Last week we fired up the NTT IndyCar Series pre-season with a look at the big storylines we expect to dominate 2019. This week we continue with a look at Alexander Rossi’s prospects, the financial realities for Juncos and Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, whether Laguna Seca can deliver where Sonoma couldn’t and how IndyCar’s international aspirations might play out this year.
Can Rossi go one better?
Alexander Rossi completed his transition from F1 refugee to IndyCar champion-in-waiting with a stellar 2018 season. Running Scott Dixon to the final race of the year was an outstanding effort for a driver only in his third season.
Watching Rossi was a joy at times last year – particularly at Long Beach and Pocono – but the mistake that cost him the championship was typical of someone short of championship run-in experience.
Rossi has learned the art of IndyCar rapidly and is now quick on every type of track the series visits. His race craft and overtaking are, on his day, second-to-none and he demonstrated a steely resolve and calmness under pressure quite reminiscent of Dixon until that mistake at Sonoma.
If he can learn from the (few) mistakes he made last year as quickly, qualify more consistently in the top 5 and focus on the tiny margins that separate victory and defeat in IndyCar, a maiden title awaits.
Small team survival
Amidst the pre-season positivity generated by NTT’s title sponsorship deal and the NBC broadcast contract, the challenging economics of IndyCar racing remain ever-present. As always it is the championship’s smaller teams that continue to face the stiffest challenge.
Juncos Racing – series debutants in 2018 – are struggling to finance a second season. Prior to the recent Rolex 24 at Daytona, owner Ricardo Juncos admitted that approaches by drivers with budget had focused on their IMSA sports prototype programme. The situation remains fluid for the team that has two cars ready to run but at present it appears Kyle Kaiser will make at least two appearance for the team, subject to individual sponsorship deals like the one secured today with 2018 partner NFP Insurance. The NFP deal should see Kaiser run the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Classic at COTA.
After the Harding-Steinbrenner Racing hype, the reality
The reinvigorated Harding-Steinbrenner Racing outfit had big plans to run two of IndyCar’s most promising rookies – Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward. Despite much fanfare surrounding announcements towards the end of last season, the team’s participation looks shaky.
Reigning IndyLights champion O’Ward’s has parted ways with Harding-Steinbrenner and is now looking for a last-minute ride with cash to support up to three races. Herta, in turn, is likely to become the team’s sole entrant for 2019, by virtue of his connections to the New York Yankees-owning Steinbrenner dynasty.
How these teams fare this year and whether their IndyCar ambitions remain intact will be a barometer of the true health of the championship. Ensuring the likes of Juncos and Harding-Steinbrenner not only survive but have a chance to thrive in the series is an essential part of IndyCar’s continued growth.
The inspiring updates from Robert Wickens during the IndyCar offseason have been a delight for everyone with an interest in the series. They have also gone a little way to dulling the memories of his horrific Pocono shunt. Nevertheless, IndyCar starts the new season still in search of solutions to the interconnected issues of catching fencing alternatives and driver head protection.
Following a brace of tests in 2018 with Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden all has gone quiet on the IndyCar windshield project. The championship has, thus far, maintained that 2019 would see the first race weekend tests and is in no rush to roll out a solution that has not been thoroughly tested. However the success of F1’s halo in a number of high-profile accidents – particularly Charles Leclerc’s at Spa last year – has increased the pressure to squeeze timescales. Sadly it is a matter of when, not if, another accident brings driver cockpit protection sharply into focus.
Resolving the catch fencing issue is a stubborn one. Wickens’ accident was not a one-off and instead just another on a long list of serious accidents stretching back decades.
IndyCar will need to produce a plan of action to address the challenge of maintaining protection for spectators but reducing the often catastrophic outcome for drivers. The championship cannot be seen to simply accept that catch fencing is the least bad option available. Alternatives may well be complex and costly but putting a price on a driver’s life is not an option.
Laguna Seca vs Sonoma
IndyCar fans with memories that stretch back beyond the split got a long-held wish granted when Laguna Seca was confirmed for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. Not only that, the track that produced one of the most famous overtakes in IndyCar history secured the coveted championship finale slot.
Out goes Sonoma Raceway which produced some cliff-hanger season finales but comprehensively failed to deliver on quality of racing. If the WeatherTech Raceway’s undulating turns and the return of the ‘corkscrew’ can provide both, it will prove to be an inspired decision. But that is a big ‘if’.
Can Laguna Seca be any better than Sonoma?
For starters, Laguna Seca is a narrow circuit and that naturally reduces the opportunities for overtaking. Though it is fast there are only two reasonably heavy braking zones – into turn 1 (the Andretti Hairpin) and the corkscrew – which might invite late breakers into a move. But again the narrowness of the circuit – as Alex Zanardi’s legendary ‘pass’ at the corkscrew ably demonstrated – is a limiting factor.
There is, however, a definite cause for optimism. IndyCar’s drive to reduce ‘dirty air’ with the universal aero kit now allows cars to follow each other much more closely without losing stacks of front end grip. The fast sections that precede the Andretti Hairpin and the corkscrew should, therefore, be less of a problem for a driver hoping to line up a pass. And a more nervous IndyCar – as drivers found out last season – leads to mistakes and overtaking opportunities. Especially on an undulating track like Laguna Seca.
Testing at the circuit on February 8 gave little away in terms what fans can expect. Due to heavy rain and a relatively green track, both teams and fans go into the 2019 season finale with minimal insight.
IndyCar’s international aspirations
Off-track the prospect of international expansion is back on the IndyCar agenda. Series chief Mark Miles has maintained that only races that are financially viable for teams (i.e. all travel costs paid for by the promoter) will be entertained. Despite a number of potential suitors, the question of whether an expansion of any kind is right for the championship strategically is still an issue that divides opinion.
International races have the potential to vastly increase exposure, fill out the schedule and introduce new fans (and reconnect with old ones too). A fully-subsidised fly-away race could tick a lot of boxes for the series however that does little to take away from the familiar reservations held, mostly, by teams and their sponsors.
What is the value for mostly US-based team sponsors? Can the series agree start times that appease local promoters and appeal to US viewers? Should adding more international races even be a focus for Miles and his team? Especially when many inside the IndyCar paddock believe adding a third official engine manufacturer and securing more US races should be?
Surfers Paradise, Montreal or Mexico City – take your pick
At present, a return to Australia’s Gold Coast and Montreal are the front runners amongst a number of potential suitors.
Political and public enthusiasm in Australia seems to be aligning for a return to Surfers Paradise in conjunction with the Australia V8 Supercars series that supported IndyCar during the 1990s. Similarly there is growing talk of a return to Montreal following a thirteen-year gap since the series – in CART ChampCar guise – last raced there in 2006.
Interest in a Mexican round has been rumbling for a while now but with no real signs of commitment on either side. Recent confirmation that the Mexican government is pulling funding for their F1 race after 2019 presents a tantalising prospect. Could IndyCar offer a much cheaper alternative for race promoters? As an additional international race location, it certainly ticks plenty of boxes.
Comments from Miles himself suggest new races could be added to the schedule as early as 2020 and 2021. Which means we should expect more concrete information this year but don’t dig out your passport just yet.