IndyCar 2018 season preview part 1

This week we kick off our look ahead to one of the most widely anticipated IndyCar seasons in recent memory. In part 1 of our 2018 IndyCar season preview we are asking: how good will the new universal aero kit be, can Josef Newgarden win back-to-back titles and who will fill the final seat on the grid?

Josef Newgarden IndyCar 2017 champion
2017 IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. (Image: IndyCar)

Just how good will the IndyCar universal aero kit be?

To quote Mark Miles the new IndyCar universal aero kit (UAK) is “having trouble finding a critic.” IndyCar and Dallara probably did not dare to dream of the positive response to the updated car that will run this season.

In terms of aesthetics the UAK has scored rave reviews from fans and drivers alike. The latter have been effusive in their praise following several oval and road course tests.

Defending series champion Josef Newgarden is positive that the UAK is “going to provide better racing”.   A sentiment supported by the welcome sounds of drivers lifting and downshifting at Phoenix  and Iowa during testing.

There have been some grumbles – Chevrolet made it clear they were less than ecstatic about being forced to drop their dominant kit.

A glut of manufacturer testing opportunities for Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing ticked off rivals. Andretti Autosport and a very vocal Sebastien Bourdais in particular but in context of such a radical shift in regulations, the issues have been relatively minor.

James Hinchcliffe IndyCar Honda 2018 SPM
James Hinchcliffe testing the UAK at IMS last year. (Image: IndyCar/Skibinski)

It is going to be handful to drive

The big question mark is whether the UAK will translate in to better racing.

Lower overall downforce and less downforce via front and rear wings is the hallmark of the UAK. This should in theory allow drivers to follow more closely on road and street courses.

Drivers have been united in their feedback that the new UAK IndyCar will be much more of a handful to drive. More difficult cars to drive tend to achieve two things: one, they create opportunities for overtaking and second, they separate the best from the rest.

Until the first handful of races are complete, we simply won’t know the answer. But in terms of road and street course racing, the early signs are extremely encouraging.

A bigger question mark comes on ovals. Drivers are yet to discover how the new aero kit handles in the turbulent air created by 20+ cars running at high speed. That alone should make the practice runs and race at Phoenix in April appointment viewing.

1 full time seat left and the music is about to stop…

IndyCar’s offseason game of musical chairs could be over by the time we reach St Petersburg in March 2018. Surprisingly and refreshingly there is only 1 full time seat remaining in the series.

Unsurprisingly it is with Dale Coyne Racing.

IndyCar fans are used to starting seasons in recent years with a plethora of TBCs and TBAs against cars and teams. A brisk start to the 2018 silly season has left us with one vacancy but a long short-list of potential candidates.

Ed Jones Dale Coyne Honda IndyCar
Plenty of drivers of are vying for the final seat at Dale Coyne Racing, vacated by Ganassi-bound Ed  Jones. (Image: Skibinski/IndyCar)

The frontrunners for the final Dale Coyne seat

As of now Zachary Claman DeMello is rumored to be the lead candidate for the final seat at Dale Coyne. The Canadian tested for Coyne at Sebring this month following his IndyCar race debut for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Sonoma last September. With significant financial backing the former IndyLights driver fits the profile of a typical DCR number 2 driver.

But it appears his backing is not sufficient enough to secure the ride for the entire 2018 IndyCar season. Dale Coyne admitted following day 2 of testing at Sebring that the team may well need to run two drivers alongside Bourdais.

Following a second day of testing with Pietro Fittipaldi – grandson of F1 and IndyCar legend Emerson – Coyne confirmed to RACER magazine that both Pietro and Claman DeMello are in contention but are not the only names on the list:

“We’re talking to them, but they aren’t the only ones. There are some other names you might hear, but it all depends on what happens here very shortly.”

Pietro Fittipaldi and Zachary Claman DeMello could share a drive at Dale Coyne this season. (Image: IndyCar/Owens)

Former F1 driver Esteban Gutierrez can be considered to remain a contender. Following his IndyCar debut with Dale Coyne in 2017, the Mexican is looking to make the switch permanent. Gutierrez’s Mexican backers (and IndyCar) are keen to see him race as a precursor to a planned race in Mexico City in 2019.

Conor Daly continues to look for a seat but his chances are thought to be very slim. With no significant sponsor backing the former AJ Foyt Racing driver is exploring opportunities elsewhere, including the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Can Newgarden be the first back-to-back champ since 2010?

Despite the dominance of IndyCar’s big three – Penske, Ganassi and Andretti – the depth of IndyCar driving talent has prevented a single driver overwhelming the field. The last back-to-back champion was Dario Franchitti in 2010/2011.

Since then we have had 5-6 drivers in contention but none have been able to assert their authority beyond a single season.

Charlie Kimball Carlin Racing IndyCar
Dario Franchitti was the last back-to-back IndyCar champion. (Image: IndyCar/Skibinski)

Josef Newgarden’s performance in 2017 – particularly in the second half of the year – suggests he could join Franchitti on the list of repeat champions. Of course 2018 is set to throw a few curveballs at the 27 year-old and the entire field.

New techniques, higher tire degradation and a rebalanced field

Drivers are united in the belief 2018’s UAK will force them to adjust their driving styles. Techniques and ‘go to’ set ups refined over the past 4 seasons will be less valuable. Whoever adapts best and quickest to these changes will be in good shape for a shot at the Astor Cup.

Lower overall downforce from the UAK combined with a drive by Firestone to increase tire degradation will impact races in 2018. At times in previous seasons the gap between the Firestone primary and alternate tires was too little.

This year we can expect higher tire degradation with a knock-on effect on race performance. IndyCar is hoping this will mix up race strategies and reduce the number of race where the difference between option and primary tires is negligible.

IndyCar 2018 Chevrolet IMS
Chevrolet reluctantly gave up their advantage to adopt the 2018 UAK. (Image: Chris Owens/IndyCar)

And finally there is the small matter of Chevrolet teams losing the inherent advantage of running the American brand’s aero kit.

The balance of power ebbed and flowed between Chevy and Honda much more in 2017 than at any other point during the era of aero kit competition. Despite this Chevy once again ultimately triumphed in terms of the championship and the majority of race weekends.

In Newgarden’s quest for back-to-back titles, this could have a significant bearing on the final result. Especially if Honda can win their first title in 5 years.

In part 2 of our IndyCar 2018 season preview we will look at Honda’s chances of securing both the championship and Indy 500 for the first time since 2011, Ed Jones’ prospects at Ganassi and how big boardroom decisions will impact on the 2018 IndyCar season.

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