by Frank Santoroski
The Verizon IndyCar Series is gearing up for its 2015 season. In part one of this article (located here), we took a look at the top two Chevrolet teams in the series, Penske and Ganassi.
With the aero kit packages yet to debut, it remains unclear whether or not these aerodynamic tweaks will represent an advantage for either engine manufacturer, or merely provide cosmetic differences to differentiate the cars.
Those answers will become much clearer following testing at Barber Motorsports Park in mid-March, and after their on-track debut at St. Petersburg on March 29.
For now, we can discuss the solid facts surrounding the top Honda teams in the series, namely Andretti Autosport and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Both teams have an incomplete driver lineup as of this writing, and the amount of the cars each team will field on the grid is also uncertain.
For many teams, a three-win season that included The Indianapolis 500 would be considered a success. For Andretti Autosport, a team whose relatively short history includes four season championships and three Indy 500s, the 2014 season can only be described as lackluster. The team switched from Chevy to Honda engines in 2014, and acclimated quickly to the power plant. Ryan Hunter-Reay took the pole in round two and his first 2014 win in round three of the season.
Outside three wins in 2014, the rest of his season contained a number of mediocre and poor finishes that left him sixth in points. His three teammates, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz all failed to find victory lane in 2014.
Andretti Autosport suffered a major blow when long-time director of Race Operations, Kyle Moyer, announced that he would be leaving the team to join Roger Penske’s organization. To fill this position, The Andretti organization has hired Rob Edwards away from Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Edwards is a very talented engineer with a wealth of experience, but he has huge shoes to fill. Moyer has been a major part of Andretti Autosport dating back to the time when Michael Andretti first purchased a majority share of Team Green in 2003.
On the driver’s front, three entries are confirmed with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, and Carlos Munoz all returning to the team. James Hinchcliffe has moved to Schmidt-Peterson to replace Simon Pagenaud, who will debut with Team Penske in 2015.
Michael Andretti stated publicly back in August that his goal is to field five cars full-time in 2015. Indeed, the business-savvy driver-turned-owner has perfected a business plan that thrives on multiple teams. He has been able to attract sponsors with a lower asking price and then amortize the sponsor dollars across all of the teams. For example, a one-car team may need a budget of 15-17 million dollars, but a four-car team can operate more effectively and only ask 9-10 million per car.
However, with the current economic climate and the Series slow to spark new interest, that sponsor for a fourth and fifth car is becoming a hard sell. Andretti himself admits that a three-car effort in 2015 is a distinct possibility.
If there is to be a fourth car in the Andretti stable, there is no shortage of available drivers to fill the seat. The names currently being bandied about include Justin Wilson, Daniel Abt, and Zack Veach. Of those three, the young German driver, Daniel Abt is said to be able to provide funding of his own. If this holds true, he seems like the most likely candidate, although a driver with the experience of Justin Wilson would mesh well with the team. Of course, 20 year-old Zach Veach has grown up with Andretti Autosport through the ladder series and would be justly rewarded with a full-time ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
These questions will be answered in the next few weeks, as the season opener quickly approaches.
Despite the unanswered questions looming In 2015, I would expect Andretti Autosport to rebound to top form. Ryan Hunter-Reay has earned his keep over the past few seasons and, behind the wheel, he is every bit as good as the Dixons, Kanaans and Castroneveses of the world. If Honda gets the aero kit right, he may be the favorite to win it all in 2015.
Carlos Munoz is coming off of a promising rookie season, and looks primed to join the list of IndyCar winners.
Marco Andretti, however, is always a question mark for me. I can find no reason why he shouldn’t be a championship contender year in and year out, but at the same time, he hasn’t been there. He is probably one of the best on the big ovals, but wins seem to elude him around every corner.
I can’t put my finger on it. Is it a lack of effort, the fact that he handles disappointment poorly, his perceived job security driving for his father, or is he snake-bitten by the Andretti Curse?
I have often thought that Marco Andretti would absolutely thrive with another team in a different atmosphere. We may never know the answer to that, but I would really like to see the third-generation driver display the potential that he has shown on a more consistent basis. There is no doubt in my mind that, with a strong early season and some wins in the bag, this guy could become unbeatable.
If there are unanswered questions Andretti Autosport, things are even more unclear at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. 2014 saw the team take two wins and fifth in the final standings with driver Simon Pagenaud. The second driver in the stable, Mikhail Aleshin, proved to be one of the most exciting and talented rookies in the field.
Aleshin’s funding, from Russian banking giant SMP, evaporated amidst US based sanctions against Russia, effectively ruining his chances to return to the Series. At the same time, Simon Pagenaud accepted a contract to move his career to the next level by joining Team Penske.
For 2015, Schmidt-Peterson will hang it’s fortunes on James Hinchcliffe. The charismatic Canadian driver will leave his position as ‘third man on the totem pole’ at Andretti Autosport to become the team leader with Schmidt-Peterson.
Team principle Sam Schmidt, who was paralyzed in a testing crash more than fifteen years ago, has built a team that is on the verge of major success. Along with partners, Ric Peterson and Davey Hamilton, Schmidt built on his success in the Indy Lights Series when he moved up to the the IndyCar series in 2011.
The team took the pole at Indy that year with Alex Tagliani, and has since posted four series wins with Pagenaud between 2013 and 2014.
This ‘Little Team that Could’ is facing an uncertain 2015 as Team Manager Rob Edwards will be departing to move to Andretti Autosport. Schmidt has not put a timeline on a replacement for Edwards, indicating that he will promote from within and not “poach from another team.”
The team does possess some in-house talent that would be able to seamlessly fill the void in the form of Nick Snyder, Engineering Director of Indycar Operations or Dave Higuera, who handles Team Manager responsibilities with the Indy Lights team. This is a developing story, but the sponsorship void is more pressing to examine.
In 2014 the team benefited greatly from the Russian dollars brought in from Aleshin. With that off of the table, we do know that the team will gain some support from Spyder, Inc. a manufacturer of hi-tech cold weather outerwear and accessories. We can expect to see Oculus Transport, the company owned by Ric Peterson, to have its logo displayed on the car. Indianapolis-based Lucas Oil will also provide a part of the sponsor package for the #77 car.
Finding a funded driver for a second car is really the key to this team fielding two full-time cars in the series. The team tested drivers Davide Valsecchi, Stefano Colliti and Rodolfo Gonzalez in the #7 car at Sebring with positive results. Another name we hear associated with this ride is Conor Daly who will test with the team in February.
The bottom line is that we should fully expect to see two Schmidt-Peterson cars when the season begins in Brazil on March 8.
On top of that, we should expect James Hinchcliffe to thrive in his new surroundings at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports and contend for the win, or at least play spoiler to the big dogs, on several occasions.
Join me next time when we peek a little farther down the grid and take a look at KVSH Racing, CFH Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing.