As we get ever closer to the start of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series I am taking a look at 3 drivers who need a standout season this year.
With the demise of KV Racing, competition for IndyCar seats has intensified and many drivers will be nervous about their prospects beyond 2017. My picks might surprise – but at least 1 will not.
Marco Andretti – Andretti Autosports
No surprises here but I am getting the obvious pick out of the way early.
Marco would have featured in a similar ‘IndyCar drivers needing a standout year’ article written each year since 2013 (and arguably as far back as 2009). The failure to build on his rookie and sophomore season promise is well-documented. But 2017 has to be a big year for Andretti.
Andretti: ‘who else would have me?’
Somehow father Michael Andretti and his team continue to find sponsors for Marco but he has certainly been ‘trading down’ for a few seasons in terms of the profile (and most likely the cashflow) of those sponsors. Marco himself has at times sounded like a man resigned to failing to get close to matching his father’s achievements, let alone his grandfather’s. In his own words when considering his options in IndyCar for 2017 Andretti remarked: ‘who else would have me?’
Eventually Andretti is going to run out of sponsors willing to foot the bill for a 16th place finish in the point standings. As more rookie talent graduates in to the increasingly congested limbo that is life between IndyLights and IndyCar, the pressure to give others a chance will only increase. Particularly if some of those coming through the ranks have their own backers with cash to burn.
Racing like a rookie
Andretti has the talent. He has not forgotten how to drive fast or win races. I have argued for a couple of years that he would do better switching to a single-car team, away from the family-ties where he would have to perform to keep his seat. That will have to wait until 2018. In the interim – perhaps if only for his own peace of mind – Andretti needs to get back to the form and mindset of 2006, hit the reset button and just drive like a 19-year old with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
James Hinchcliffe – Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports
2017 is the year for Hinchcliffe to capitalise on his new found fame and undeniable talent. After nearly foxtrotting his way to victory on Dancing with the Stars the Canadian is in the perfect position to make the step up to a championship-caliber IndyCar team.
Hinch now offers a pretty complete driver package for any leading IndyCar team: fast, a proven race winner, likeable, media savvy and (for now) famous outside racing circles. For all his affection for the Schmidt-Peterson team he wants to follow Simon Pagenaud in to a top-line seat. There is plenty of scope in 2018 for spaces to open up at Penske, Ganassi and Andretti so 2017 is the season for a big performance.
Following in famous Canadian tire-tracks
This season Hinchcliffe needs to match the leading Honda drivers. No mean feat with Ganassi joining the Honda ranks, Andretti fielding a strong line-up, Graham Rahal fast and mature and his mad-Russian team mate Aleshin back for more. The 2017 IndyCar season cannot be hit and miss for the 4-time race winner as it has been in the past. Proving he can be a consistent challenger – taking the fight to the 3 IndyCar super-teams at every opportunity – has to be Hinch’s number 1 priority in 2017.
In short Hinchcliffe needs to ‘do a Rahal’ and be a surprise championship contender in the second half of the 2017 IndyCar season. Otherwise he will enjoy a reasonably lengthy career in IndyCar but will not rank up there with regular race winners and champions Jacques Villeneuve and Paul Tracy.
Carlos Munoz – AJ Foyt Racing
After 3 and half seasons in IndyCar, Carlos Munoz is finally in the position he craved: running full-time, fully-funded as the lead driver for an established IndyCar team. For the 2014 IndyCar Rookie of the Year this season is going to be all about soaking up pressure and still performing.
AJ Foyt Racing are effectively building their IndyCar hopes around Munoz and the switch to Chevrolet power and aero (for 2017 at least). During his time at Andretti Autosport the Colombian demonstrated race-winning potential and particular skill around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2017 he has to prove that Foyt have made the right decision.
No place to hide for Munoz
2017 also has to be a standout for Munoz because there is nowhere to hide. Free from the shackles of the underperforming Honda engine and aero combination, Carlos has the best package and a team that has invested in new engineering talent to get to the front. There will be a settling in period and both Munoz and new teammate Conor Daly will be given time to adapt. But we all know that AJ Foyt is not a man famous for his patience.
Munoz and Daly’s performances during the recent Phoenix open test certainly raised eyebrows and probably more than a few concerns. The team and Munoz will need time to gel but when the IndyCar circus returns to Phoenix in April 2017, top 10 performances will be the absolute minimum expected of new team leader Munoz.