PRUETT: The Almost Halfway IndyCar Report

Image by IndyCar

PRUETT: The Almost Halfway IndyCar Report

IndyCar

PRUETT: The Almost Halfway IndyCar Report

Following the Dual in Detroit, Alexander Rossi had come within eight laps of owning the season to date. The search party is still looking for Simon Pagenaud. Chip Ganassi Racing finally found its mojo. And there’s a slightly used Corvette ZR1 for sale.

Eight races into the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 17-race calendar, storylines abound and there’s no clear champion in sight. Six different drivers have claimed wins, seven have taken poles, and there’s genuine mystery as to who will win Saturday night in Texas – or any of the nine events left on the schedule.

It’s everything one could ask for as IndyCar nears the halfway point of the season. And with Robin Miller’s Mid-Season Report Cards due on teams, drivers, and the series after Texas, let’s look at a few trends and notes of interest delivered from St. Petersburg through Detroit that won’t be graded by Miller.

THE CHEVYS ARE HAPPIEST WHEN…

They have a bunch of medium-speed corners, nice long straights, or continual high revs to exploit superior top-end power. If it’s a fast and flowing circuit, an oval where the engines are singing near their 12,000rpm limit, or have a long stretch of road to whistle down, Chevy has been in a league of its own. Only three of its drivers are currently ranked inside the top 10, with Will Power holding first, Josef Newgarden in fifth, and Simon Pagenaud 10th.

Looking ahead, with numerous tracks that should play to Chevy’s favor, the Penske trio will certainly be joined by a few stablemates by the time we get to Sonoma in September.

THE HONDAS ARE HAPPIEST WHEN…

They have a bunch of slow corners to deliver a torque advantage to their drivers. St. Petersburg, Long Beach, and both Detroit rounds demonstrated the difference in initial acceleration compared to the Chevys. That’s great, but if street courses are the only places where that advantage exists, capturing its first Manufacturers’ championship since multiple engine suppliers entered the series in 2012 will be a long shot.

If we follow how things have played out this year, Toronto and maybe Mid-Ohio can be projected to fall in Honda’s favor. The rest? Beware the Bowtie.

THE MECHANICAL MARVELS

Think of the series’ bumpiest tracks – Long Beach and Detroit – and Andretti Autosport’s cars have been stupendous. The same has been true on the Phoenix and Indianapolis ovals where, especially during the Indy 500, mechanical grip was the key to success.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the team’s damper program has been among the biggest turnarounds in 2018, and if Andretti’s drivers remain in the title fight, the deep engineering group responsible for the dampers and every other aspect of vehicular performance will deserve plenty of credit.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?

Eight races without a sniff of the podium for Simon Pagenaud? The 2016 series champion’s season is starting to look and feel a lot like his Penske debut in 2015, when a collection of decent (but unsatisfying) results defied all predictions. In fact, other than his full-time debut in 2012 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, 2015 and now 2018 rank as the only years where Pagenaud has failed to capture a win by the end of Detroit.

Image by IndyCar

Teammate Will Power (two) and Josef Newgarden (two) account for half the wins this season, along with a pole apiece. Pagenaud, oddly, has yet to look like either was a consistent expectation. Could it be his need for a car to feel close to perfect in a year where, with the new universal aero kit in mind, most of his rivals have abandoned the idea of finding the perfect setup? We’re reaching the point in the championship where a win is needed, ASAP, or the points deficit will be too big to overcome.

Takuma Sato’s return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has also been underwhelming through eight rounds. The 2017 Indy 500 winner was a rocket in pre-season testing, yet it somehow hasn’t developed into anything remotely close to what his teammate Graham Rahal has achieved in the sister RLL entry. By most accounts, Graham has weathered a tough season marked by poor qualifying results, yet holds seventh in the standings and appears to be marching forward.

Sato, with the costly Indy 500 crash and a big points loss at a double-points event, is 14th in the standings and has six finishes of 10th or worse on the record. For the sake of context, he’s only 10 points ahead of 15th-place rookie Zach Veach.

I can’t say I expected Sato to be on Rahal’s heels every lap, but the gap in race results has been much wider than anticipated. Paired with the superb race engineer Eddie Jones, it’s hard to see how Sato staying in the same rut as we move into the second half of the season.

NEWCOMER’S DELIGHT

Led by SPM’s Robert Wickens, most of IndyCar’s rookies have shown immense promise at various points in the season. With Wickens as the outlier (currently split between Penske’s Josef Newgarden and RLL’s Rahal in the points), Andretti’s Veach and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist among the full-timers have had their moments, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo, Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey, and Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser from that part-time crop have shown they belong in the series.

Image by IndyCar

Ignoring Wickens, Veach owns the best finish – a fourth at Long Beach – and if there was a standout performance from the rest, Leist’s heady drive in the Indy 500 showed he could focus for 200 laps and lead the Foyt team home with a 13th. De Melo’s smart approach to Indy was also remarkable, and Kaiser’s work in qualifying for the big race was another reminder of how far he and his one-car team have come.

The only negative has been the injury suffered in a sports car race by Pietro Fittipaldi. He’s hoping to be back starting at Mid-Ohio, and provided those plans come to fruition, IndyCar could have another young gun to make waves in 2018. A generation might pass before we see this level and volume of rookie talent landing in IndyCar at the same time.

THE KING OF BOOM OR BUST

That has been Ganassi’s Ed Jones. The sophomore IndyCar driver is 12th in points, and it’s thanks to owning both ends of the finishing order. Despite having four performances that netted 20th or worse, Jones has mitigated the damage with a pair of podiums. It’s almost as if he’s having his rookie season a year late, because this kind of inconsistency was nowhere to be found in 2017.

If there’s a positive, it’s the 2016 Indy Lights champion’s ability to move on from adversity. Leave the errors and crashes behind, and days like Sunday where he passed teammate Scott Dixon and captured third could be a more common tale.

After Jones, Jordan King has certainly typified the rookie blues with the Ed Carpenter Racing team. A breakout star in many qualifying sessions, King’s best finish is a quiet 14th at Barber. If and when his pace over one lap can be sustained for an entire road or street course race, he’ll be a new problem for the field to solve.

King’s teammate Spencer Pigot has also enjoyed glimpses of promise, but with a lone 10th-place result to show for it, the pride of Mazda’s Road To Indy is another one in desperate need of a strong finish to build from during summer.

ABC OVER AND OUT

The American Broadcast Company’s tenure as an IndyCar television partner came to an end on Sunday. NBCSN will carry the rest of the season, and afterwards, the next three years of action will be televised exclusively on NBC and NBCSN.

From many of those holding microphones to the support staff behind the scenes, some fine people worked to make the ABC broadcasts happen. The product that went to air, however, as has been noted a few thousand times, stood in stark contrast to NBCSN’s sense of style and presentation. Here’s to a new chapter where, I hope, happy fans and happier ratings are on the horizon.

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE?

Alexander Rossi’s win at Long Beach was magical. Watching the California kid drive into Victory Lane in his home state was a perfect result for the Andretti Autosport driver, especially after being in the hunt at St. Petersburg and putting on a passing clinic at Phoenix. All smiles and charm, it was great to see him bask in positivity.

The win also helped to cleanse some of the stench from the final laps at St. Pete, where his overtaking attempt on Robert Wickens went sideways and knocked the leader into the wall.

Rossi is a hardcore racer and even the SPM team… eventually… couldn’t fault his failed attempt to go for victory. Afterwards, the unsavory part wasn’t so much the on-track collision, but rather the post-race attempt to lay the blame on Wickens. Faced with clear responsibility for hitting his friend and rival, Rossi’s first instinct was to point fingers in any direction but his own.

His tune eventually changed, the two made up, and that graceless blame-game encounter was forgotten. Until Sunday. You’ve probably seen the replays of Rossi locking his brakes entering Turn 3 with teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay applying extreme pressure from behind. And you’ve likely seen the outcome, with Rossi sliding into the runoff area, surrendering the lead, and limping back to pit lane with a worn left-front tire that could no longer hold its nitrogen.

Image by IndyCar

And what was the knee-jerk reaction when asked about the issues by ABC? Laying the blame at the feet of his Andretti team. Their feet, it should be noted, were nowhere near the brake pedal that destroyed the No. 27 Honda’s front tires.

Rossi’s driving talent is unquestionable. From St. Pete to Detroit, it’s obvious he’s found a new level. And until those final laps at Detroit 2, there was also no doubt his body of work this season stood above his rivals. Even with his mistakes at St. Pete and Detroit, I still can’t think of another driver who’s been better over the last eight races. If he can maintain the same on-track form, Rossi’s flirting with his first IndyCar title.

But on the behavioral side, offering flowery praise for how Rossi deals with the human side of the sport – at least when his driving is called into question – has become a challenge. Maybe Hunter-Reay, the one who drove flawlessly on Sunday and has dealt with adversity on a regular basis throughout his career, can provide some guidance on how to win and lose with grace.

Or maybe James Hinchcliffe, who redefined IndyCar’s notion of class with his actions after failing to qualify for the Indy 500, could be used as an inspiration on how to see the world from a less myopic viewpoint.

True, likeability doesn’t matter when it’s time to go racing. It sure does help, though, when a series is struggling to make new stars out of its elite performers.

PARTING QUESTIONS

How much longer until Robert Wickens earns his first win?

Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing started the year in grand style, but have endured three frustrating races in a row. Can IndyCar’s David return to form and take the fight to the Goliaths?

Ed Carpenter has only run two races, yet splits the full-time Carlin Racing team in the standings. How high can he go with four ovals remaining?

Scott Dixon and his Ganassi squad aced Saturday’s race at Detroit, winning in the pits, on race strategy, and behind the steering wheel. It was a rare moment this year where, based on standard expectations for this team and driver, everything looked normal. Will Dixon and the No. 9 squad tap into their usual mojo more often and make a championship run founded on wins, or will an assortment of seconds, thirds, fourths, and fifths—their regular story for most of 2018—be the best they can muster?

Since Josef Newgarden won at Barber in April, he’s finished between no better than eighth. Just a bad patch to easily forget, or is the defending series champion searching for something that’s gone missing?

A winless streak dating back to Pocono 2015 came to an end for Ryan Hunter-Reay. The Detroit 2 win vaulted the 2012 series champion to fourth in the standings. Should we start a new clock on another winless streak, or did the floodgates open for more RHR victories leading into the championship finale?

Though the first eight races of 2017 with the Ganassi team, Tony Kanaan’s average finishing position was 11.3. With the rejuvenated A.J. Foyt team, his average is 13.1, and that includes the recent crash and 25th place at Indy. Knowing how far off the Foyt team was in recent years, is there hidden promise to be found in TK’s results?

Marco Andretti continues to rave about the new aero kit and how the downforce reduction has been a perfect fit for his driving style. Sitting eighth at present, and coming off a pole at Detroit 1, can he and entry owner Bryan Herta stay locked into the positive groove they’ve established?

More RACER
Home