Part 2 of my preview of the main talking points and highlights ahead of the 2017 IndyCar season.
In part 1 I looked at who might challenge Penske’s domination, the chances of success for Ganassi and the prospects for Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand and the energised AJ Foyt Racing. This time I’m looking at all things oval for 2017.
Talking point 6: will we see bigger oval attendances?
IndyCar has been making steady progress in a number of areas. US TV ratings have been improving – despite other sports seeing a decline – and street/road course events are regularly attracting six-figure attendances. Oval races however remain the one place where empty seats vastly outnumber fans.
Can IndyCar oval races recover?
Fundamentally the IndyCar oval ‘product’ does not excite or attract your average American anymore (outside of the 500). It is not a disliking or lack of interest in IndyCar or IndyCar racing (if it were, road and street courses would not be entertaining such large crowds). The problem is with the oval product – what the fans get, see and experience. Therefore a pertinent question is: what is IndyCar going to do about it?
Well not very much appears to be the answer. No significant changes are planned for 2017. By that I mean double-headers, sprint races, elimination races or a change to the dull oval qualifying format. As usual, it seems it is up the individual race promoters and circuits to get more fans through the gate.
Phoenix made a solid start to its return to IndyCar in 2016 and Iowa continues to be a supportive partner.
Gateway makes a reappearance in 2017 after a 13 year hiatus and it has benefited from early confirmation – by IndyCar standards – of its place on the calendar. Not to mention very positive feedback from drivers who have tested on the oval.
Texas provided some of the most spectacular and terrifying racing in modern IndyCar history. Despite the frustrating rain delays, race fans will expect that event to bring in bigger crowds in 2017.
But with no changes to the oval product that America seems to have fallen out of love with, I suspect it will not. Expect there to be more empty seats than filled ones at ovals again in 2017.
Talking point 7: Castroneves and that illusive 4th Indy 500
This feels like a pretty simple one.
Helio still has the talent and hunger to get his face on the Borg-Warner trophy for a fourth time. In Penske he has arguably the best team and definitely the best car to do it in. On outright performance Honda did not deserve their win with Alexander Rossi in 2016 and the freeze on aero development means all their teams will still be at a disadvantage this season. Advantage Helio.
But he is up against four Penske rivals including two who should have a 500 against their names already – Power and Pagenaud. Newgarden proved he can run rings round anyone on an oval at Iowa, finished 3rd at Indy and is seriously pumped for his shot at the big time. Montoya is a quandary but more on him later.
Often Indy is not about form or even who is fastest – as Rossi and Andretti/Herta ably demonstrated last year. Let’s see how Helio’s cards fall this May but it would be foolish to think he will not be in contention.
Talking point 8: will Juan Montoya’s Indy one-off be hero or zero?
Montoya paid a heavy price for a poor season in 2016. A one-off ride with Penske at Indy this season is all he would agree to. That I think says more about how much IndyCar teams need drivers with financial backing than whether JPM is past it. But that is another issue.
The Colombian still has something to offer and should be running full time in 2017. Ironically he will probably be more motivated and determined to squeeze everything he can get out of his Penske Chevrolet this May as a result. Mostly to prove to Penske’s management that they dispensed with his services too soon.
2016 was hopefully a one-off and not the beginning of permanent decline. Whether a whole heap of time out of the cockpit will take away JPM’s edge or not, I think he will be in with a shot of winning a third Indy 500. His skill and bravery on the speedway certainly merits joining the likes of Rutherford, Unser, Castroneves and Franchitti.
IndyCar talking points – part 3
Next week I will be looking at whether Alexander Rossi can challenge Ryan Hunter Reay for top spot at Andretti, what Sato’s move means for Andretti Autosport and what Mark Miles will definitely be talking about in 2017.