Who is well placed to win IndyCar races this year? And who will be in charge of the show 18 months hence?
After one of the shortest off-seasons in memory, the 1995 PPG IndyCar World Series is upon us. Thanks to the "front loading" of the schedule (moving races to the spring and away from autumn to avoid going head to head with professional football in the television ratings), just 20 weeks elapsed between the chequered flag at Laguna Seca and the green flag for the start of practice at Miami on March 3.
Testing, which normally didn't get underway in earnest until after January 1, has been going full tilt since Thanksgiving and virtually all of the prime vacancies have long been filled, with just a few supporting roles still open.
So, who will be the featured players in this year's 17 act play?
Marlboro Penske Racing will be centre stage, literally and figuratively. Last year, they won 12 of 16 races, finished five of them 1-2-3 and finished 1-2-3 in the championship. Imagine what they're capable of in 1995 running just two cars without the distraction of testing and developing a secret new engine for Indianapolis. Already a seminal talent, Al Unser Jnr truly came into his own last year and there's no reason to believe he won't be an even more formidable force in 1995. And though it may be fashionable to discount Emerson Fittipaldi as over the hill, the Brazilian is still capable of winning races.
Look for a revitalised Newman/Haas Racing in 1995, thanks to the arrival of Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy — not to mention the departure of Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell. Although Mario could still run up front on his day, those days got fewer and further apart as the 1990s progressed, while Mansell's magical 1993 season was but a prelude to last year's nightmare. In Andretti and Tracy the team has two drivers who don't know how to drive at less than 11/10ths, and though there may be some friction between them, it'll be a day at the beach compared to 1994's Mario/ Nigel jihad.
Likewise, Rahal/Hogan Racing will be rejuvenated thanks to what is expected to be their first competitive chassis/engine package since 1992. Bobby Rahal is keenly aware that time is marching on and will be more determined than ever this year. Likewise, Raul Boesel knows it's now or never. In terms of experience, desire and compatibility, they could be 1995's strongest pairing.
Although the 1995 PPG champion is most likely to come from one of those three teams, they're not the only contenders. And it certainly doesn't follow that Penske, Newman/Haas and Rahal/Hogan will keep the wins to themselves. Indeed, an argument could be made that there are nearly as many potential winners in 1995 as there are races...
Jacques Villeneuve and Team Green will be an even stronger force than last year, while Robby Gordon is poised to join the winning ranks in his sophomore season with Walker Racing. The recent departure of team engineer Tim Wardrop is a concern, however. Meanwhile, Bryan Herta and Jimmy Vasser form a young — and potentially powerful — pairing for Chip Ganassi. The same could be said of the potency, if not the age, of Danny Sullivan and Mauricio Gugelmin with the revamped PacWest team. Not far behind that bunch come Adrian Fernandez and Galles Racing, despite the fact that the team switched chassis (going from Reynard to Lola) for the fourth straight season. Stefan Johansson and Bettenhausen Racing will have a couple of last year's Penske PC23s at their disposal while Teo Fabi will be driving for a reborn Forsythe Racing this year with engineering help from Robin Herd & co. And IndyCar racing's odd couple — AJ Foyt and Eddie Cheever — will give it a go for the full season after their shotgun marriage in mid-1994. Then there are the three new boys from Brazil — Gil de Ferran, Christian Fittipaldi and Andre Ribeiro. De Ferran has been impressive in winter testing with Jim Hall's improving team, but F1 refugee Fittipaldi will have his work cut out getting acclimatised to IndyCars and ovals having signed with Walker just a month before Miami. In contrast, Ribeiro couldn't have asked for better circumstances in his rookie season. He'll be driving for a top notch team Tasman in its first season, with Honda engines and thus will be under no particular pressure to win races.
There will be plenty of pressure on IndyCar's other "new" team Patrick Racing. All eyes will be on Firestone's headliner team and Scott Pruett knows full well this is his last (and best) chance to silence those critics who maintain he is a sedan specialist, not an open wheel driver.
In fact, IndyCar racing's first tyre war in 20 years promises to stand the sport on its ear. Though IndyCar and USAC are taking steps to limit the tyre companies to two compounds for each race weekend, tactics in practice, qualifying and in the races will be affected, perhaps dramatically. Will some teams qualify on soft tyres in order to start up front, then make a relatively early first pit stop in the hopes of staying there? And will late race full course yellows see some teams gamble on a stop for soft rubber in the hopes that it will more than offset the loss of time and track position?
And the pressure will really be on Lola in 1995. Apart from a fortuitous win at Michigan last year, the Huntingdon-based marque was shut out of the win column even as upstart competitor Reynard notched three hard-earned wins in its rookie season. And the line-up for 1995 shows Lola's customer base has shrunk to Newman/Haas, Rahal/Hogan, Galles, Patrick, Simon and Foyt while Reynard counts Ganassi, Green, Forsythe, Hall, Walker, PacWest, Tasman and Comptech. One need only look back to the 1993 season when all but Penske and Bettenhausen ran Lolas to understand what a second straight sub-par season would mean to Lola.
Though Honda has clearly made some gains with its existing cast iron block engine and a new aluminium block is slated to debut at Nazareth with just Tasman and Comptech as customers, Honda faces an uphill climb in 1995. Thus the PPG title will be decided between Ford/Cosworth and Ilmor/Mercedes Benz, as the partnership between Ilmor and Merc grows to a full season deal after going one for one last year at Indianapolis.
By season's end, Ford, Honda and Mercedes may well be joined by Toyota which has been testing since 1993, first an updated version of the old Judd V8 and, more recently, a 2.65-litre V8 of its own design. Toyota has announced its intention to join IndyCar competition, either in late 1995 or early '96, and will do so with Dan Gurney's All American Racers, Juan Manuel Fangio II and PJ Jones.
But perhaps the single most important drama of the season, will be played out between IndyCar and Tony George's proposed Indy Racing League. Indeed, if the engine manufacturers are going to have any realistic chance of designing, developing and producing engines along the IRL's 2.2 litre formula, the team owners will have to decide to change IndyCar's engine rules in the very near future. No later than March or April, to be exact.
Should they opt to keep the 2.65-litre formula, the team owners will have drawn a line in the sand which could trigger the mother of all automobile racing political wars, given that USAC has already announced the 1996 Indianapolis 500 will be conducted according to IRL rules. Perhaps there's a compromise available here, one that would see for example IndyCar adopting the IRL engine rules but keeping its current chassis regs. Or, since it is true that every serious team buys new chassis every year, perhaps it would make more sense for a compromise to be IndyCar agreeing to IRL chassis rules (which reduce downforce without going the full bore "flat bottom" route) and IRL agreeing to stay with the current 2.65-litre formula.
In the absence of a compromise, the coming 18 months will see a struggle which will ultimately determine where the real power in IndyCar racing lies: with the team owners or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It may be a difficult stretch for all concerned, but on the other hand, perhaps the sport will be better off if the issue of who's in charge is settled, once and for all. DP