IndyCar kicks off its new season in the streets of St Petersburg, Florida this weekend. Sunday in St Pete will witness the first race for Chevrolet and Honda’s aero kits and everyone hopes it will be the beginning of a much-needed revival for the struggling series.
As everyone knows, the past 20 years have been a terrible time for Indycar racing. The CART/IRL war tore the sport apart, destroying not only competition among car builders, but also the final remnants of the American racing industry devoted to Indycars. Today, Charlotte is its centre and NASCAR has replaced IndyCar as the country’s de facto national championship.
These days NASCAR’s TV ratings are 10 or more times bigger than IndyCar’s, which are among the smallest in all sports. Twenty years ago CART’s TV ratings were as good if not better than NASCAR’s and your typical American sports fan was familiar with Indycar racing’s greatest stars such as Mario and Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi. But today’s IndyCar champions – Will Power, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay – are barely known to the American public and completely overshadowed by NASCAR’s leading lights.
It’s important to take on board that through the course of the CART/IRL war and its aftermath more than 40 Indycar races went out of business. Even more than the sad TV ratings, this stunning fact starkly underlines the depths of Indycar racing’s failure. There was enough bad news to kill two series and basically that’s what happened.
The CART/IRL war was a case study in how to take down and seriously devalue any sports franchise or property and IndyCar now faces the challenge of how to rebuild itself. Series boss Mark Miles and his technical right hand man Derrick Walker hope this year’s aero kits will provide the first spark in that revival and in the coming years Walker plans to progressively open up for development more and more parts of the car’s aero package and ultimately the running gear and car itself.
Love them or hate them, the new aero kits make considerably more downforce than Dallara’s original DW12. The new aero packages will make for faster lap times, but passing may be more difficult. Former champion and current NBC Sports commentator Paul Tracy is among those who believe the Dallara needs less, not more downforce.
Onboard with James Hinchcliffe at Barber
“I think they’re going in the wrong direction,” Tracy unabashedly declares. “Is adding a pile of downforce to the car going to turn it into an under-powered, over-downforced car? I think what IndyCar really needs is not more downforce, but more power. The cars needs to be faster and harder to drive. By adding more downforce the cars will be more like slot cars. I think it’s the wrong way to go.”
Pre-season testing suggests that Chevrolet may have a slight edge over Honda, but everyone is very close. The fastest 14 cars in testing last week at Barber Motorsports Park were covered by only half a second with seven more within another half-second.
Tracy expects Penske’s four-car team to dominate this year with new signing Simon Pagenaud joining defending champion Will Power and veterans Hélio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. Power has always been fast but it took him quite a few years to smooth the rough edges and make himself a champion. Still, he’s the man to beat this year.
Old stagers Castroneves and Montoya are sure to be strong in some races but unlikely to sustain championship challenges. Pagenaud, 30, is fast, smooth and smart. He’s going into his fourth full year in IndyCar and hopes his move to Penske’s powerhouse operation will help improve his performances on ovals and make him a championship contender.
As always, Scott Dixon will be a serious threat to win races and the championship. This is Dixon’s 14th year with Chip Ganassi’s team. He won the championship in 2003, ’08 and ’13, and he’s one of IndyCar’s fastest, smartest and smoothest drivers. Scott’s teammates this year are veteran Tony Kanaan, the thoroughly reliable Charlie Kimball and promising rookie Sage Karam.
IndyCar’s remaining championship contender is Ryan Hunter-Reay. Last year’s Indy 500 winner is the team leader at Michael Andretti’s team. Ryan won the championship in 2012 and if Honda can match Chevrolet this year in both horsepower and aero he again will be a hard man to beat.
We’re waiting for team-mates Marco Andretti and Carlos Muñoz to show something other than potential while Simona di Silvestro returns from an unsuccessful fling at F1 with Sauber to race a fourth Indycar for Andretti Autosport.
Who else might show well this year from time to time? Josef Newgarden is ready to score his first win and hopes the marriage of Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter’s teams will help his cause. Carpenter will run only the oval races with talented Italian rookie Luca Filippi driving Ed’s car in the street and road races.
Then there’s Sébastien Bourdais back with KVSH Racing and entirely capable of winning on any given day if not consistently. Bourdais is joined this year by promising Monegasque rookie Stefano Coletti, who showed plenty of speed in early testing.
Not to forget Takuma Sato, who continues with AJ Foyt’s team and can be ferocious when the setup suits him. Talented Brit Jack Hawksworth joins Sato this year in a second Foyt car and should be quick in some races.
Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves tackles his rookie IndyCar season with Bryan Herta’s small team, while the likes of Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe need to put some numbers on the board to prevent their careers from floundering.
Finally, it seems pretty clear that most Motor Sport readers believe drivers, teams, promoters and race fans around the world would benefit from a healthy alternative to Formula 1 like CART’s Indy Car World Series used to provide 20 years ago. It would be nice to think that somehow, some way, IndyCar can recreate and reposition itself in the coming years to provide such an alternate formula. The sport needs IndyCar not to fail, but to transform itself and succeed as a much more robust form of racing than it is today.