Though the NTT IndyCar Series paddock is a friendly and welcoming place, it is populated by people who love to win and hate to lose. For the drivers and crews, beating the guys on the other side of the garage is the first objective.
On the eve of the new season, we have picked out the 3 most intriguing teammate battles that are likely to shape IndyCar in 2019. Rivalries that could very well determine who lifts the Astor Cup this September and who keeps their ride.
Chip Ganassi Racing: Dixon v Rosenqvist
A wingman for Scott Dixon?
As Scott Dixon stands on the verge of IndyCar immortality the challenge posed by his new teammate is undoubtedly an intriguing one.
On the one hand, the 5-time champion has lacked a fast and consistent wingman to support his recent title bids. Neither Tony Kanaan nor Ed Jones could be regularly relied upon when Dixon was fighting off multiple challenges from the likes of Penske, Andretti and Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Felix Rosenqvist has all the attributes to fit the bill in that regard.
The downside for Dixon is that the Swede could be an altogether more dangerous prospect with the talent to beat rather than support him.
For 2019 Dixon needs to strike a balance; help Rosenqvist be good enough to support him against Penske and Andretti in the quest for a sixth NTT IndyCar title, but not quite good enough to become another title contender.
In short, he needs to keep Rosenqvist in his place as a quick but grateful rookie number 2. Which the form book suggests will not be simple.
The rookie who could be better than Robert Wickens
Rosenqvist is a street circuit master. You do not win back-to-back Macau Grand Prix, finish runner-up a further two times and claim IndyLights wins at St. Petersburg and Toronto by luck. Like Robert Wickens last year, there is every reason to believe the Swede can be fast on both street and road courses.
Dixon will, therefore, need to win the battle in the areas of experience that the former European Formula 3 champion simply cannot replicate: racecraft, ‘reading’ races, fuel saving, tire management and, of course, ovals.
Rosenqvist has 17 races to prove himself and capitalize on the best opportunity of his career to date. Keeping on the coattails of Dixon will be a good place to start but will not be enough.
We all know that Chip Ganassi ‘likes winners’ and thanks to Robert Wickens, rookie expectations have been raised to a dizzying level. Thus, unlike Ed Jones in 2018, Rosenqvist will need to show race-winning pace from early in the season and maintain it until September.
Arguably for the first time since Dario Franchitti, there is a driver with the potential to upset Dixon’s dominance at Ganassi. Whether it spurs the Kiwi onto even greater things or breaks his recent monopoly is a tantalizing subplot for 2019.
MotorSportNotes prediction: Dixon to come out on top but Rosenqvist to give the Kiwi a scare and announce himself as a genuine title contender in 2020.
Team Penske: Power v Pagenaud v Newgarden
The trio of Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden enters its’ third season and the battle to come out on top at IndyCar’s winningest team could end with someone losing their ride.
Reigning Indy 500 champ gets a reprieve
Former champion Power was the form driver towards the end of 2018. Messy and mistake-prone in the early races, Power’s title hopes were effectively over before the month of May. That was despite winning as many races as champion Scott Dixon and runner-up Alexander Rossi.
Prior to his Indianapolis 500 win, Power was a rather forlorn and introspective figure, raising questions in some quarters about his future. Putting himself on the Borg-Warner trophy and that late-season charge has probably secured his seat at Penske, for now.
Winning the 500 seemed to take a weight off the Aussie’s shoulders. Free from what often seemed like intense, self-inflicted pressure the 32-time race winner was better able to focus on simply driving as fast as possible. Which long-time fans of the series will know is frighteningly quick.
Heading into 2019 Power needs to maintain that more relaxed perspective and harness the momentum from his late-season charge. Marking himself out as Penske’s point man for 2019 from St. Petersburg onwards will do no harm to his championship aspirations nor his future with the team.
Pagenaud in the hot seat at Penske
Without the grace period afforded by an Indy 500 win, Simon Pagenaud finds himself in the hot seat at Penske. To say the former champion needs a big season this year is an understatement following a poor 2018.
Pagenaud’s contract expires at the end of this year. Finishing ‘third’ behind Power and Newgarden for a second consecutive season is not an option. Reminding Roger Penske and Tim Cindric why they hired him is. Beating his teammates is, therefore, the benchmark.
Pre-season testing suggests Pagenaud has got to grips with the universal aero kit that was a constant headache last year. The 34-year-old has not forgotten how to win races or put together a championship challenge. The question is whether the wait for Penske to take up the options on his contract motivates or disheartens the 7-time race winner.
Newgarden aims to recapture the 1
Josef Newgarden found out why only 10 drivers in series history have managed to secure back-to-back IndyCar titles. On paper, his ‘defend the 1’ campaign was championship-worthy but the metronomic performances of Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi simply raised the bar.
Newgarden’s finishes outside the top 10 at the Indy road course, Detroit and Texas did the damage in 2018. Indeed the former and latter tracks continue to prove problematic for the Tennessean. Improve results there and Newgarden will be back in contention as the top Penske driver and a championship favourite.
MotorSportNotes prediction: Newgarden to shade it in the 2019 Penske teammate battle, just ahead of Power and a resurgent Pagenaud.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Hinchcliffe v Ericsson
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ 2019 NTT IndyCar line-up is their most fascinating combination since, well, their 2018 line-up.
At the start of last season, those with a nose for such things told IndyCar to underestimate Robert Wickens at their peril. The majority, however, were indifferent and expected little from a touring car driver. Wickens promptly ripped up the IndyCar rookie form book in a way not seen since Juan Pablo Montoya.
This time around, Marcus Ericsson’s F1 pedigree has hyped the expectation without there being much in the way to back it up.
Can Ericsson follow in the wheel tracks of Wickens?
IndyCar’s other Swedish import is at best a solid but unspectacular racer. Outscored by every teammate he had during 5 seasons in F1 – including one that completed only a partial season – his career longevity was more to do with loyal sponsors than blistering pace. Up against an experienced, race-winning teammate is challenge enough but following in the wheel tracks of Robert Wickens is harder still.
Giving Ericsson the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he has an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong and offer some kind of return to those dedicated financial backers. Though it might not be a style familiar to the IndyCar paddock, the 28-year-old needs to lean hard on the fact Hinchcliffe is a confidence driver.
Wickens’ performances in the early races rattled Hinchcliffe, even though he himself was putting together what would have usually been considered a strong start to the season. Though it would be a major surprise if the former Sauber driver was contending for poles and wins straight off the hauler, matching Hinchcliffe’s pace could start to chip away at his confidence. From then on, who knows what the former F1 driver could do.
Time for Hinchcliffe to step it up
For James Hinchcliffe the mission is simple: thrash Ericsson.
He needs to prove all those who consider his new teammate a journeyman racer absolutely right. Two back-to-back seasons being embarrassed by rookie teammates would be unimaginable for the popular Canadian.
SPM is now a bonafide, title-sponsored two-car IndyCar team with aspirations beyond picking up the occasional win. Failing to comprehensively see off his new teammate would raise serious questions about Hinch’s position in the IndyCar pecking order.
Everything is in Hinchcliffe’s favour to do just that; he has the experience, track knowledge and understands the nuances and dark arts of IndyCar racing. That, however, was the case last season too.
One major difference, however, is a seasons-worth of driving the lower-downforce aero kit against a competitor used to the insane levels of grip offered by even the back-marking cars in F1.
When SPM presented their new title sponsor and paint schemes for 2019, Wickens’ number 6 car was presented as being ‘on hold’ for his return. The natural assumption being that if the Canadian makes a comeback, Ericsson would make way. Whether that is still the case come the end of the 2019 NTT IndyCar season is going to be really interesting.
MotorSportNotes prediction: Hinchcliffe to return to form and consistently beat Ericsson, with the exception perhaps of the IndyCar Classic at the Circuit of the Americas.