Any racing category is defined by its strongest teams. Today, those are Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus and McLaren in Formula 1 and Audi, Toyota and hopefully Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. As we’ve discussed, IndyCar has its problems these days, but it doesn’t lack for fierce competition with 10 different winning drivers this year and three excellent teams setting the standard for everyone else.
Chip Ganassi’s team has established itself as the operation to beat in IndyCar winning five championships over the past six years and 10 titles in the last 18. Arch-rival Roger Penske’s team has won 11 IndyCar championships, the first with Tom Sneva in 1977, but Penske hasn’t won the title since 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr.
The last four years Penske has battled either Ganassi’s or Michael Andretti’s team for the IndyCar championship with Will Power losing to Dario Franchitti at the last race in 2010 and ’11, and to Ryan-Hunter-Reay last year before Hélio Castroneves came out second best to Scott Dixon this year. “They’ve beat us four years in a row,” Penske grimaces. “It’s frustrating, but you know, it’s not my whole life. If it was, I’d be jumping out of a building or something. But I’ve got wins every day in business. Business is strong and that’s always a good thing.
“We’ve got great race teams in IndyCar and NASCAR and we held our own in IndyCar this year. I think Will (Power) winning the last race has positioned himself going into next year to really execute. I feel really good about the way Will ran in the last races of the season. He ran Dixon wheel to wheel in Houston and ran some really good races at the end of the year at Sonoma, Houston and Fontana.”
Penske is pumped up about Juan Pablo Montoya joining his IndyCar team for next season. “I’m sure Montoya’s going to be a nice addition to our team,” he said. “It will be good to have him. He’s got me excited. I can’t wait to see him in the first race at St. Pete. That should be a good one for him.”
Next year Penske will run three cars for Montoya, Power and Castroneves against Ganassi’s fleet of four cars for defending champion Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Charlie Kimball and newcomer Tony Kanaan while Michael Andretti continues with at least four cars for last year’s champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Carlos Muñoz. Thus will IndyCar’s three superteams comprise almost half the field.
Andretti Autosport had a few good days this year, winning five races, but there were too many bad ones to get in the way of Hunter-Reay mounting a proper championship defense. Ryan won at Barber Motorsports Park early in the season and was the man to beat on race day at Indianapolis only to be passed by Kanaan on the final restart. At Pocono, RHR again appeared to have the race under control until Takuma Sato got a little out of control and ran into him as they came into the pits. On top of that Hunter-Reay was stymied by too many mechanical or electronic problems.
As Honda’s new lead team next year, Andretti Autosport hopes to challenge Ganassi and Penske for the championship. Hunter-Reay is entirely up to the job and each of team-mates Hinchcliffe, Andretti and Muñoz are capable of winning races at least, if not putting up championship runs. Michael’s team is the youngest of IndyCar’s three superteams and has four championships to its credit with Kanaan in 2004, Dan Wheldon in ’05, Franchitti in ’07 and Hunter-Reay last year.
In sum, very unlike F1 or the WEC, what will occur in IndyCar next year is almost impossible to predict. For sure, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan and Kimball form an impressive force for Ganassi, but again unlike F1 and the WEC, they face two other superteams and a passel of little guys like Dale Coyne’s and Sam Schmidt’s teams who are entirely capable of winning races.
Mind you, talented Frenchman Simon Pagenaud won twice for Schmidt this year and finished third in the championship ahead of Will Power and Marco Andretti. Also among this year’s winners were Hinchcliffe, Kanaan for KV Racing, Sato for AJ Foyt and Mike Conway for Coyne. Without doubt, such an inspiring level of competitiveness of the little guys against the big teams is IndyCar’s greatest strength.
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