by Frank Santoroski                                    @seveng1967

  VZ_IC_RGB_POSWith the season opener just four weeks away, the teams of the Verizon Indycar Series are testing in earnest, anticipating a new season. Both Chevrolet and Honda have done considerable development with both their powerplants and aero-kits.

Early indications coming out of the Honda camp are that the performance gap may be closed, and we can expect an incredibly competitive season in 2016.

04CJ2318The obvious championship favorite in my mind is Scott Dixon. The New Zealand born driver proved again in 2015 that he is, perhaps, the finest all-around racer of this generation. Dixon’s three wins last season came on three very different tracks, cementing that fact that he is a threat on any given weekend.

The Ganassi team has taken seven season Championships since joining the league in 2003, and there is no reason to assume that their dominance will not continue.

Although Juan Montoya led the points standings for the bulk of the season, Team Penske overall seemed to struggle with an expansion to four cars. The second half of their 2015 season was marked with a series of miscues and mistakes that ultimately cost them a championship.

In 2016, I would expect Will Power and Montoya to be strong candidates to wrestle the title back from Dixon. Helio Castroneves, while he doesn’t win a ton of races, is a perennial Championship contender and he should figure in the mix.

With the top dogs mentioned, lets examine some of the drivers who are primed for a breakthrough or a turnaround season. The first driver I’d like to have a look at is the fourth driver in the Penske camp, Simon Pagenaud.

Roger Penske pulled a bit of a shocker in late 2014 when he signed Simon Pagenaud and expanded to four cars. With two of Penske’s drivers in the over-40 crowd, the French driver was seen as the future of the organization.

JDC_SONOMA-15-0504-AIn three seasons with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, Papenaud finished top-five in the Championship each year, taking four wins along the way. Many had high hopes for his 2015 season, and some pegged him as an early-season Championship favorite.

When all was said and done, the team had growing pains with the expansion. To compound matters, Pagenaud himself seemed to struggle with the transition from SPM team leader to low man on the Penske Totem pole.

Indeed, finding out exactly where you fit in among three teammates with incredible records is a tall order. For Pagenaud, the learning curve was steep.

With that first season in the books, I would expect Pagenaud to rebound nicely and find the winner’s circle. The problem is, historically, four-car teams rarely get all four cars into victory lane.

Andretti Autosport accomplished this feat back in 2005, and it hasn’t been repeated since. Whether or not Pagenaud can leap-frog over his teammates, and lead the Penske charge, remains to be seen.

While Simon Pagenaud spent 2015 transitioning from small-team #1 driver to learning how to contribute in a larger organization, James Hinchcliffe was experiencing the exact opposite. Hinch left the multi-car Andretti Autosport Team to take Pagenaud’s vacated seat at Schmidt-Peterson.

hinchcliffeHe took a victory in his second start with the team. More accurately, he was credited with the win in the sloppy, rain-drenched non-race that was the Grand Prix of New Orleans. But, it was a win nonetheless, and it cemented his place in the team.

Hinchcliffe’s season was cut short when he crashed in practice at Indianapolis, suffering season-ending injuries. With tremendous support from the IndyCar community, Hinchcliffe completed months of physical therapy and is primed to get back into a race car.

Hinchcliffe will be teamed with Russian driver, Mikhail Aleshin, who sat out the 2015 season due to financial reasons. Despite their very different backgrounds, I can see these two working well together under the expert eye of team owner, Sam Schmidt.

Known as ‘The Mayor of Hinchtown’, the Canadian driver is popular with fans, and well-liked in the paddock. He will be a welcome addition back to the grid, and he could be a serious dark-horse contender for the title.

RahalThe next driver that bears examination is Graham Rahal. Rahal, driving for the team owned by his father, had a breakthrough 2015 season after a string of disappointing outings in prior years. With the Honda package seemingly inferior to the Chevrolet, the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team consistently led the Honda camp.

The team got a financial boost when they signed on Steak n’ Shake as a sponsor. Rahal took three podiums in the first half of the season. He then took two big wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio putting him solidly in title competition. Poor finishes in the final two events of the season dropped him to fourth, but the die was cast.

If the gains Honda has made in the off-season prove to be substantial, then the Rahal Team could be strong out of the box at St. Pete. Graham Rahal will have a teammate in selected events in the form of rookie driver, Spencer Pigot. I can’t help but think that the team would benefit greatly from a full-time second entry, but it didn’t seem to hurt them too awful much in 2015.

The last driver I want to take a look at today is Sebastien Bourdais. The French driver is second only to Scott Dixon when it comes to open-wheeled wins among active drivers. After taking four straight ChampCar titles, he embarked on a brief, unsuccessful career in Formula One beginning in 2008.

BourdaisVictoryFrom there, he became a bit of a journeyman driver, competing in various sports car events before finding his way into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

In the years since his humbling experience in Formula One, Bourdais has finally found a home with KVSH Racing, entering his third full season with the team. The past two years have produced three wins including a 2015 textbook win at Milwaukee where he lapped the entire field.

KVSH, with principal owner Jimmy Vasser, will enter 2016 as a one-car Chevrolet team with all of their resources focused on Bourdais.

Consistency has been an issue with the team in past seasons. While I wouldn’t expect them to contend for the title just yet, I can see this team taking multiple 2016 wins and playing spoiler on occasion.

This is the first in a series of pre-season articles. Please join me next week when we will have a look at Josef Newgarden, Jack Hawksworth, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan.

images courtesy IndyCar