In 2017 Team Penske will run four Dallara-Chevrolet’s for two champions and two proven race winners. They will start the season as favourites. Can anyone stop them winning back-to-back titles next season?
On paper it is hard to see how the the Penske juggernaut will not just steamroller the opposition. The Dallara-Chevrolet package has won every IndyCar title since non-standardised engines and aero kits were introduced. With technical regulations frozen ahead of the introduction of a standardised aero package in 2018, the advantage enjoyed particularly on road and street courses will remain intact.
With current and former IndyCar champions Pagenaud and Power, plus IndyCar’s ‘Mr Consistency’ Helio Castroneves and America’s big hope Josef Newgarden should we just give them the trophies now? Perhaps not.
Here are my thoughts on reasons for neutral and non-Penske fans to be optimistic for the 2017 IndyCar season.
Penske could stop themselves winning in 2017
We only have to look back at the 2015 season for proof that a dominant IndyCar super-team can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In failing to back one of their three title contenders in the closing races of the season, Penske ended up throwing the championship away. By the time they realised their best chance was Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing had taken it out of their hands. And it is not difficult to envisage a repeat scenario in 2017.
Four drivers = four title protagonists = trouble
Consider the motivations for each of their quarter of drivers. Pagenaud is in the form of his life. The Frenchman sees a chance to leave an indelible mark on IndyCar and put himself up with the greats of US open wheel racing.
Similarly Will Power believes he’s better than a single championship. Hopefully free from the side effects of his concussion early in 2016, expect to see the Australian back to his best next season. His long-term teammate Helio Castroneves will roll in to the 2017 season as driven and enthusastic as his first season in IndyCar.
Admittedly the Brazilian’s focus will perhaps be more on a fourth Indy 500 win but his metronomic consistency should put him in contention for wins and podiums anywhere. And then there is the new kid in town.
Josef Newgarden probably does not need any motivation for next season. This is his shot at the big time and wins and titles await if he applies himself correctly. Equally the young American has seen that a poor season under Roger Penske does not neccesarily come with a second chance. He just has to ask his new ‘for one race only’ team mate Juan Pablo Montoya.
Put that all together and we have all the makings of another intra-team battle that could allow a canny and consistent rival to steal the Astor Cup.
Ganassi’s switch to Honda
Ok bear with me on this one. At face value the decision by Chip Ganassi to switch allegiance to Honda before standardised aero kits in 2018 looks suicidal for 2017. Why drop the best package in the series for the one that has perennially under performed?
Yes it is a big gamble. Andretti Autosport, RLL, Schmidt-Peterson and more have tried and failed to make the Honda package championship-caliber. But Ganassi are arguably the best squad in IndyCar at taking an existing package and doing more with it than anyone else.
Their dominance of the Dallara-Honda spec package with Franchitti and Dixon proves it. All teams had the same aero, chassis and engine yet the Ganassi engineering team made it work better. Just because no other team has made the Honda package in to a realistic title contender does not mean Ganassi cannot.
It’s all about data and set up
2017 will see a significant change in the Honda versus Chevrolet dynamic. For the first time (and last time ironically) a Honda team will have recent experience and data from the dominant Chevrolet package.
Ganassi will bring with them mountains of data which up until now no Honda team has had access to. Again it would be unrealistic to expect this – even combined with Chip Ganassi Racing’s engineering prowess – will be enough to completely close the gap to Chevrolet. However it should make a difference in terms of getting Ganassi Racing closer to Penske than other Honda teams.
Chevrolet and Team Penske specifically will go in to the 2017 IndyCar season as red-hot favourites. But a combination of engineering capabilities within Chip Ganassi Racing and potential pitfalls for Penske could make the championship much closer than expected.