The first rule of motor racing is ‘beat your teammate’. Careers have been and will continue to be made and broken by intra-team competition.
As the start of the new IndyCar season fast approaches we take a look at the 2018 teammate battles that will decide which careers go stratospheric and which go into free-fall.
Team Penske: Newgarden – Power – Pagenaud
The pressure to perform is permanent when you drive for Roger Penske. Entering 2018 minus old-timers Castroneves and Montoya, the pressure on the streamlined Team Penske line-up cranks up another notch.
Defending IndyCar champion Newgarden is in the catbird seat. A failure to defend his title is unlikely to harm his status as the poster boy of both IndyCar and Penske. Unlike the man he replaced – Juan Pablo Montoya – a below-par season this year won’t see him dropping out of Penske’s line-up anytime soon.
Penske’s new ‘old-timers’
For Pagenaud this season will be critical for a few reasons. The Frenchman needs to show his championship was not a one-off. Second he will want to convince the Penske management that he is the man to lead the team for the next 2-3 seasons and not Newgarden (yet).
At 33 years of age, time is on his side. Winning the championship in his second season with Penske was impressive. Newgarden winning on his team debut diminished its value somewhat.
In the case of Will Power, the pressure is really on. The Aussie will be 37 this year and is now the elder statesman of Penske’s line-up. Despite 14 seasons of ChampCar/IndyCar he has only one title to his name and no baby Borg trophy at home (hard to believe but true).
Power needs to be a genuine title contender – and not just mathematically – by the time we reach Sonoma this September. Conversely another early or mid season meltdown and his position at Penske will look a lot less solid.
Chip Ganassi Racing: Dixon versus Jones
Free of Honda’s aero kit Scott Dixon will fancy his chances of adding more silverware in 2018. The Kiwi is rightly regarded as one of the all-time greats of American open-wheel racing with 4 IndyCar championships under his belt.
But one statistic doesn’t quite add up: his single Indy 500 win.
A decade on from his maiden victory at the Brickyard, Dixon is eager to add a second. At 37 he still has chances and 2018 must be one of the best. The return of standardised aero plays to the strengths of the Ganassi outfit.
Finding that extra tenth out of a ‘spec’ IndyCar formula was Ganassi’s territory during the 2008-2011 period. Four back-to-back titles and two Indy 500 wins with the same chassis/engine as the entire IndyCar field demonstrates just how effective Ganassi can be at out-engineering the competition.
Ed Jones: rookie star on the rise
Dixon may not have 2018 all his own way however with the arrival of Ed Jones. The Dubai-based Brit might be entering only his second IndyCar season but he represents the strongest challenge to Dixon since Dario Franchitti retired.
Jones is in as close to a win-win situation as you can get in IndyCar: perform well against his illustrious teammate and he can look forward to a long run at Ganassi; struggle against the Iceman and he has the ‘it’s only my sophomore season’ and ‘my teammate is an IndyCar legend’ cards to play.
Schmidt Peterson: Hinchcliffe versus Wickens
The 2018 season for ‘Hinch’ is pretty simple. Despite all his fan appeal, bravery and undoubted speed the Canadian needs a genuine championship challenge. As a minimum he needs to show new teammate and fellow countryman Robert Wickens who is boss.
Wickens’ lack of track time and 6 seasons spent hustling a touring car means anything less than a dominant display by Hinchcliffe will be a massive disappointment. And it would almost certainly remove any chance of the former Andretti driver stepping up to a championship calibre seat at Penske or Ganassi.
Steep learning curve for Wickens
By contrast Wickens just needs to give a decent account of himself. The pressure is off in his rookie season. As well as getting back into his open wheel groove Wickens must familiarise himself with new circuits and the art of oval driving.
Winning rookie of the year will be enough of a challenge for the former Mercedes DTM driver this year. Though keeping Hinchcliffe honest from time to time will do no harm.
Related article: Wickens versus IndyCar’s young guns for rookie honors
Carlin Racing: Chilton versus Kimball
The cosy relationship between Max Chilton, his new team (part owned by his father) and his sponsor (his father’s company) means he could DNF the entire 2018 season and still keep his ride for next year.
Teammate Charlie Kimball however has to work a bit harder.
His sponsor backing has diminished over recent seasons but remains substantial enough to secure his ride with Carlin. Given the huge number of talented drivers in the Carlin Racing ‘ladder’ the Californian needs to perform in 2018. To keep the sponsor dollars flowing and to stop a hungry rookie taking his seat.
Who steps forward now: quick Charlie or Calamity Kimball?
The Californian’s belief is that his old team was too focused on Scott Dixon, to the detriment of all other drivers. 2018 will offer up confirmation – either way – on whether Kimball or the team underperformed.
If it was the latter then Kimball should put plenty of clear air and points between himself and Chilton and finish mid-table in the point standings. Otherwise, it might end up looking like the wrong diabetic got a full-time IndyCar ride this season.
AJ Foyt Racing: Kanaan versus Leist
The revolving door marked ‘Drivers’ entrance’ continues to spin at AJ Foyt Enterprises as their third, new driver line-up in as many seasons races into the IndyCar season.
Series veteran and fan favourite Tony Kanaan is looking to put his torrid final season with Ganassi behind him. A shadow of his former self in 2017, Kanaan is convinced a change of environment will work wonders for him.
Up against baby-faced countryman Matt Leist he probably fancied his chances (although after Leist’s performance in testing at Phoenix he might be a lot less confident).
Last chance saloon for Kanaan
2018 is make or break for TK. Quite simply he needs to put Leist in the shade to justify any continuation of his IndyCar career beyond this season.
Kanaan got his shot at redemption because Foyt gives drivers one chance and one chance only. Should he struggle again this year he will be dumped as promptly as Daly, Munoz, Sato and Hawksworth were before him.
For rookie Matt Leist, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Beat Kanaan this season and most observers will chalk it up to Kanaan being in the twilight of his career. Lose to the 2013 Indy 500 winner and the critics will roar that he can’t even beat an old timer on his final lap.
To really measure Matt it will need to be about how he fares relative to his fellow full time IndyCar rookies. Which is a nice segue into our preview of the 2018 IndyCar rookie of the year competition.
Catch the second part of our IndyCar teammate head-to-head as we review the rest of the full-time field at Andretti Autosport, Dale Coyne/Vasser-Sullivan, Ed Carpenter Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan.