Nine races down, eight to go in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series and it’s become a battle of the giants. The top five positions are occupied by four champions and a rapidly rising star, while in seventh is a true super-rookie.
There have been times in the recent past where IndyCar’s principal championship protagonists have rarely locked horns on racedays; when one was up, the other three or four would be down, and so the title battle would ebb and flow, each ace having a day or two in the sun while the others licked their wounds.
This is not one of those years. Our top five, all of whom have won at least one race this year, are spread across three teams and have raced each other hard at several venues. Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon were 1-3-4 in Phoenix. Rossi and Will Power fought for the win at Long Beach. Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dixon were victory contenders at Barber. Power and Dixon wrestled at the Indy GP (with Rossi and Hunter-Reay nearby). Over the course of the weekend at Detroit, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Power all appeared on the podium. And at Texas, Dixon, Rossi and Hunter-Reay finished 1-3-5.
The Chevrolet and Honda battle has been intriguing in that each has a clear advantage – HPD units are very tractable low down the rev range while Ilmor’s Chevy units excel at the top end – but at certain tracks these advantages have balanced out so that power delivery has made virtually no difference. Yes, Chevy had an obvious advantage in the Indy 500, and Honda was clearly on top at Long Beach and Detroit, but often the bigger determining factors were analyses made in engineering trucks before the race, decisions made on-the-fly in pitlane and then driving virtuosity and pitcrew performance. Without wishing to belittle the efforts of the OEMs, that’s exactly how it should be in a spec series.
Props should be given to Jay Frye, Bill Pappas, Tino Belli, Dallara – these aerokits allow the cars to race far closer on road and street courses than their predecessors, and are far more of a challenge on ovals.
And finally, praise should also be given to Kyle Novak, the series’ new-for-2018 race director. He’s shown a distinct aversion to full-course cautions – drivers have to remember to actually obey waved local yellows – and that is rewarding the true racers.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images
Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda
Scott Dixon – 1st, 357pts // Ed Jones – 12th, 183pts
Dixon’s fabulous consistency in 2017 broke up the Penske party in the points standings. Now that consistency – and a couple of strong wins – has got him into the lead halfway through 2018, and it’s always fine to see effort be rewarded.
Up until the first Detroit race he hadn’t led a lap all season, but he’d also only once finished outside the top six. Then at Detroit Race 1 he stalked polesitter and leader Marco Andretti, and pounced when the AA driver pitted. At Texas, he was simply in another league.
But what best exemplified Ganassi’s brilliance at mid-weekend turnarounds was the #9 team’s performance in the Indy GP. After being utterly lost through practice and qualifying, Dixon started only 18th. On raceday morning he topped warm-up, and by the end of the race he’d climbed to second. Scott, like his team, has this ability to extract the most from a bad situation.
Series sophomore Ed Jones has had two shunts on ovals (Phoenix and Indy) but there have also been moments of encouragement. If his podium finish at Long Beach was down to strategy, his third place in Detroit 2 was achieved on pure pace. A slight delay for Dixon in pitlane put Jones ahead but he stayed there and kept pace with Power. Hopefully his confidence keeps building.
Alexander Rossi – 2nd, 334pts // Ryan Hunter-Reay – 4th, 308pts // Marco Andretti – 10th, 213pts // Zach Veach – 15th, 147pts
So now we know Andretti Autosport’s late-season momentum in 2017 was not a fluke. From the drop of the first green flag in 2018, Rossi has been Captain Consistent, and his Long Beach victory was even more convincing than his Watkins Glen win last September. His aggression won’t always pay off, he won’t always be the fastest Andretti driver – not with RHR around – and yes, there was that temporary loss of perspective in Detroit 2. But he has very few flaws and since his self-control is normally faultless, he can be forgiven the aberrations. Rossi’s storm through the field at Phoenix was stunning.
Hunter-Reay, a man regularly used as Fate’s punching-bag over the past three years, has responded to (and worked with) Rossi and so is now also reaping the benefits of the team’s revival. His reward in Detroit was no more than he deserved and has arguably been the most convincing win of 2018, in a season full of them.
As he predicted preseason, Andretti has looked much better in qualifying since the numb manufacturer aerokits disappeared. His pole for Detroit 1 was outrageously fast. But on race day the Andretti-Herta driver tends to slip out of contention, using up tires too vigorously, or losing the balance on ovals.
Rookie Zach Veach has been learning his craft while making minimal of errors. His fourth place finish at Long Beach was strong but his seventh place on the grid for Detroit 1 was even better, and displayed his fine car control that was always so apparent in Indy Lights. With renewed confidence and heading to tracks where he has shone in the past, expect him to draw closer to his senior teammates.
Will Power – 3rd, 321pts // Josef Newgarden – 5th, 289pts // Simon Pagenaud – 8th, 229pts
Power’s unforced errors at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park, and tangled pitwall/radio messages at Phoenix and Texas would have put him on the back foot at the halfway stage of the championship in any normal season for the #12. But winning the Indy Grand Prix and the double-points Indy 500 have ensured Power is firmly in the title hunt.
Just as important have been his efforts when Chevrolet has been at a disadvantage – his runner-up finishes at Long Beach and Detroit 2 far exceeded what any other Bowtie wearer could achieve.
Defending champ Newgarden has been scintillating, decisive, aggressive – all the things that earned him his title last year. But his form has also been patchy. Sure, he’s sometimes gotten the raw end of Penske’s efforts to split strategies across its cars (Long Beach, Indy 500), but there was also the error in the Indy GP and near-anonymity in Detroit’s double-headers. It’s been a strong title defense but so far not a great one.
Pagenaud’s issues have been more serious because until Texas last week, he’d shown only flashes of real pace, as he struggles to find the kind of “comfortable” setup that allows him to produce his best. He was fast enough to win Indy if he could run at the front, but once he fell back he didn’t have the car to reach the front. Had he not been rudely drop-kicked by Graham Rahal at Long Beach he’d probably have fought Power for second and IndyCar’s decision to allow cars to refuel between the two parts of the Barber race ruined the #22 team’s attempts to win by going off-strategy.
But at St. Pete, Indy GP, and Detroit, Pagenaud was relatively nowhere. For a Penske driver to have achieved only one top-five finish in nine races is troubling.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda
Graham Rahal, 6th, 250pts // Takuma Sato, 13th, 169pts
A second place in St. Petersburg, earned when Rossi and Robert Wickens collided, is Rahal’s only podium finish of the year, yet he finds himself sixth in the points standings. Qualifying form, with the exception of Long Beach and Detroit, seems to have deserted him, yet he’s a tenacious fighter come raceday and he tends to surge forward; he’s fortunate that this new aerokit actually allows cars to follow closely on road/street courses.
Sato has been flaky, even though a couple of times he’s finished in his teammate’s wheeltracks and scored a fifth in Detroit 1. Much more will be expected of him in the second half of the year.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda
Robert Wickens, 7th, 244pts // James Hinchcliffe, 11th, 209
Wickens’ pace was right there from the first official practice session of the year, but if the cornerstone of a successful career is being quick, a full foundation can be formed only by being a quick study. That is the other area where he’s excelled; just look at his adaptation to ovals.
His true errors have been few, while any other ‘failings’ have been by-products of being a rookie – he couldn’t look after his tires at Detroit nor go quick while saving fuel at the Indy GP. But that hardly matters right now. Despite being a rookie, Wickens has taken a pole and five other times started in the top six. And just think: had he not been bounced into a DNF by Rossi at St. Pete and by Carpenter at Texas, he’d have about 80 more points and be in the top four in the championship…
Hinchcliffe, despite a podium finish at Barber, has generally been overshadowed by his compatriot and teammate, and it’s sad that his most famous moment of the year was the team’s biggest failure – that Indy 500 DNQ. But he is racking up the points and it would take only one strong results – ahead of Wickens – to reboot his confidence.
Incidentally, there are many still convinced SPM should have split strategies at Phoenix under the final yellow, and pitted the #5 when almost everyone else on the same lap stopped. A fresh-tired Hinch might have beaten Newgarden to the checkers.
Dale Coyne Racing-Honda
Sebastien Bourdais, 9th, 218pts // (6 races) Zachary Claman De Melo, 22nd, 85pts // (1 race) Pietro Fittipaldi, 38th, 7pts // (2 races) Santino Ferrucci, 32nd, 18pts
Another messy season for Dale, blighted by injury for one of his drivers. But at least the team’s guiding light, Bourdais, is intact – and scored another win in the season-opener. The Bourdais/DCR-with Vasser-Sullivan entry is the underdog combo you never count out, and had he not clipped a wall at Detroit, Seb might have finished third or fourth despite starting at the wrong end of the grid. The other significant point is that the team has found its mojo on ovals, at least in terms of pace – pole at Phoenix, top qualifying Honda at Indy (fifth) and Texas (fourth). That means Bourdais should be competitive at all the remaining tracks, and therefore could become the first DCR driver ever to finish the season in the top five.
ZCDM’s competence has been a pleasant surprise since he calmed some of his wilder instincts. The injured Fittipaldi is much further up the road of being a fully-rounded driver, but Claman De Melo adapted to Indy and Texas faster than most expected. Ferrucci looked good – Detroit is a hell of a venue to make your IndyCar debut – but the jury should remain out for now.
AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet
Tony Kanaan, 14th, 157pts // Matheus Leist, 19th, 133pts
The results suggest AJ Foyt Racing is having a very similar year to those it endured with the Sato/Jack Hawksworth combo or the Carlos Munoz/Conor Daly combo. The nadir (one hopes) was seeing Kanaan and Leist post the first two retirements last weekend at SuperTex’s home race.
Behind the results, however, are some seeds of encouragement. The cars, particularly Kanaan’s #14, are going faster relative to the opposition than in recent years, and TK has qualified six times in the top half of the field. He led laps at Indy, too, and might have had something for winner Power had he not suffered a puncture mid-race and then crashed trying to get back up to the front in the closing stages.
Leist, after qualifying third on his debut, has rather slipped out of the public eye, struggling to match Kanaan on any type of track. Maybe new race engineer Travis Jacobson can extract more pace from him than Mike Colliver managed. But Leist is, however, accruing miles, only twice posting DNFs.
Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet
Spencer Pigot, 16th, 147pts// (3 races) Ed Carpenter, 20th, 128pts // (6 races) Jordan King, 23rd, 70pts
One of the positives this year has been the pace of King. One of the negatives has been ECR’s rotten luck, when niggling issues hamper the team at some crucial point in the weekend. The one exception has been the Indy 500, and I seem to recall Carpenter did rather well there.
Pigot, who replaced JR Hildebrand as ECR’s fulltimer this year, is doing no better than his predecessor and it’s hard to tell why, other than the fact he just needs more experience – and a series veteran teammate to back up his opinions. Basically, Carpenter needs to find his own road/street course counterpart.
That is not a slight against King, however, whose only twice started behind his teammate this year, and has twice reached the Firestone Fast Six.. His highest finish – 14th at a rain-soaked Barber – tells a sorry tale of bad luck. At St. Pete he brushed a wall (easily done on your series debut) but in qualifying for Detroit 1 he hammered a wall. Nor has the team been fault free – you shouldn’t need to bleed brakes in the middle of a 100min race, as was required on the #20 car at Long Beach.
Charlie Kimball, 17th, 139pts // Max Chilton, 21st, 121pts
Carlin and its drivers have done everything you’d expect, and maybe a little extra, inching their way up the grid and outperforming far more experienced teams in qualifying for the Indy 500 (15th and 20th).
Chilton has done the better job in qualifying. Road courses have always been his métier so 13th and 16th on the grid at Barber and Indy GP respectively were not surprising; 10th on the streets of Belle Isle most definitely was. Kimball’s race results have been superior, however, with a 10th at Long Beach and a remarkable 8th – ahead of two Penskes! – in Detroit 2.
Operationally, Carlin’s pitcrews have become slicker, and there is some serious brainpower in their (very sophisticated-looking) engineering stands. It’s too much to expect a podium finish by season’s end, but a couple of top fives are not out of the question.
Gabby Chaves, 18th, 138pts
IndyCar is tough for a new team; it’s even tougher for a single-car new team that was built from scratch barely 18 months ago. While Carlin graduated from the Mazda Road To Indy, Harding started off at the top.
And after a sparkling eighth on the grid in the wet/dry qualifying session at St. Petersburg, reality has set in. The wet qualifying session for Detroit 2 again allowed Chaves to show his mettle and produced 14th on the grid, but that matches his top two finishes, as well. Car prep is good and the gorgeous-looking #88 has finished every race… but they feel the need for speed.
Meyer Shank Racing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda
(3 races) Jack Harvey, 25th, 53pts
One of the last teams to get parts for the season-opener at St. Pete, Michael Shank and his boys deserved better than to see their car lurch off track with a tire failure. Long Beach has been arguably Schmidt Peterson’s weakest track so far this year, so Harvey, as third stringer, was hardly operating from a position of power, yet still he salvaged 12th place.
The same could be said for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Except there, Harvey climbed doggedly from 31st, the team took a gamble on fuel and they might have clinched a top three with an extra three laps of yellow.
It’s going to remain tough to judge Harvey and MSR-SPM until they can get a run of three or four consecutive races together. All we can say for now is that both team and driver deserve to be at this level. But we kinda knew that already.
(4 races) Kyle Kaiser, 26th, 45pts // (4 races) Rene Binder, 28th, 39pts
It’s a tough way to get into the top level of U.S. open-wheel sport for one of Mazda Road To Indy’s best team owners. Ricardo Juncos, the man who last year ran Kaiser to the Indy Lights title and Victor Franzoni to the Pro Mazda title has to run Binder and (next week) Alfonso Celis in order to appear on the IndyCar grid.
Neither should be hopeless. Last year they finished fourth and third respectively in World Series Formula V8 3.5 – that’s the championship that Pietro Fittipaldi won. They even took poles and wins. But Binder has looked way off the pace in IndyCar and so our hopes for Celis shouldn’t be high.
On a positive note, Kaiser has looked a worthy graduate from Lights, just as you’d expect of an intelligent and fast driver. His 17th in qualifying for Indy was a strong endorsement of both team and driver, and the mechanical issue that eliminated him was dreadfully unfortunate. So too was getting in the gray and then the wall at Phoenix after qualifying an impressive 14th. Let’s hope we see more of him before the year is out, so Juncos Racing can actually go racing.