Predicting the big IndyCar storylines of 2019

On the eve of the first pre-season test, we decided to get our magic eight ball out of storage and see which storylines will dominate the 2019 season in this two-part feature.

Dixie goes for 6

Scott Dixon enters the 2019 NTT IndyCar season at the peak of his powers. Closing in on AJ Foyt’s all-time championship record of 7 titles, it is near impossible to find a chink in the Iceman’s armour as he aims for his first back-to-back titles.

Pick an attribute essential to winning the Astor Cup and the Kiwi has it in spades. Add to that his experience of closing out a championship run-in as the points leader, favourite or chaser and it is no surprise Dixon is closing in on IndyCar’s last big record.

Scott Dixon Pocono 2018
Scott Dixon has his eyes on back-to-back titles and a sixth Astor Cup in 2019. (Image: IndyCar)

Winning an IndyCar title – even number 6 – will never be a walk in the park. Dixon will need all of his speed, race craft and icy calmness to fend off multiple championship challenges from Team Penske, Andretti and hopefully RLL and Arrow Schmidt Peterson.

Intriguingly, he could soon find a friend or foe in the form of the new man at the wheel of the #10 Ganassi Honda.

Rosenqvist finally gets his shot at the big time

Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist will become the 5-time champion’s third different teammate in as many seasons. The Swede is in the mould of Alex Zanardi and Robert Wickens – a winner in pretty much everything but unable to make that final step up to the big time.

Undoubtedly a ride with Chip Ganassi in a buoyant NTT IndyCar series is the right team and the right time. However the 27-year-old  knows, following Ed Jones’ single season with the team, that he needs to be quick straight out the box to secure a sophomore season.

Felix Rosenqvist IndyCar Chip Ganassi Racing
Felix Rosenqvist testing for Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio. (Image: IndyCar)

Wickens raised the bar for IndyCar rookies into another stratosphere but there is every reason to believe Rosenqvist can do the same. The naturally gifted 27-year-old is a street circuit natural and highly regarded by the teams he has previously raced for.

Dixon, for arguably the first time since Dario Franchitti’s enforced retirement at the end of 2013, enters the season with a teammate capable of winning from round 1 on the other side of the Ganassi garage. Whether that disrupts or supports his quest for title number 6 will be fascinating.

Will RHR get a clean season?

While many do not subscribe to the principle of good or bad luck influencing anything in life, Ryan Hunter-Reay probably does after the past few seasons. His ‘bad luck’ would leave even the most fervent deniers struggling to explain it.

If a Honda engine was going to let go mid-race, you would get short odds on it being in the back of Hunter-Reay’s car. A mysterious electronic glitch that leaves the engineers scratching their heads? Head down to the DHL pit box. Looking for someone to get burned by the timing of a full course yellow? Ryan was your man. It has been a long six years since his first and so far only IndyCar championship.

Ryan Hunter-Reay IndyCar DHL Honda ANdretti Autosport Toronto
Hunter-Reay showed pace in 2018 but lacked the finishes needed for a title challenge. (Image: IndyCar)

In recent seasons RHR has had to endure watching teammates Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato win the Indy 500 and the former narrowly miss out on a maiden title in 2018. The Texan has maintained remarkable confidence that the tide will eventually turn for him and his crew.

While the focus of Andretti’s efforts in 2019 might be – subsciously at least – on going one better with Rossi, the speed is still there for Hunter-Reay along with a lot of pent up frustration and determination not to end his career with a single title and Indy 500 win to his name.

A fired up and ‘lucky’ RHR could well be a force to be reckoned with in 2019.

Alonso-mania 2.0

The dream of a full or part-time NTT IndyCar season featuring ex-F1 driver Fernando Alonso may have died but the series bagged a significant consolation prize. The 2017 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year returns to the Brickyard for a second attempt at the final part of his ‘triple crown’ effort. And Alonso-mania 2.0 could be even crazier for a number of reasons.

Zak Brown Gil de Ferran and Fernando Alonso share a joke during Indy 500 practice in 2017.
Former Indy 500 winner – now McLaren team manager – Gil de Ferran was Alonso’s driver coach in 2017. (Image: IndyCar)

Firstly, the two-time F1 World Champion and his McLaren team are now without the expertise and support of Indianapolis 500 ‘specialists’ Andretti Autosport. Rumours persist that McLaren will partner with fellow Chevrolet runners and 3-time Indy pole-sitters Ed Carpenter Racing but overall, it is a stiffer test that awaits this May. Without Andretti Autosport the difficulty rating cranks up another couple of notches.

A ‘new’ aerokit for Alonso

Raising the stakes a little higher is how Alonso adapts to a lower downforce-spec IndyCar. The universal aerokit presents an altogether different challenge to the downforce-heavy version Alonso drove back in 2017. And as, at best, a two-car team in 2019, Alonso will lose a stack of set-up data that was available to him as part of the Andretti mega-team last time around.

Fernando Alonso Indianapolis 500 2017
Alonso exceeded all expectations in the downforce-heavy DW12 IndyCar. (Image: IndyCar)

Thanks to his recent Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona victory, the Spaniard has the chance to do something unprecedented in motorsports. A ‘quadruple crown’ (or even a quintuple crown including, for example, the Dakar Rally) awaits with victory at Indy, making Alonso the only driver to have won the 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 and the Monaco Grand Prix.

Few who watched Alonso’s stints – in the wet, in particular – at Daytona last month will doubt that he is a prodigious and special talent. Victory at the Brickyard is eminently possible but that was also true for the likes of Michael Andretti, Dan Gurney and Lloyd Ruby.

NBC coverage

After years of laboring under a two-network broadcast deal that neither network seemed particularly enthusiastic about, IndyCar finally has what it wants: an engaged and committed single network broadcast deal for 2019. NBC has nailed its colors to the IndyCar mast and emphasised their belief in the championship with eight race broadcasts on the primary NBC network.

Adding further spice to the mix is a limited number of races where NTT IndyCar Series will take priority over the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. Two clashing races will see the open-wheel series taking the coveted network slot.

In addition to Mid-Ohio getting the nod over Pocono, and Portland over Darlington, the IndyCar finale heads to NBC the same weekend the second NASCAR playoff race gets shunted to NBCSN. Collectively it is a golden opportunity for the championship but with it comes added pressures.

Will those prioritisations last beyond this season if races don’t deliver? Could that translate into pressure to produce a dramatic conclusion to each race? Might ‘competition yellows – so often the maligned tool of NASCAR – make more of an appearance?

Watch this space, literally.

Pagenaud in the hot seat at Penske?

Prior to his maiden Indy 500, Will Power’s place within the Penske team was starting to look a little shaky. Mistake and accident prone, shooting his mouth off and outshone by shiny new recruits Newgarden and Pagenaud.

Then came his victory at the 102nd Indianapolis 500 and the Aussie secured his place in the Penske ranks for at least another season. Now it is Pagenaud’s turn to be in the hot seat.

The Frenchman’s debut seasons with Penske in 2015 and 2016 were close to copybook. Gelling well with the team he recorded his first win at Fontana in 2015 before launching into a championship winning season the following year. Outmuscled eventually – particularly at Gateway – by Newgarden in 2017, Pagenaud struggled badly last season.

Seemingly unable to get to grips with IndyCar’s universal aero kit, Pagenaud was out of sorts all season. Thanks to Newgarden and Power racking up six wins to Pagenaud’s zero, the 34-year-old could not attribute his lack of pace to a Penske set-up problem.

Simon Pagenaud 2018 Indy Grand Prix
Off-track: Pagenaud endured a frustrating 2018 season while his team-mates racked up wins. (Image: IndyCar).

Pagenaud has a contract until at least the end of 2019 with undisclosed options to extend. Irrespective it seems clear he needs a return to form. Roger Penske and Tim Cindric are not sentimental types and with a clean-shaven Alexander Rossi having sampled his first Penske experience at Daytona, Pagenaud has no guarantees longer term.

Will Pagenaud step up to the plate or crack under the pressure?

In part 2 of our NTT IndyCar Series season preview we look at the rest of the big storylines for the year featuring Alexander Rossi, the prospects for IndyCar’s newest and smallest teams and ask whether Laguna Seca can deliver where Sonoma Raceway could not.

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