IndyCar 2018 season preview part 2

We are diving in to part 2 of our IndyCar season preview with a look at what the universal aerokit will mean for manufacturer competition in 2018 and how Honda start the season as favorites.

Plus can Ed Jones convert the biggest opportunity and challenge of his career at Chip Ganassi Racing, and will major decisions in the boardroom set the scene for continued growth?

Honda back on top in IndyCar?

No longer hampered by the Indy 500-optimized Honda aero kit, the Japanese brand should be in strong contention to take its first Indy 500/championship double since 2011.

James Hinchcliffe Honda IndyCar Indy 500
The Honda aero kit: great at Indianapolis, pretty mediocre everywhere else. Image: IndyCar/Owens

In Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing Honda has plenty of firepower to challenge the recent Team Penske/Chevrolet domination. Both will carry Honda’s primary hopes of an IndyCar season ‘double’, supported by the expanded 2-car line up at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Rahal and Sato), Schmidt Peterson’s ‘Team Canada’ line up (Hinchcliffe and Wickens) and Sebastien Bourdais at Dale Coyne.

Chevrolet’s ‘one that got away’

Chevy’s failure to lure Michael Andretti’s eponymous team back to the bow tie leaves their line-up lacking strength in depth.

IndyCar Andretti Sato Hunter-Reay Pocono
Despite Chevrolet’s best efforts, Andretti Autosport stick with Honda for 2018. (Image: IndyCar/Bret Kelley)

Outside of championship juggernaut Team Penske, IndyCar’s smaller and newer teams make up the rest of Chevy’s roster. With the exception of Ed Carpenter Racing it is hard to see AJ Foyt Racing and newcomers Carlin, Juncos and Harding contending for regular podiums,  let alone outright wins.

By the end of last season, the Honda engine was widely regarded as the strongest – if not quite the most reliable – engine in the series.  Combined with a superior collective line-up of teams and drivers, it is hard to look beyond Honda as favorites this season.

Can Ed Jones step up to the mark?

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 IndyCar off-season was the promotion of Ed Jones to Chip Ganassi Racing.

The 2017 Sunoco IndyCar Rookie of the Year impressed for Dale Coyne in 2017, the highlight being his 3rd place finish at the Indy 500 in May. A delay in Coyne taking up an option on Jones created the opportunity of a lifetime for the 22 year-old.

Ed Jones Dale Coyne Honda IndyCar
Rising star: Ed Jones needs to step up his game in 2018 as he joins Chip Ganassi Racing. (Image: Skibinski/IndyCar)

Jones keen to manage expectations

The speed at which Jones adapted to IndyCar undoubtedly contributed to his rapid promotion. Despite securing one of the most coveted seats in IndyCar the Dubai-based Brit is keen to manage expectations and focus on 2018 as a ‘learning year’:

“He’s (Scott Dixon) one of if not the best person you can learn from. So I’m really going to take advantage of that, try and scrape every bit of knowledge out of him, and take it to my advantage.”

“There is a wealth of resources in this team, it’s really going to be helpful.”

Scott Dixon IndyCar Toronto 2017 Honda
Ed Jones hopes to learn from 4-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon.  (Image: Owens/IndyCar)

Following 4 lacklustre seasons running Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi is unlikely to offer his new recruit an extended honeymoon period. By the time the series return to Indianapolis in May, Ganassi will be expecting results.

Regular points finishes will be the minimum required but there is no reason not to expect Jones to be challenging for podiums and wins in his sophomore season. A cool and calculating character – much in the mould of ‘Iceman’ Dixon – Jones is capable of putting in big performances this year and could be a dark horse for the championship.

Verizon and ABC out, but who comes in?

Off track the process of rebuilding IndyCar continues at pace. With long term issues of date equity and calendar stability seemingly resolved, plus a new car set to further enthrall fans, the attention in the boardroom turns to two major issues: series title sponsorship and IndyCar’s next broadcast deal.

The end of the other IndyCar ‘split’

The series favours a single broadcast partner from 2019 onwards. Following a raft of redundancies last year at ESPN the commitment and capability to provide quality coverage has greatly diminished.

Conversely the professionalism and depth of NBC’s coverage has stepped up markedly in recent seasons. This combined with the loss of Formula 1 coverage rights points to NBC as the broadcaster of choice.

Will Power Team Penske Chevrolet IndyCar Mid-Ohio
Verizon colours will remain in IndyCar as a Team Penske sponsor only. (Image: Skibinski/IndyCar)

Securing a new broadcast contract will help sweeten any deal with a new title sponsor. An attractive agreement will be pivotal if recent rumors suggesting  IndyCar is seeking a whopping $15m fee plus up to $15m in sponsorship activation per season are accurate.

Wanted: Auto racing series seeks new partner with deep pockets…

Relative to the existing agreement with Verizon any deal close to those figures would represent a major increase over a reputed $6m in cash plus $4m activation.

IBJ reported recently that IndyCar’s preferred fee would put the deal close to but short of the most lucrative title sponsorship in North American motorsport – Monster Energy’s sponsorship of NASCAR’s premier Cup series.

That particular deal is reported to amount to $20m in cash plus an unknown activation fee per season.

Mark Miles IndyCar
Mark Miles is on the hunt for new sponsorship and broadcast partners. (Image: IndyCar).

A longer term option that has been under consideration  is to dove-tail both deals with the introduction of a streaming video on demand (SVOD) service. With the likes of Netflix and Amazon one of the few media broadcasters investing in rights/content and promotion at present, they offer an attractive proposition.

It is unlikely that IndyCar will take the plunge this time around however. The series’ existing and potential fan base has yet to reach the cross-over point between traditional TV and SVOD broadcasting.

In the final part of our 2018 Verizon IndyCar season preview we will be picking out the drivers to watch, rating Danica Patrick’s prospects for her final Indy 500 and asking which Team Penske driver is going to be first to claim a second IndyCar title.

Catch up with part 1 of our 2018 IndyCar season preview.

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