by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
The Verizon IndyCar Series will be taking a much needed weekend off after a solidly packed schedule. Nine races are in the books, and eight remain putting the season past the halfway point. Let’s take a look at some of the developing story-lines from 2017.
Its not easy being Dale Coyne
Dale Coyne, who has used a business model featuring a rotating cast of pay-drivers in his second car, sought to change his fortunes in 2017. The hiring of championship-caliper driver Sebastein Bourdais was the catalyst for also signing Oliver Boisson and Craig Hampson to the engineering department. Newly-crowned Indy Lights champion, Ed Jones, was hired for a full season in the second car, thus putting a consistent face behind the wheel every race weekend.
As far as Coyne is concerned, he invested more money into 2017 than ever before, and he hoped that it would pay off. Reuniting Bourdais with Hampson and Boisson offered immediate results with the team winning the season opener in St. Pete. They followed up with a podium in Long Beach and a top-ten at Barber.
We have long been hoping that one of these smaller teams would rise up and take the battle to the Ganassis, Penskes and Andrettis of the world. One would have expected it to be Schmidt-Peterson, Ed Carpenter or even Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan, but it was in fact, the small Dale Coyne operation that was generating buzz and being pegged as championship contenders.
Then, things started to go the wrong direction. Bourdais was taken out in a first lap accident at Phoenix, and his day lasted only three laps at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. He dropped down the standings, but was still in the fight. With the Indianapolis 500, and its double-points structure, the opportunity to make up ground was there for the taking. Practice speeds for the Coyne cars showed them to be legitimate contenders.
In an instant, the dream turned to dust. Bourdais crashed hard during his qualifying attempt, suffering injuries that would sideline him for the balance of the season. James Davison was brought in to replace Bourdais, alongside Jones and a third entry for Pippa Mann.
The month of May, as it turned out, ended on a positive note for Coyne as Ed Jones earned a third place finish. The good feelings were quickly replaced with disappointment and anger. In what literally could be described as “adding insult to injury,” Jones was snubbed for Rookie of the Year honors in favor of Fernando Alonso. In the races since Indy, we have seen both Esteban Gutíerrez and Tristan Vautier in the 18 car, seemingly returning the Coyne team to the familiar rotating cast of characters.
The most recent slap in the face was having both cars collected at Texas in a crash that happened in front of Jones and Vautier. After losing cars at Phoenix and Indianapolis, two more wrecked DW-12 chassis may cause Coyne to continue to seek pay drivers, just to keep up with the repair costs.
On a positive note, Ed Jones has continued to work hard and exceed expectations each and every week. There may be, indeed, a win in the second half of the season for Jones and Coyne.
Sato’s reputation is still a work in progress
Alonso-mania aside, the biggest story of the 2017 season is Takuma Sato and his brilliant win in the 101st Indianapolis 500. I have been a supporter of Sato for many years, and I have often remarked that with the right team, he would excel. This has shown to be true. The Indy win was no fluke, but the result of hard work, and a solid team behind him. Other than the Indy win, Sato has finished inside the top-ten on five other occasions, and he sits third in points within striking distance of the top spot.
Taking home the Indy win resulted in massive amounts of respect and supportive comments coming in from around the globe. It certainly looked like vindication for Sato, a driver with a reputation of taking unnecessary risks.
Two weeks after Indy, Sato’s haters came out again in full force after he got his Andretti Autosports Honda much too low in the corner of the Texas oval and crashed out, collecting Scott Dixon, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton in the process. This occurred at the end of a frenetic pack-style race that featured a number of unnecessary risks by several drivers. The fact that Sato’s reputation precedes him made him an easy target.
The difference here is that Sato’s move was for the race win with the laps running out. Some of the earlier ones, like the Ganassi sandwich that took Alexander Rossi out and Tony Kanaan’s brain-fart that collected eight cars were quite early on in a race that featured a 600 km distance. If there were twelve more inches of track above the grass, Sato may have won the race and looked like a hero for pulling it off. Instead, his ‘no-attack, no-chance’ philosophy came under fire once again.
The Texas mistake aside, Sato still has a legitimate shot at this championship and an opportunity to add some more race wins this season.
The schedule still needs some work
Date equity is important in racing, and it is equally important for the Verizon IndyCar Series to be in action the weekend following the Indy 500 to capitalize on the momentum produced by their centerpiece event.
However, the months of May and June continue to put a strain on the team personnel with the current schedule. Arriving at Indianapolis, the road-course configuration must be readied for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and then the attention is quickly turned to the super speedway configuration for one weekend of qualifying, and then the race itself. Teams then travel to Detroit to prepare for not one, but two, races again in road course trim. This is followed by a long trip to Texas with the speedway setup once again.
Now, some like to point out that NASCAR runs many consecutive weekend year-in and year-out. The fact is, many of those Cup teams have two separate sets of team members; those that work out of the shop, and those that travel to the races. With IndyCar, in most cases, these are the same people that are submitted to a grind that keeps them from their families for weeks at a time.
The second half of the season is a bit more palatable, with a three-week break in August and a seriously long off-season. The problem with the long off-season, is that some teams cannot afford to pay salaries to crew members for the full year, and some find themselves laid-off during the down time.
An oval following the 500 may reduce the strain on the teams or even a week off following Detroit might help, but finding a way to spread the whole thing out would certainly give these guys a chance to catch their breath. IndyCar has made it quite clear that they would prefer not to go head-to-head against the NFL, although Saturday night races might be an avenue to running the season into October.
Is Honda vs. Chevy still a thing? And, what’s next
After solid Chevrolet domination since the beginning of the aero-kit era, a common aero-kit was decided upon for 2018 with a development freeze placed on the 2017 kits. With that in mind, many expected that Honda would essentially be throwing the bulk of the 2017 season away, particularly on the street and road courses, where they seemed to be woefully behind the Bowtie brigade.
What we have seen instead, is a pleasantly surprising Honda engine that has brought the battle solidly to Chevrolet on every type of track that the series has run on. The engine development has not come without a price, as a number of mechanical failures have manifested each weekend, affecting a number of Honda drivers.
Blown engines aside, Honda now leads Chevrolet 5-4 in the win column, seeing the closest that the two have been in quite some time. There is little doubt that the addition of the four Ganassi cars to the Honda camp has helped considerably.
The bigger buzz that is being created surrounds the universal kit set to debut in 2018. Taking styling cues from predecessors in CART and ChampCar, the new-look Dallara DW-12 has gotten rave reviews for its appearance. The on-track performance of the package remains to be seen.
Certainly, the snoozer at Phoenix and the crash-fest at Texas are two things that need to be addressed with immediacy. IndyCar has retained Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia as their drivers for the new kits when they hit the test track. These two drivers have experience in running open-wheeled cars in both the pre and post-areo kit era, so their feedback will be invaluable for sure.
So..Who wants to win this thing?
One year ago, we saw Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud start the season with a bang, taking two runner-ups and following it up with three wins in the first five race weekends. From there, he maintained control of the points lead taking another podium and two more wins along the way to the 2016 championship.
This season, thus far, there is not one driver that stands out as a dominant force to be reckoned with. Scott Dixon, in the Chip Ganassi Honda, has stayed at or near the top of the standings each week, but he has yet to post a victory. Dixon may indeed may poised to collect his fifth championship, but it is far from a done deal.
Pagenaud is lurking in second, just thirteen points behind as Takuma Sato is just one point behind Simon. Scrolling through the standings, any one of the drivers in the top ten can take the title with a few solid runs. Castroneves has been dynamite in qualifying, but hasn’t taken a win yet. Josef Newgarden, in his first season with Team Penske has one win on the season, and a schedule ahead of him that favors his driving style. Graham Rahal has posted the only win streak of the season, sweeping the Detroit weekend, while Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe have the potential to become spoilers.
However, as I look at this thing, the name that sticks out to me is Will Power. Power survived the carnage in Texas and took the win, and he put on a road-racing clinic on the Indianapolis road course in May. Of the remaining race tracks on the schedule, the 2014 champion has won on five of them: Road America, Toronto, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
I feel strongly that Power will come out as the strongest in the formidable Team Penske lineup as the season winds down, but it will continue to be a wide-open battle right to Sonoma.
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action on the weekend of June 25th for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America.