The Verizon IndyCar Series season is proving to be a special one. With tons of compelling developments over the last month, part of the Motorsports Tribune team that cover the ‘travelling circus’ decided put together and tackle five topics surrounding the sport. From the championship, to the hope of a new car, we hope you enjoy reading along.
With only four races remaining, how do we see the championship picture?
Christopher DeHarde, INDYCAR & Road to Indy Writer for Motorsports Tribune: Scott Dixon and Will Power have won at three of the remaining four tracks on the schedule, but Dixon is the only Ganassi driver to have any noticeable continued success and Power has a larger mountain to climb, so the jury is out on both. Josef Newgarden has finished second at Pocono and at Watkins Glen but hasn’t fared well at Sonoma and Gateway could be a wildcard, but Penske might be the team to beat on the short oval. Helio Castroneves was the last IndyCar winner at Gateway so he might have an advantage there. Simon Pagenaud found form at another short oval in Phoenix, so we’ll have to see how that translates to Gateway as well. This championship is full of races that could easily shake everything up and we can’t forget about Sonoma being a double-points event.
Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Tribune and freelance contributor to INDYCAR.com: I honestly feel that the top six – Newgarden, Castroneves, Dixon, Pagenaud, Power and Graham Rahal – have a legitimate shot, especially with double-points awarded at Sonoma. I am wondering, because this has been an odd season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, if either of the Andretti Autosport duo that sit seventh and eighth in the championship – Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi – could make a strong push at this thing. The next round at Pocono will see a similar aero package to Indianapolis, so I expect the two most recent Indy 500 winners to be strong there. Gateway is a bit of an unknown for everyone, while Watkins Glen appeared to be equal for both manufacturers last year and Sonoma was the site of the team’s resurgence. As they say, we still have a long way to go, but we could very well have up to eight drivers still mathematically eligible for the title come the final race of the season.
With his third win of the season, is Newgarden Penske’s best hope for the title?
CD: No, because there is no best hope for Penske, there is only a worst hope which would probably be Power given how far behind he is. When you have three Penske drivers in the top four in the standings and they’re only separated by 17 points, there’s a lot of good things that can happen. Power’s gap to fourth is double the gap from first to fourth.
JB: Every driver out of Team Penske’s camp feels ‘streaky’ to me with the exception of Castroneves. He is, for my money, the most consistent among the four. Newgarden’s ascension has been quicker than everyone thought and he has several strong tracks coming up – he’s never finished outside the top 10 at Pocono in his career. Pagenaud and Power can roll off podiums as if they were playing a video game, but at the same time both drivers haven’t been on the same level as last season. So, while Newgarden is the popular choice as the current points leader, Castroneves is just seven points behind Newgarden and is driving the best this season of his entire 20-year career. Along with that, there very well could be no tomorrow for the four-time title runner-up in the sport if rumors to Penske’s sports car program brings true – and this makes him a very dangerous racer as this championship comes to a close.
Will the new car fix the racing on short ovals, like Phoenix?
CD: The car can fix a lot of issues but for short ovals the jury is out unless we know what kind of tire Firestone can bring. Then again, when you have spec bodywork and the field is incredibly close together lap time wise where nearly everyone is going the same speed, passing will be very difficult.
JB: I hope so. As you mentioned, the tire compound is critical. However, the aero kit underbody of the new car is going to help lessen ‘aero wash’ on the front of the car when a driver is in traffic. So the improvements should happen regardless.
Thoughts on the new car and if it is the best thing for IndyCar and its teams?
CD: The new car looks a lot better and by simplifying the bodywork it makes it more attractive to new viewers. Right now, it is the best thing for IndyCar and its teams because the aero kits were a good idea but the execution was flawed on them. Having a common body style will also help keep expenses down, which would, in theory, draw new teams in.
JB: The annual cost compared to what we have now is expected to lessen with the new car by 30-40 percent. That alone is reason is jump on board. I know many aren’t a fan of spec aero, but everything has a beginning and perhaps when it becomes more feasible for all involved we can see teams pursue their own unique bodywork ideas in the future. However, I like the idea of Dallara handling the car and the fact it comes with improved safety innovations with the same tub. Lastly, with Chevrolet and Honda focused strictly on the engine program and not also on aero, the cost to stay involved is cheaper, which could open the interest of other OEMs.
With Porsche and Mercedes going to Formula E, might we see some of their WEC drivers push for an IndyCar ride next season? Might we see them make a push to be the next OEM in IndyCar?
CD: It’s certainly a possibility since both have been involved in American open wheel racing before, but given how Porsche’s involvement in CART ended, I might be surprised to see them come back. Mercedes would be a big gain for the series but would they back a new factory team or could we see them invest in a current front runner like Ganassi or Andretti? We know Penske will not leave Chevrolet so that’s out of the question.
As for drivers, there are quite a few talented drivers that will be on the outside looking in from WEC. If they don’t want to go to Formula E, then IndyCar would be a good destination if they can feel comfortable on an oval.
JB: There has been talk of a few drivers in the mix for seats for next year, but I don’t see it happening. Outside of Felix Rosenqvist – two impressive tests with Chip Ganassi Racing, three-time race winner in Indy Lights, current Formula E and Super Formula racer – I don’t see anyone making the leap. I do see the talent in the Mazda Road to Indy and see the potential for up to 10 drivers that, in my opinion, teams should try to pursue over the next season or two.
The ultimate surprise move of anyone coming over would be Fernando Alonso. With both the aforementioned leaving WEC, it puts a tight grip on him leaving Formula 1 to join an LMP1 program and pursing Le Mans should he fall out of flavor with McLaren or lack willingness to return to Renault. It would be welcomed by everyone for him to face the challenges of a full season and not just the Indy 500, and he would learn firsthand why the Astor Cup is the toughest to win in all of motorsports.
As for a new OEM, I think we will get another one in the series soon, but I have to admit, if it was either of the German brands I would be shocked… also ecstatic. Some people forget, but Mercedes had a strong activation in American open wheel racing during the CART days. A return from them, especially with their involvement and success in Formula 1, would only strengthen the chances of eyeballs on IndyCar.