The Verizon IndyCar series is in the midst of a frenetic sprint to an early close of its season at the end of August with eight race weekends over the next 10 weeks. This hectic finish to the IndyCar season began with a pair of ‘double header’ street races last weekend in downtown Houston and continues with three more races on successive weekends at the dissimilar Pocono and Iowa ovals and Toronto’s street circuit. There’s a weekend off at the end of July, then four races in August to round out the season at Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee, Sonoma and the California Speedway.
But at this stage, after 10 of 18 rounds, nobody has stepped forward to show any consistent, race-winning ability or claim to be this year’s IndyCar champion. Four drivers appear to have the best hopes of eking out this year’s title. Will Power leads the championship with two wins to his credit. Penske team-mate Hélio Castroneves has won once so far this year and is second, 39 points behind Power. Third, two points behind Castroneves, is 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay who has won twice and is followed by Simon Pagenaud who’s also won two races. Fourth-placed Pagenaud trails Power by 59 points.
Juan Pablo Montoya runs fifth in points right now without any wins in the first season of his return to Indycar racing with Team Penske while defending champion Scott Dixon is a distant ninth in points, also without any wins. Nor have any other of Chip Ganassi’s four cars been able to win a single race so far this year.
Kanaan and Dixon chase James Hinchcliffe
Last weekend’s pair of street races in Houston were won by Carlos Huertas and Simon Pagenaud. Huertas is a 23-year-old Colombian who’s in his rookie IndyCar season with Dale Coyne’s team. He won races in British F3 and Formula Renault 3.5 before making the move to America and he’s run well this year, keeping his nose clean and recording some useful if not eye-popping results.
Huertas qualified 19th for Houston’s opening race and found himself in the lead in the closing laps as the field and fuel strategies were scrambled by a string of full-course yellows. In fact, the last few laps were run under a full-course yellow and the race finished behind the pace car after a last lap restart was waved off when Graham Rahal hit and spun Tony Kanaan.
Half a dozen full-course yellows occupied 24 of the 80 laps in the first of two races around the slightly improved but still notoriously rough Houston street circuit. When the yellow flag flies for that many laps the race always turns into a lottery, or crapshoot as we say in America, and so it was in Houston last Saturday.
Hinchcliffe leads race one
Standings after Houston
1. Will Power, Penske 405
2. Hélio Castroneves, Penske 366
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti 364
4. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson 346
5. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske 289
6. Marco Andretti, Andretti 281
7. Carlos Muñoz, Andretti 270
8. Sébastien Bourdais, KVSH 242
9. Scott Dixon, Ganassi 237
10. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti 230
11. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi 226
12. Justin Wilson, Coyne 221
13. Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi 221
14. Jack Hawksworth, Herta 219
15. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi 213
16. Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson 211
17. Carlos Huertas, Coyne 204
18. Graham Rahal, RLL 180
19. Takuma Sato, Foyt 171
20. Josef Newgarden, Fisher 171
Until the final run of yellows James Hinchcliffe appeared ready to score his first win this year, chased hard by Sébastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hélio Castroneves, but each of these guys were caught out by the yellows, allowing Huertas to lead countrymen Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Muñoz across the line in Indycar racing’s first Colombian 1-2-3 sweep.
Sunday’s race in Houston was won by Simon Pagenaud who took first from Castroneves in the middle of the race and went on to lead Russian team-mate Mikhail Aleshin home in an excellent 1-2 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Castroneves crashed after he was hit by Bourdais while championship leader Power came through from a poor starting position to get up to third in the closing laps only to suffer a suspension failure.
In the end, third place on Sunday was taken by Jack Hawksworth who drove a great race. Hawksworth moved up steadily from the back of the field and held off some fierce challenges at the end of the race from Montoya, Bourdais and Charlie Kimball.
Hawksworth presses Will Power
Despite leading the championship Power has had a lacklustre year so far. He’s been quick in some races, but has also made a lot of mistakes and sometimes, as in Houston, he not only messed up a number of times but also struggled for speed. If he’s to become a champion, and certainly a deserving champion, Will needs to show much better form over the last two months of IndyCar’s short season.
Team-mate Castroneves has been the star of Team Penske this year. Helio battled for the win at Indianapolis and has been quick in most races, as he was in Houston, but hasn’t enjoyed the best of luck. At 39, Castroneves is in his 18th season racing Indycars (four in CART before moving to the IRL/IndyCar) but he’s never won a championship. Could this be his year?
Montoya’s return to Indycars in Penske’s third Dallara-Chevrolet has been a bit of a struggle but Juan has been inching forward in recent races and was in the thick of the battle in Houston last weekend.
Huertas and Montoya on the podium
2014 champion Hunter-Reay won this year’s Indy 500 and also won in April on the Barber Motorsports Park road course. Ryan has been quick most everywhere and has probably been the most consistently competitive driver, but he’s made some mistakes and had a lot of bad luck as well as mechanical or electronic gremlins. Hunter-Reay and Michael Andretti’s four-car team are the most likely to beat Penske this year, but at this stage it looks to be a tall order.
Simon Pagenaud is the dark horse to win the championship. Simon is an excellent driver and has made a big mark in IndyCar over the last two and a half years with Sam Schmidt and Gary Peterson’s team. He won two races last year in Detroit and Baltimore, and won again this year on the road course at Indianapolis in early May. Pagenaud took his first IndyCar pole for the first race in Houston but ran into trouble before scoring a first-rate win on Sunday.
It’s unlikely that Pagenaud and Schmidt’s team can be as consistently competitive as required to win the championship but the talented Frenchman will continue to be a serious spoiler. If Penske, Andretti or Ganassi were to hire Pagenaud in the next year or two, he would surely be a very hard man to beat.
And Ganassi? Results this year have been few and far between for last year’s champion Dixon and team-mates Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Ryan Brisoce. Dixon is having his weakest season in years and Kanaan has been a disappointment in place of the reluctantly retired Dario Franchitti. Some say the team is missing Franchitti’s superb feel for the car and his technical and team-leading skills. At this stage of the season it’s hard to refute that argument.
Next weekend is the Pocono 500, the first 500-mile Indycar race at the track in 25 years. IndyCar returned to Pocono last year to run a 400-mile race and Dixon led Ganassi’s team to a 1-2-3 sweep beginning the turnaround that took them to the 2013 championship. Can Scott and Chip’s team repeat the feat this year?