In the final part of our 2015 season preview we look at the enigma that is Marco Andretti, the merger of SFH and Ed Carpenter Racing and the new, improved Tony Kanaan.
Marco the enigma
One of the puzzles in recent IndyCar seasons has been Marco Andretti. Definitely talented and driving for one of the best-funded and resourced teams in the series, it continues to baffle why the 3rd generation Andretti seems unable to make the break through from occasional front-runner to consistent championship challenger.
On ovals Andretti has the speed to win but continues to struggle to convert that in to results. There have been numerous occasions when he has dominated races only to fall away badly in the final stages with a mishandling car. Whether Andretti himself is making poor calls, whether the engineers are, or whether it’s all psychological, something is leaving that side of the team snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A look across the garage must add to their collective frustrations: Ryan Hunter-Reay has become something of a specialist at running below the radar on ovals, tweaking his car to near perfection for the final stint and then passing rivals for fun.
Away from ovals, and despite taking his first IndyCar win at Sonoma, Andretti does not drive like a man comfortable on road or street course. Much of that can be attributed to his primary weakness –qualifying. In 9 seasons he has only scored 4 poles and none have been on road/street courses. With agonizing frequency, Andretti qualifies deep in the field giving himself limited chances to reach the ever more competitive leading pack.
Remedying that will be difficult with the likes of Power, Dixon, Pagenaud and Montoya in the field but Marco has to make progress to at least give himself a fighting chance on race day. If he can combine more clinical execution at the end of oval races with starting closer to the front on road and street courses, there is more to come. But if Marco isn’t at the sharp end this season (assuming Honda can close the apparent gap to the Chevy teams from spring testing) you wonder if he ever will be.
3 cars is better than 2
Three teams rattled the cages of Penske, Andretti and Ganassi in recent seasons. Schmidt Peterson, Sarah Fisher Hartman and Ed Carpenter’s eponymous team were more often than not, mixing it with the established front-runners. Now that SFH and Carpenter have joined forces it will be really interesting to see how they fare.
On paper it makes sense – against the big guns fielding 3-4 cars regularly, the data and feedback from one or two cars doesn’t cut it. Without expansion both teams, individually, faced the real risk of being left behind. Particularly so with the introduction of aero kits that will further complicate the engineering of the cars. All things being equal there are definite gains to be made from an engineering perspective for the new Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing squad. The picture is slightly more complicated from a racing perspective however.
Carpenter himself is still useful on ovals but success for his team came mostly when Mike Conway was hustling the Fuzzy’s car on street circuits. Luca Filippi is not a like for like replacement – by the time Conway took his 2 wins last season he had 6 seasons under his belt – but there is potential there. Whether he turns out to be as good as Conway remains to be seen but we shouldn’t expect the Italian to be bossing races in Detroit or Long Beach straight away.
Josef Newgarden has, similarly, bags of potential but a lot of rough edges. Quick in qualifying and no slouch on ovals, his race craft is questionable at times. Plenty of accidents and scrapes highlight that. It is debatable what, if anything, the joining of forces can do to help continue the development of Newgarden. Let’s be honest – there have been times when Ed Carpenter has been accused by leading drivers of not being able to handle racing wheel-to-wheel.
Will we see Tony Kanaan circa 2004?
When Tony Kanaan starts this weekend’s race in St Petersburg he will extend a record breaking run to 234 consecutive open wheel starts. Consistency has been TKs style throughout his career and it is what took him to his one and only IndyCar title in 2004.
After the high of his Indy 500 win in 2013 the rest of the season fell apart and thoughts turned to a journeyman seeing out his career. Those were dispelled when he signed for Chip Ganassi last season. His performances – particularly in the second half of the season – then buried them. TK is not ready to retire his IndyCar ambitions just yet and 2015 could be the season we see the Championship-winning package reemerge. Scott Dixon will undoubtedly be in contention but it would be unwise to write-off Kanaan.
Focused, fitter than ever and with a team capable of winning consistently (his first since 2010) Kanaan is in with a definite shot. Whether the arrival of Sage Karem helps motivate or upset him is an interesting consideration. Kanaan is not going to be at Ganassi for more than a couple more seasons – especially if Karem impresses this weekend. However he certainly has the opportunity for 2015 (and next season) to finish his IndyCar career in style and is my dark horse for this season’s title.
Roll on St Petersburg!