Unusually for IndyCar we find ourselves at the start of January with very little regarding the coming season still TBC. Aside from the fate of KVSH, whether Indy will manage 33 cars and what happens to the glut of young talent stuck in an IndyLights/IndyCar limbo the teams, drivers, circuits and schedule are in place.
Which is great news for the series and its fans (unless you are a stalwart KVSH, Matt Brabham, RC Enerson et al. supporter). Looking ahead to the 2017 IndyCar season I’m going to be picking out some of the big talking points this year in a 3 part series.
Talking point 1: can anyone stop Penske in 2017?
I wrote a piece about this previously – you can read it here – and most of the signs point to another Penske battle for the Astor Cup. The Captain’s team possesses arguably the best driver line-up, undoubtedly the best aero/engine package and an inherent performance advantage secured by the freeze on aero development in 2017.
What I think will be a surprise is how close Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing could run Penske to the title. Having switched to Honda for 2017 – viewed as a real head scratching decision by many – Ganassi are on the back foot. The regulation freeze handicaps them further and missing their first Honda test at Sebring last year really puts them on the back foot. But the key is how good CGR have been at taking a package and engineering it to a higher standard than anyone else.
If any team can make the Honda package work better than most it is Ganassi. Add to the mix an inevitable intra-team battle at Penske (tripping themselves up like 2015 perhaps?) and you have plenty of scope for Dixon (maybe Kanaan if lady luck smiles) and Ganassi to come up on the blindside.
Talking point 2: will Marco crack the top 5?
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know how great a source of frustration Marco Andretti is. In a top team since his debut, surrounded by great drivers and engineers, able to pick the brains of Mario and Michael at a moments notice, yet Marco remains unable to build on his early promise.
Andretti has not cracked the top 5 since 2013 and has not won since Iowa in 2011. 2016 was woeful and Andretti is fast becoming an IndyCar journeyman. Team mates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and Alexander Rossi have all proven an Andretti Honda can fight for top 5 finishes.
Predictions are a risky business but I am pretty confident Marco will struggle to crack the top 10 in 2017, never mind the top 5.
Talking point 3: will Ganassi or Andretti finish 2017 as the top Honda team?
This one could be more interesting than the overall fight for the championship. On paper Ganassi should struggle relative to Andretti. Michael Andretti’s eponymous team are the leading Honda multi-car outfit. They have been taking the fight to Penske and Ganassi in recent seasons and in Hunter-Reay and Rossi they have a two of the best drivers in the field.
But Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato are weak links in their line-up. Andretti Autosport took a lot longer than the single car RLL squad to get a handle on the Honda aero package. Conversely Ganassi will make the Honda package work – and quickly – and in Kimball and Chilton they have a less exciting but slightly more consistent pairing than Marco and Takuma Sato.
Talking point 4: can AJ Foyt Racing become Chevy’s ‘second team’ behind Penske?
AJ Foyt Racing has looked like a team on a mission since the last race of 2016. The switch to Chevrolet power and aero has been combined with a complete driver clear out.
In comes the fast, consistent and underrated Carlos Munoz to partner with ‘rookie of the year’ Conor Daly. Assuming Daly can sort his qualifying performances out and the team can optimise their new Chevrolet package, 2017 promises to be an exciting one.
Their main competition will come from Ed Carpenter Racing for best of the rest in the Chevy ranks. But with Josef Newgarden gone, Carpenter’s own performance poor in 2016 and their full-time lead driver coming back after a 4-year layoff, ECR are unlikely to be the force they were in 2015/2016. Which leads nicely on to…
Talking point 5: how will JR Hildebrand perform on his full-time return to IndyCar?
Hopefully JR will be given time to settle back in to IndyCar but he faces several challenges. For starters he has not raced full-time in IndyCar since 2012. His recent experience experience of the current aero kits is limited to a hand full of races at the start of 2013 and one-off runs at the Indy 500 and Indy road course.
Getting to grips with the car on street and road courses will be another significant challenge. With an oval specialist for a team-mate – although Carpenter’s oval performances in 2016 were pretty poor – Hildebrand will be the team leader. He may be able to take Newgarden’s set ups and work from there but if he cannot, Carpenter will not be able to provide the technical feedback needed to flatten out JR’s learning curve. Spencer Pigot will be Carpenter’s road/street replacement and similarly does not bring a whole lot of technical insight.
On the upside JR is perhaps more hungry and motivated for this opportunity than at any point in his career. ECR is a great team that has shown it can build drivers up to bigger things. Plus they will run the dominant Chevrolet engine and aero package again in 2017 offering all the benefits and performance advantages that entails.
Check out parts 2 and 3 coming up later in January.