Continuing our look at the 2018 IndyCar teammate battles that will decide which careers go stratospheric and which go into free-fall.
This week we are looking at a potential changing of the guard at Andretti, what’s in store for Spencer Pigot as he steps up to lead Ed Carpenter Racing and whether Graham Rahal or Takuma Sato will come out on top at Rahal Letterman Lanigan.
Andretti Autosport: Rossi – Hunter-Reay – Veach – Andretti
The dynamic between Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay will be one of the most intriguing IndyCar sub-plots of 2018.
Promoted from the satellite Andretti/Herta squad: Rossi has the big ride, the big sponsor and all the potential. The time is right for him to assume the role of team leader, build the squad around him for the next 2-3 years and go for what should be the first of many championships.
How much more bad luck can one driver have?
Thanks to his championship, Indy 500 win and good relationship with sponsor DHL, Hunter-Reay is pretty secure irrespective of how this season pans out.
But after 2 seasons of appalling luck and coming up on his 38th birthday, the 2014 Indy 500 champ knows opportunities to add to his single championship are numbered. This combined with Rossi’s seemingly inexorable rise within the series has got to be playing on his mind.
Zach Veach might have plenty of racing years ahead of him but the pressure is on to make good on the faith shown by Andretti. Despite the graduation of 3 teams from IndyLights, opportunities – and in particular full-time opportunities – are still ridiculously hard to come by.
No honeymoon period for Veach
A wealth of up and coming talent remains on the IndyCar periphery. Meaning Veach’s ride with Andretti is much sought-after and potential suitors will be lining up if things go off the rails. Anything less than winning the rookie of the year title might be regarded as a disappointing return for the Ohio native.
While Veach needs to quickly make a name for himself at Andretti, the team’s perennial under-achiever – Marco Andretti – returns for his 13th season. Marco has slipped down the pecking order as far as he can without physically leaving this team.
Running for the Andretti/Herta satellite squad may give the series veteran some breathing space to decide whether he wants to stick around IndyCar much longer.
Despite effectively being AA’s ‘feeder’ team, Bryan Herta’s ability to guide a dark horse to victory lane at the Brickyard might suit Marco perfectly. If he can win the big one, all the years of poor performances and frustration will be forgotten. If he does not (and decides to stick around) we can expect to see him line up for his father’s team again in 2019.
Ed Carpenter Racing: Pigot versus King/Carpenter
Spencer Pigot finally gets his big chance in IndyCar this season with Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR). Promoted to team lead in place of JR Hildebrand, the 2015 IndyLights champion will run his first full-season following in the wheel tracks of fellow American IndyLights champion Josef Newgarden.
Which is where the challenge lies for Pigot.
Pigot needs to shine to get on the radar
After back-to-back ProMazda and IndyLights championships, Pigot has not shone the same way Newgarden did in the understudy role at ECR. To get himself on the radar of IndyCar’s big three teams, he needs to replicate the kind form Newgarden displayed during his two full-time seasons with the team.
Jordan King was one of the big surprises of the IndyCar offseason, filling the role vacated by Pigot. The GP2 race winner crossed the Atlantic hoping to emulate other European road/street course specialists like Mike Conway.
How his performance is measured will however depend on the form of teammate Pigot.
A good showing by Pigot with King sticking close by could see the former GP2 race winner mark on a lengthy IndyCar career. Conversely a poor season for Pigot but one that sees King soundly beaten will mean King’s financial backing will decide how long he stays on this side of the Atlantic.
One season too many for Carpenter?
Ed Carpenter starts his 16th IndyCar season with a lot to prove. The 36-year old still believes he can score better oval results in his Chevrolet than an all-rounder. His results since 2015 call that into question.
We suggested last season that it was time for Carpenter to hang up his helmet. Whether Ed Carpenter the racer can convince Ed Carpenter the team owner that he is still the right man for the job is anyones guess. Or perhaps more accurately whether the racing heart overrules the business head as far as 2019 is concerned.
Dale Coyne Racing: Bourdais – DeMello – Fittipaldi
Sebastien Bourdais was looking forward the ‘level playing field’ of the universal aero kit. That was until the likes of Team Penske and Ganassi Racing started pounding test tracks and gaining valuable data.
Even so, Bourdais has the talent and experience to make up for the lack of track time. Plus the motivation of a hungry rookie to conclude his unfinished business from his injury-shortened 2017.
Putting the ghost of Indy 2017 to rest
2018 will be about proving he is fully recovered from his horrific Indy 500 qualifying shunt first. Then making good on the promise he displayed in abundance at the Brickyard and the opening races of 2017.
Lining up against new teammates Pietro Fittipaldi and Zachary Claman DeMelo, Bourdais is in both familiar and unfamiliar territory.
While DeMelo is in the usual mould of a Coyne pay-driver, Fittipaldi is a different proposition.
Has Dale Coyne unearthed the next Brazilian star?
The third generation Fittipaldi is a promising talent that has impressed in pre-season testing so far. Despite a limited program this year Fittipaldi is our tip to star this season in the unofficial rookie of the year competition.
The reigning World Series Formula V8 3.5 champion has his sights set on reaching F1. But Fittipaldi and his management consider a successful run in IndyCar as his best chance of achieving that objective.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan: Rahal versus Sato
Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team have been punching above their weight in IndyCar since 2015. At times – almost singlehandedly – Rahal has carried Honda’s hopes for a championship win.
But there were plenty of reasons why the team was not realistically going to win a championship.
The problems of a one car team
As a single car outfit their data gathering and strategic options have always been compromised. Without an internal cross-reference, 29 year-old Rahal struggled against the likes of Penske and Andretti running multiple cars at every race.
Honda’s problematic aero kit and its single-minded focus on victory at Indianapolis was another stumbling block to fully realising his and the team’s potential across a full season.
No more excuses for Rahal or RLL
2018 removes all of those caveats (or excuses if you are one of Rahal’s many critics).
The arrival of defending Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato brings more race weekend data and a huge amount of experience. Plus Sato is still pretty rapid – on his day – and more than capable of keeping Rahal on his toes across the entire season.
Rahal and RLL are out of excuses and as Graham himself admitted this week, there is zero reason why they cannot win the IndyCar title in 2018.
2018: Sato’s strongest season yet?
Sato joins RLL off the back of the season of his career. Becoming the first Japanese to win the Indianapolis 500 and with Honda power would have been a perfect bookend to a 19-year racing career.
But Honda’s favored son still believes he can build on the career-best 8th place in the point standings achieved in 2017.
Sato’s speed appears undiminished despite turning 41 last month. Both he and Rahal led the way during recent testing at Phoenix. Putting a marker down to the rest of the IndyCar field that he is not quite done yet. Can he better last season? Possibly yes, probably no.
Still fast, still inconsistent?
The energised and expanded RLL outfit has all the potential necessary to register more race wins in 2018 and challenge for the overall championship. Often Indy 500 victories have been a springboard to sustained success.
But on the flip-side there is no reason to believe the inconsistency that has dogged his whole career is a thing of the past. Sato posted 8 finishes outside the top 15 in 2017 compared to 4 top 5s (including the Indy 500 win). And keep in mind that was Sato’s most successful season in IndyCar since he joined the series in 2010.
Catch up on part 1 of our IndyCar teammate head-to-head preview or take a look at our preview of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar series parts one, two and three.