After six months of waiting, the Verizon IndyCar Series will officially kick off the 2017 season next weekend in the Sunshine State. The 1.8-mile street course in St Petersburg will once again play host to the opening round. There have been quite a few changes since we last saw Simon Pagenaud celebrating his first IndyCar championship at Sonoma.
Most of the major off-season news was positive, and more good news is expected over the next several weeks. Sponsorship announcements are coming soon, and there are a few Indianapolis 500 programs taking shape as we near the start of the season. The 101st Running takes place on May 28.
There were a few rule changes made recently, which include an extra set of red Firestone tires for practice, a change to the time allotment for the push-to-pass assist, and revised practice and qualifying times at select events. It was also announced that the IndyCar Grand Prix will be a two-day event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Silly season is usually an eventful aspect of the off-season, and this year was no exception.
The biggest mover from last season is obviously Josef Newgarden, who is now a part of Team Penske’s star studded lineup. After five fantastic seasons with Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter’s teams, the young American got the call from The Captain. He earned 3 wins and 10 podiums over the course of the last two seasons. He replaced Juan Montoya, who will remain with Roger’s team in May, where he will drive a 5th car in the Indianapolis 500.
With the vacant spot at ECR, the team turned to a familiar face in JR Hildebrand. The driver from Sausalito, California hasn’t been in the series full-time since 2012, but he has driven for Carpenter in his last five races from 2014-2016. JR finished 10th, 8th, and 6th in the three Indianapolis 500 starts. Ed will continue to drive the No. 20 car on the ovals, and Spencer Pigot will be behind the wheel during the road/street races.
Dale Coyne Racing has a new lineup for this season, but this time it’s different. Four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais is now leading the team, driving the No. 18 car. Bourdais made nine starts with Coyne in 2011, where he finished in 6th place four times (Toronto, Edmonton, Sonoma, Motegi).
Bourdais will have a teammate this year, in Rookie Ed Jones. After winning the Indy Lights Championship last season, Jones signed a deal with Coyne that will keep him in the No. 19 car for the entire 2017 season. In addition to his five wins, Jones finished on the podium in 15 of the 34 races he started in Indy Lights.
There are wholesale changes, and then there are the massive retooling efforts that went on at AJ Foyt Racing.
Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth were on the way out. With the rides at Coyne locked up, Conor Daly found himself on the move. It could not have worked out better for the Noblesville native. Daly made his very first IndyCar start with Foyt at the 2013 Indianapolis 500. He will be behind the wheel of the No. 4 Foyt machine for the 2017 season.
Carlos Munoz will join Daly to give AJ Foyt the best one-two punch he has ever had. Munoz has been incredibly strong at Indianapolis, a place that is obviously very close to AJ’s heart. In four Indy 500 starts, Munoz has finishes of 2nd, 4th, and 2nd with Andretti Autosport. He has been exceptionally fast around the 2.5-mile speedway, and aims to get the No. 14 car back to Victory Lane at Indianapolis. Their last win at Indy came in 1999, with Kenny Brack.
The Andretti seat vacated by Munoz was filled by Sato, essentially completing a driver swap between the two teams. While he may not have the upside of Munoz, he does have much more experience. With 118 starts, five poles, and five podiums, the Japanese driver could have some valuable tips and tricks to help the rest of the team. His lone victory came at Long Beach in 2013, so he is hungry to prove he still has what it takes.
Three other drivers have already secured their rides for the Indianapolis 500. Montoya will have the fifth car at Penske, and Sage Karam will return in the No. 24 car with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Oriol Servia will rejoin the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team for the 500, and likely a few more races in 2017. Servia competed in four races with the RLL during the 2014 season, then again at Indianapolis in 2015.
Tony Stewart will have a presence at the Indy 500 this year. His foundation has created Team One Cure, which will sponsor a third Schmidt Peterson entry. A driver for the No. 77 car has not yet been announced. Veteran car crew chief and former owner Larry Curry is also said to be working on an Indy 500 program.
Other Team Changes
The departure of the Target sponsorship at Chip Ganassi Racing was big news. Even bigger than that though, was the announcement that Chip was switching from Chevrolet to Honda. It was a major acquisition for HPD (Honda Performance Development) and also hinted that more changes were coming in the paddock.
With Honda taking on the four Ganassi cars, it was Foyt’s team that made the transition to Chevrolet. Both of their new drivers (Munoz, Daly) had only been with Honda previously, so they realized that a steep learning curve was in store for everyone. Enter Will Phillips, the former VP of Technology for IndyCar. He joins the legendary Foyt team as the race engineer for Munoz. The team built a new race shop in Speedway, where Daly’s operation will work out of. Munoz’s car will be run out of the team’s main facility in Texas.
Juncos Racing recently purchased three cars from KV Racing, which is no longer in operation. Team owner Ricardo Juncos says the goal is to run two cars in the Indianapolis 500 this year, with an eye on joining the series full-time next season. They would like to put one of their Indy Lights drivers (Kyle Kaiser) in one car, and have a veteran presence in the other. The team said driver and sponsorship announcements would be coming in March.
There is one new addition to this year’s schedule; the return to Gateway Motorsports Park on August 26. It is one of three night races (Phoenix, Texas) which will all air on NBC Sports Network. All of the stops from last season are again on this year’s schedule, including the Labor Day Weekend race at Watkins Glen. The 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 will take place on May 28. ABC will once again provide television coverage of the race.
The first IndyCar practice is scheduled for 11:15 on Friday morning, March 10. Qualifying is on Saturday, and will begin around 3 PM ET. Coverage of the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg gets underway at Noon ET, on ABC.
1. Will there be a break through star?
Over the last few years, there has always been a driver that seemed to stand out, and made everyone take notice. Newgarden was one that did just that, and he is now driving for Roger Penske. There are many talented drivers that are eager to capture their first career victory.
Prediction: Mikhail Aleshin
2. How will Newgarden perform in his first year with Penske?
Over the last two years with ECR and CFHR, Josef won 3 races and had 8 podium finishes. Making the move to Penske doesn’t necessarily equate to instant success, as Pagenaud proved in his first year there. I believe this is part of the reason why Tim Cindric will now be with Newgarden’s car.
Prediction: It may take a little time, but this recipe has all of the ingredients for success.
3. What is the overall impact of Ganassi switching to Honda?
The aero kits are frozen this year, so the expectations are that Honda will be better at Indy and the big ovals, but Chevy should still have the advantage everywhere else. If and when there are positive strides made at Ganassi, will they trickle down to the other Honda teams as the season progresses?
Prediction: This is a team that is no stranger to success. With aces like Dixon and Kanaan leading the way, there should be vast improvement for all of the Honda teams by the second half of the season.
4. Who will show the biggest improvement in 2017?
There are quite a few drivers that have been anticipating the start of this season ever since the checkered flag fell last year at Sonoma. Some even before that. Guys like Marco, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, and Chilton will all be aiming for a much more successful campaign in 2017.
Prediction: Bigger than just the drivers, I believe the team of AJ Foyt Racing will be much more successful this season. With the arrival of Munoz, Daly, Phillips, and the other organizational changes, this team is primed for an incredible year. The key for them will be making a smooth transition to the Chevrolet engine and aero kit.
5. Who will win the Indianapolis 500?
Everyone is looking forward to May, and the 101st Running of the iconic event. Anything can happen, and a lot will before then, but I still believe Honda will have a slight edge in the race. In my opinion, there is one driver who has been running well overall in the last couple of years, and will have an exceptional teammate that could really help him at Indy. In addition to all of that, the guy just wants it so badly, and he knows what Indy means.
Prediction: Graham Rahal