The start to every NTT IndyCar Series season is loaded with new developments and potential themes to follow that will likely influence the outcome of the championship. Here’s an array of observations that might shape the seventh-month sprint from St. Petersburg to Monterey, along with a few random items of interest.
A Seb-Peat in St. Pete?
As the owner of two consecutive wins to open the season, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais is looking to make it a three-peat on Sunday. And this time, the local Tampa resident wants no part of receiving a gift like the one that was given late in last year’s race when Alexander Rossi knocked Robert Wickens from the lead. Citing a general deficiency in street course setups, Bourdais’ DCR team spent time during pre-season testing on Sebring’s short course, laying out their own pylons to tighten corner entries and exits at the slower turns to mimic what they’ll encounter at St. Pete and other street circuits.
The smart move, which allowed race engineer Craig Hampson to tune on the Frenchman’s No. 18 Honda as if it were carving through narrow concrete-lined walls, should help Bourdais at his home race, Long Beach, Detroit, and Toronto, where DCR struggled at times. Considering how Bourdais placed seventh in the 2018 championship, an uptick in street race results could move the team closer to the top five.
Rookies: Ridiculous Crop
I made a foolish statement last year where I suggested the crop of rookie for the 2018 season was the best we’d see this decade. Enter Patricio O’Ward, Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Santino Ferrucci, Ben Hanley, and possibly RC Enerson, if we’re lucky, to confirm my ignorance.
Ericsson, a five-year Formula 1 veteran, is the only outlier in the group in terms of top-tier open-wheel experience, but he’s also new to ovals while most of his Rookie of the Year challengers are up to speed in that department. It’s a stacked group where at least one win from the bunch would not be a complete shock, and if it’s two or three wins, it still wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities.
The best question is whether one of 2019’s rookies will emerge as a new Robert Wickens-style force from the outset.
After running the table with six straight manufacturers’ championships since the turbo V6 engine formula arrived in 2012, Honda finally broke Chevy’s incredible streak last year. As upsets go, this was big. It’s also the kind of thing that should concern the Honda Performance Development camp. I’ve worked as a mechanic, engineer, and team manager across many paddocks since the 1980s, and even today, as a reporter, I’m struggling to recall more than two or three manufacturers who’ve matched the ferocity that drives Chevy’s current IndyCar program.
The Bowtie’s stone-cold approach to winning has been relentless, which makes its first manufacturers’ loss a fascinating reckoning for the brand. We know the long-in-the-tooth turbo V6 formula has left Chevy and Honda with almost nothing left to find in terms of major horsepower and torque gains, so responding with a big leap in either department is unlikely. But we can expect something—maybe on the engine calibration side—to help Chevy vie for a seventh title. Will it be enough? And will it matter? Read on…
Chevy won six of 17 races in 2018. While that number will need to increase in order to reclaim the manufacturers’ championship, the greater issue is answering where the additional wins will be produced. Two drivers—Penske’s Will Power and Josef Newgarden—accounted for all six victories, and in that statistic, the ongoing imbalance between front-running Chevy and Honda teams is reconfirmed.
Honda’s depth at Andretti Autosport, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Dale Coyne Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is well ahead of anything Chevy can boast.
After Penske, it’s hard to say if the other Bowtie representatives will venture into the win column. We can assume Simon Pagenaud will get back to his winning ways, giving Chevy and Chevy three shots at victory for most rounds. And after Penske? We’d love to see A.J. Foyt Racing, Carlin Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, and other members of Team Chevy contribute to the brand’s win tally, but for now, the manufacturers’ battle is looking like another Honda vs Penske affair.