The best news for IndyCar in quite a few years came two weeks ago when Verizon announced it has signed a long-term agreement to sponsor the series.
In recent years Verizon has been IndyCar’s most visible and powerful sponsor with Team Penske and Will Power and will be a much stronger promotional partner this year with Juan Pablo Montoya joining Power as a Verizon man in most races and a full-blown series sponsorship promotional campaign to follow as the season unfolds.
In many ways Verizon is the perfect company to promote IndyCar and should provide a big promotional boost for the struggling series. Another plus for this year is that Indy 500 qualifying will be televised live on ABC for the first time in some years. It’s hoped this will help the sagging race day ratings on ABC by giving the 500 a little more pre-race exposure.
IndyCar also announced last week that it will award double points this year for its three 500-mile races: the Indianapolis, Pocono and California 500s. I believe this is a good thing – unlike the double points idea in F1 – because making it through, least of all winning a 500-mile race, deserves more points than a normal 200-mile race.
It’s worth remembering that back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and for decades before that the Indy 500 was worth 1000 points compared to 200 points on offer to the winner of most of the other 100-mile dirt track races which comprised the USAC Championship in those days. So giving more weight to a 500-mile race is a time-honoured Indycar tradition.
In a month or so Derrick Walker begins his second year as IndyCar’s president of competition and operations and under Walker’s direction the series has mandated a number of detail safety improvements for this year to its fleet of 60 or more Dallara DW12 spec cars.
These improvements include additional side impact protection, refinements to the cockpit surround and headrest, and development of a steering damper unit. Foam-filled carbon fibre panels have been bonded to the inside and outside of the chassis; a stronger carbon fibre ring circles the cockpit opening; and a softer, more compliant headrest made from layered Nomex rather than the old, harder Kevlar material has also been introduced this year.
Indycars generate plenty of g loads, particularly on ovals, but as part of IndyCar’s overall effort to keep costs down the Dallara DW12 doesn’t have power steering. Most drivers have complained about it and quite a few have suffered wrist injuries from the steering system’s vicious kick-back. Cost and space constraints inside the car mean a full-blown power steering system isn’t possible but a hydraulic steering damper is under development by IndyCar and Dallara and is expected to be tested soon and used in races later this year.
2013 race winners
Scott Dixon (Pocono, Toronto x2, Houston)
Will Power (Sears Point, Houston, Fontana)
James Hinchcliffe (St Petersburg, Sao Paulo, Iowa)
Simon Pagenaud (Detroit, Baltimore)
Ryan Hunter-Reay (Alabama, Milwaukee)
Hélio Castroneves (Texas)
Charlie Kimball (Mid Ohio)
Tony Kanaan (Indianapolis)
Takuma Sato (Long Beach)
Mike Conway (Detroit)
With the same car and engine package as the past two years the actual racing should be as fierce as ever. Unrecognised as many of them may be, IndyCar enjoys a deep pool of talented drivers with as many as a dozen or more potential race winners. But only a handful of drivers and teams are capable of being fast and competitive on all types of tracks – ovals big and small, street circuits and road courses – and therefore in a position to challenge for the championship.
Indeed, it’s in this regard that defending champion Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi’s four-car team has the edge over the rest. Dixon is fast everywhere and he’s a smart, relentless racer. It will be very difficult for anyone to stop Scott from taking his fourth championship this year.
Last year’s Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan has joined Ganassi’s team in place of the retired Dario Franchitti and Kanaan is sure to be quick in many races as will team-mates Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe. Ganassi’s team has switched from Honda to Chevrolet engines this year.
As ever, Ganassi’s primary rivals will be Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Juan Pablo Montoya joins Will Power and Hélio Castroneves at Penske and is sure to bring some excitement to the team and the series as a whole. Montoya has struggled to match Power’s pace in testing but he’s likely to be very competitive in most races and could easily emerge as Penske’s strongest championship card.
Power is just as likely to be the man to beat in most races but questions remain about whether he can put it all together to challenge for the championship. Veteran Castroneves is not to be underestimated and is still capable of winning, on ovals in particular.
Michael Andretti’s team again runs four cars, led by 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ryan is an excellent, mature racer who will feature in the championship battle if luck is on his side. Hunter-Reay’s team-mates are James Hinchcliffe – who showed last year that he can win races – Marco Andretti and highly touted Colombian rookie Carlos Muñoz who finished second in his rookie Indy 500 start last year.
Andretti Autosport has gone the opposite direction to Ganassi’s team this year, switching from Chevrolet to Honda engines, while NASCAR star Kurt Busch will drive a fifth Andretti car at Indianapolis.
IndyCar’s leading dark horse is Sébastien Bourdais who has moved from Jay Penske’s defunct Dragon team to KV Racing, winners of last year’s Indy 500 with Kanaan. Bourdais has been racing in America for 10 years and is anxious to re-establish himself as an IndyCar race winner. It will be interesting to see if he can do so and emerge as a championship contender.
Other dark horses include Simon Pagenaud with Sam Schmidt’s team. He won two races last year, finished third in the championship and is a very fast, smart driver. Pagenaud says his new team-mate, Russian Mikhail Aleshin, is a man to watch. Jacques Villeneuve joins Schmidt’s team at Indianapolis.
Also among the dark horses are Justin Wilson with Dale Coyne’s team, Graham Rahal with his father’s team, Josef Newgarden with Sarah Fisher’s team, Takuma Sato with AJ Foyt, and Mike Conway who’s doing the road and street races for Ed Carpenter’s team.
The 18-round Verizon IndyCar Series gets underway next weekend in the streets of St Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
More from Gordon Kirby
Ganassi’s surprising Sebring win
Sebring’s great past and hopeful future
The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti