitement and Juan Pablo Montoya was quoted as saying after the race that with racing like that, the stands should be filled for next year's event (if it takes place).
These exhilarating races could be described as a bit of a pyrrhic victory for IndyCar though. The racing was astonishing and got everyone talking - that's true. But is it worth the heightened risk for the drivers involved?
Early problems with new aero kits
When the season started, aero kits appeared to be a terrible idea, especially considering the cost. The first unintended consequence that raised eyebrows was the multiple debris cautions caused by the fragility of the kits. A fan was even injured in the season opener by debris. "I just saw big pieces flying," said Kanaan. "You know, you're not supposed to hit anybody. It's open-wheel. It's not stock car or touring car racing."
The second blaring change that can be attributed to the aero kits was the performance gap between Chevrolet and Honda teams - some even went as far as to say that IndyCar is now multi-class racing. After Graham Rahal started to show signs of a resurgence, it led Will Power to give the telling soundbite: "You'd be worried if he was in a Chevy."
Indianapolis practice drama
The biggest issue that a large contingent of people blamed on aero kits occurred at the crown jewel event - the Indianapolis 500. When cars eclipsed 226mph in the very first test, everyone knew speeds were going to get high, but no one could have predicted what would happen in the month of May. Perhaps when Simona de Silvestro's car bursted into flames, that was an omen for what was to come.
On May 13th, Helio Castroneves took flight after spinning backwards into the wall. He was okay and Chevrolet teams were told to remove the center wicker bill that runs the length of each car’s nose.
The very next day, Josef Newgarden slammed the wall in the same corner as Castroneves, getting airborne. The car did not go near as high as the day prior, but it did skid across the entire short chute upside down. Firestone revealed that he crashed because of a cut tire - No universal explanation could be agreed upon regarding the flip itself.
Three days after that on Pole Day, it happened again. Ed Carpenter flipped in a way nearly identical to his CFHR teammate Newgarden. IndyCar took immediate action.
Emergency meetings took place and after hours of waiting, a decision was reached. Boost levels for qualifying were lowered and could not be changed. Both Chevrolet and Honda were told to run the aerodynamic bodywork they planned to utilize in the race for qualifying as well. Teams got another practice session and the qualifying format was altered.
Honda wasn't thrilled with the changes, especially since all three cars that flipped were Chevrolets and when asked if they were able to ascertain what actually caused the flips, series officials responded: "We don't have complete clarity on that."
The flipping epidemic seemed to have ended after that, but 500 practice would produce one more heart-stopping accident before race day...
Racing reminds us how dangerous it still can be
In practice during the week leading up to the race, James Hinchcliffe suffered a right-front pushrod failure. He struck the wall at upwards of 125Gs. A suspension piece known as the wishbone penetrated the safety cell of the car and went through Hinchcliffe's legs, also piercing his pelvis. Hinchcliffe needed 14 pints of blood en route to the hospital after the life-threatening crash, but he survived. If not for the quick and efficient work by the Holmatro Safety Crew, the blood loss could have proven fatal.
Three months later, tragedy struck and this time, the driver couldn't be saved. Fresh off a second-place run at Mid-Ohio, Justin Wilson was killed at Pocono when a section of a nose cone car struck his helmet. He fell into a coma and passed away the following day at the age of 37, leaving behind two young daughters and his wife Julia.
Talk of canopies became the topic of conversation during a week when we should have been discussing the final showdown that loomed for the six remaining championship contenders.
These incidents are just two more reminders of how perilous racing can still be, but these drivers know the stakes. They aren't ignorant to the inherent danger, they accept it. I admire that and think Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais put it best following Hinchcliffe's incident in May.
Karam the villain, new code of conduct
Sage Karam was wearing the proverbial black hat this season. The rookie did not earn his first podium at Iowa without ruffling a few feathers. After the checkered flag, he was confronted by Ed Carpenter. During the muffled, expletive-filled exchange, Carpenter told his fellow American that he needs to 'grow up' and warned that he will end up killing someone if he continues to drive like that.
Later talking with TV: "(Karam) has no respect for anyone out there, he has no clue. If it wasn’t for guys with experience driving with their heads on, he would be hurting himself and other people. I think it’s ridiculous.”
Ryan Briscoe and Graham Rahal have also had strong words for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. The post-Iowa buzz got turned on its head when IndyCar officials released a puzzling and seemingly arbitrary set of new rules - a strict code of conduct stating how drivers should behave.
This policy came soon after the Iowa confrontation and a press conference where Mark Miles stated that the critical comments from stakeholders at Fontana were more vitriolic than anything else, describing them as "damaging to the sport." Miles attempted to clarify the new code of conduct the following day, explaining "Our drivers are competitors and we have no interest in eliminating the emotion and passion that is an integral part of our sport."
Title fight ends in a tie
IndyCar can be proud of the championship battle the 2015 season produced. I was far from happy when I heard Sonoma had replaced Fontana as the season finale, but I will be the first to admit that this race did not disappoint.
The only blight on the title fight was the disdain for double points that multiple drivers and many fans showed. Juan Pablo Montoya was very vocal about it after Sonoma and Graham Rahal backed up his comments.
Montoya's frustration likely stems beyond double points. He led the points the entire season - every single race. In the end, he loses this championship in a tie with Scott Dixon. That has to hurt and as Montoya himself said, "We threw it away." Dixon won the race, collecting his fourth title and the Astor Cup for Chip Ganassi.
Some will argue that the iffy caution for Luca Filippi running slow on the track is what altered the championship. However, I believe Montoya is still the champion if not for the contact with his Team Penske teammate Will Power that damaged the Colombian's front wing.
There's no doubt that the 2015 IndyCar season was a roller coaster of emotions for all those who compete, cover and watch the sport. The series now faces a lengthy offseason as a very different-looking schedule is being finalized and the sanctioning body goes in search for a new president.
So my question to you is this - Was it a success?