by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
Eight races are complete for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and there are eight races to go. Gosh, it seems like the season just started, but it is in fact the mid point of the 2016 championship campaign.
The season thus far has seen six different winners from three different teams, and has Chevrolet leading Honda 7-1 in the win column. Honda can take solace in the fact that the lone 2016 win for the manufacturer came in the biggest race on the schedule, the Indianapolis 500.
This is a good time to review the major stories of the season, and preview what is yet to come.
Simon On Point
Frenchman Simon Pagenaud joined the IndyCar Series full-time in 2012 with the Schmidt-Peterson team, and made no secret of the fact that the championship was his goal. In three seasons with SPM, he took Rookie of the year honors in 2012, won four races, and finished top five in the point standings each season.
Pagenaud is an extremely focused driver who calls Ayrton Senna his racing hero, and is mentored by two-tome CART Champion and Indy 500 winner Gil deFerran. In 2015, Pagenaud’s efforts were rewarded with the contract of a lifetime, a ride with Team Penske.
As Pagenaud acclimated himself to the Penske way of life, and the team struggled with the expansion to four cars, his debut season with the team was somewhat forgettable ending the year 11th in points.
This season he came out swinging, asserting himself as the man to beat, taking three wins and three runner up finishes in the first half. Coming out of Belle Isle, Pagenaud has an 80 point lead in the standings. Other than a mediocre finish at Indy, and a failed fuel strategy in Detroit Race One, Pagenaud has been pretty much bullet-proof.
The Penske driver is going to be hard to take down, but if anyone has it in them, it is the driver who currently sits second in the standings.
Four-time series champion, Scott Dixon, and his Target Chip Ganassi team know a thing or two about coming from behind and stealing a championship as evidenced by their spectacular run last season.
Team Penske is also not immune to second-half struggles. While Simon looks like a lock for the title, it is much too early to begin engraving his name on the trophy.
Boston and Watkins Glen
From the outset, many had doubts about the Boston Grand Prix. Despite local opposition, layers of red tape, an numerous hoops to jump through, we were all assured that the Grand Prix was set to go. When promoter John Casey suddenly pulled the plug on April 29 the ‘blame game’ began. The promoters blamed the city, as the Mayor’s office blamed the promoters.
IndyCar has washed its hands of responsibility and positioned themselves as the victim, filing suit against John Casey and Boston Grand Prix, LLC. In the interim, stories about corruption in the Mayor’s office have surfaced in the local Boston Press, as enraged ticket buyers are yet to receive a refund.
Cutting Casey out of the picture, IndyCar’s Jay Frye was able to reach an agreement rather quickly with Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International, to bring the series back to the picturesque road course in upstate New York.
This is a decision that bodes well for the series, as the track offers a great challenge for the drivers and reunites IndyCar with a track that is steeped in racing history. What remains to be seen is whether or not a decent crowd can be gathered up, given the relatively short amount of time to promote the event. I have my fingers crossed for a successful weekend in the fall, and seeing The Glen remain on the schedule for many years to come.
The Indianapolis Cinderella Story
It goes without saying that the Indianapolis 500 is the centerpiece of the Series. In 2016, the Speedway hosted the 100th running of the storied event, and did so in grand fashion. With increased interest in the historic running, IMS was able to announce the first sellout in more than two decades.
The Month of May produced a number of compelling headlines, beginning with James Hinchliffe putting his Schmidt-Peterson car on the pole. One year ago, the popular Canadian driver was forced to sit out much of the season after sustaining life-threatening injuries at the Speedway. To come back and triumph in qualifying was nothing short of spectacular.
Of course, by now you know that the real Cinderella story belongs to young Alexander Rossi who parlayed Bryan Herta’s fuel strategy into a big win for the rookie driver. While some were understandably underwhelmed with a fuel mileage win, to suggest that Rossi did not earn the win is nonsense.
Rossi found himself mired deep in the order on three separate occasions over the 500 mile run when a sticking fuel sensor lengthened his pit stops. In charging back towards the front, the California born driver set fast lap of the race. In order to win Indy, you must put yourself in position to win, which is what Rossi and team did to perfection.
For Rossi, who had geared his career towards Formula One before joining the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis win brings more questions than it gives answers regarding his future. It will indeed be interesting to see where his new found status will take him in the years to come.
Rookie of the Year
The run for Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 began with three solid candidates, Conor Daly, Max Chilton and the aforementioned Alexander Rossi. With 2015 Indy Lights Champion, Spencer Pigot, recently signing with Ed Carpenter Racing for the remaining street and road courses, he will contend for the season ending award as well.
With the part time nature of Pigot’s schedule, he will be a long shot at best, but the seat-time will do wonders for his career.
Daly, an Indiana native and son of Derek Daly, was leading that group until Alexander Rossi was vaulted into sixth place in the overall standings, based on the double points for his Indy 500 win. With Rossi solidly in the mix, Daly has been impressive in his first eight 2016 starts with Dale Coyne Racing. The 24 year-old has led laps in three events, and took a hard-earned second place in Detroit.
Coming out of the double-header, Daly is 15th in the standings, while Rossi stepped up another spot into fifth. While it is an uphill battle for Daly, this young man shows poise and professionalism in the cockpit beyond his years.
The least impressive of the candidates has been Max Chilton. Expectations were high for the Englishman that has Formula One experience, and is running with the Chip Ganassi team. His talent has yet to translate into results as he finds himself 19th in the points standings, with a best 2016 finish of seventh on the bullring in Phoenix.
Domed Skids and Aero Kits
The addition of domed skids to the undertray of the chassis was the talk of the town leading into Indianapolis. These small plates, designed to keep the car on the ground in the event of a spin, produced a varied reaction from drivers, team owners and manufacturers alike.
Some argued that the increased ride-height would ruin the racing on the biggest stage in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As it turned out, the 500 offered incredible racing with over 850 passes for position during the run. The skids also met their intended purpose, as we saw no cars take flight at the Brickyard. Debate closed.
On the topic of aero-kits, there is some talk of a common kit in 2017 to curtail some of the costs associated with developing separate packages for Honda and Chevrolet. A common kit would, in essence, nullify the original purpose of the idea to differentiate the the marques represented.
However, as far as this writer is concerned, the kits themselves have done very little in the way of driving new fans towards the series, and have only added to the teams budget. An announcement is expected in the next week or so, and it may be 2018 until we see a common kit, but overall, I feel that it is for the better.
Some of the drivers we have already mentioned, like Pagenaud, Daly, and Rossi have certainly exceeded expectations. There are others that are delivering about what we might have expected. Newgarden has three podiums and seems poised for a win any day. Dixon and Castroneves are in a familiar spot near the top of the point standings. Hunter-Reay has a couple of podiums and showed some real speed at Indy. Power had a rocky start, but now has returned to the winners circle.
With that being said, let’s examine a few driver that are not delivering the goods. The first that comes to mind is Jack Hawksworth. The young Briton currently occupies the 20th position in points. That puts him dead-last among drivers that have competed in all eight races this year.
Hawksworth earned a podium in his rookie season with Bryan Herta Racing in 2013 and won the Tony Renna Rising Star award at seasons end. Now, in his second season with A.J. Foyt racing, he has yet to get close enough to the front to even smell a podium. The entire team had high expectations with the addition of some key engineering personnel, and a reorganization during the off-season. Hawksworth’s teammate, Takuma Sato isn’t faring much better, but Hawksworth is the true bottom-feeder of the Series at this point.
Max Chilton is another under-performer that year. With Formula One experience and a full season of Indy Lights, one might have expected that he would leading the rookie class. Theoretically, with the Chevrolet package and teamed with Chip Ganassi Racing, he should have a leg up on Rossi and Daly. Instead, Chilton is 19th in points with the highlight of his season being a 7th place at Phoenix.
Somehow, the topic of underachievers in IndyCar always circles around to Marco Andretti. Now in his tenth season driving for his father at Andretti Autosport, he has two race wins to his credit, the most recent coming in 2011.
You can’t blame the equipment; the Andretti team has put cars into victory circle every season of its existence, save for 2009. Looking back to the driver then, there are various opinions out there that range from a lack of focus, or a lack of true talent, to a case of spoiled rich kid syndrome. Whatever the problem, the fact that Marco is very vocal when things don’t go his way has done very little to help his cause.
I’ve often thought that Andretti would thrive in a new setting, working with a team where his father and grandfather were not there every day. That may have been a possibility five years ago, but at this stage in his career, with a ton of solid talent in the field, I’m not sure that anyone else would hire him.
The second half of the season
The Verizon Indycar Series heads next to the high speed oval at Texas for a Saturday night race on June 11.
If Indianapolis is any indication, the super-speedway package seems to favor the Honda teams. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see someone like James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz or Ryan Hunter-Reay take their first win of the season.
The balance of the season will include two more oval races, at Iowa and Pocono, one more street race at Toronto and four natural terrain road courses at Road America, Mid Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Both Road America and Watkins Glen are welcome additions back to the schedule after being absent for a number of years. Sonoma will once again host the season finale, with double points available.
Looking at the remaining schedule, and the first half stats, it is apparent that Penske and Simon Pagenaud are going to be tough to beat for the title. However, if recent IndyCar history has taught us anything, nothing is over until its over.
Images courtesy INDYCAR