The Dixie and Felix Show
As far as potential goes, Chip Ganassi Racing could have a hellacious duo on its hands with five-time champion Scott Dixon and rookie Felix Rosenqvist. There’s been a feeling within the team since the Swede first tested for the reigning champions a few years ago that he was something special — an extraordinary and uncomplicated talent.
Nearly matching Dixon for speed in those tests, Rosenqvist sent the team home thinking it had a younger version of Dixon to embrace. And while it took some time to free the 27-year-old from his Formula E contract, the team believes the three-time Indy Lights race winner is capable of restoring the 1-2 punch it’s been lacking.
Having won at St. Pete and Toronto, and raced on the Phoenix and Indianapolis Motor Speedway ovals in an abbreviated 2016 Lights season, “Frosenqvist” feels like the obvious pick for Rookie of the Year. And if he can find a groove alongside Dixon before the season reaches the halfway point, the kid could be a factor in how the championship is decided. Lofty goals, indeed.
Hunter-Reay: Primed for a Title Run?
I’m confident in saying Ryan Hunter-Reay has depleted a lifetime supply of cartoon anvils falling from the sky and landing on his beleaguered Andretti Autosport entry. Things were downright ugly in 2016 when he finished 12th in the championship, and while ninth in 2017 was an improvement, he was stuck in a winless streak. If there was something silly that could ruin a driver’s race, those cartoon anvils were never far away from Hunter-Reay.
A few carryover anvils were dropped in 2018, but on average, the former series champion got back to his normal routine; 10 finishes inside the top five, including a win at Detroit 2, plus the pole another win to close the season in Sonoma. A sneaky fourth in the final standings thanks to a late rally, the 38-year-old might be the sleeper pick for the championship.
Following a breakout season for his teammate Alexander Rossi, most of the title talk has gone the way of the 2016 Indy 500 winner who placed second behind Dixon. If both Andretti drivers can avoid issues through the early rounds, we might have a serious story to follow. Rossi is blindingly fast and nearly faultless; Hunter-Reay is one of IndyCar best in-race performers. Watching the two turn up the internecine heat and fight over the championship would be an amazing gift.
I’ll go ahead and hand out non-existent hardware to start the season. Carlin Racing will win IndyCar’s ‘Most Improved Team’ award, even though we aren’t completely sure who will be in its second car from start to finish.
The kings of European junior open-wheel racing applied its proven formula to using the spec Dallara DW12 chassis for its IndyCar debut in 2018. In F3, GP3, GP2, and all manner of spec single-seater championships, Carlin’s practice of investing in aerodynamic R&D to find an advantage over its rivals had provided an edge in the training categories. Not so in IndyCar. Its DW12 aero expenditures delivered minimal gains; spending the money on damper development like the other IndyCar teams was the obvious remedy for 2019, and so far, Chilton and RC Enerson, who tested at Monterey and Circuit of The Americas, have plenty of pace.
Chilton thrives when he’s challenged by a rapid teammate, which makes the prospect, now confirmed, of seeing reigning Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward in the second Carlin Chevy a tantalizing proposition. With an O’Ward, or Enerson, lighting a fire beneath Chilton on road and street courses, and Charlie Kimball applying similar pressure on ovals, Carlin could take a large step forward in its second season.
Perking Up Pagenaud
Welcome to the great mystery from the 2018 season. Why didn’t the 2016 series champion win a race? At least when he’s been asked, the dynamic Frenchman hasn’t offered any real insights as to how his Penske teammates took three wins apiece while his car was a few spots behind on many occasions.
Knowing how the new UAK18 bodywork that seemed to befuddle Pagenaud 12 months ago is untouched, why would we have cause to think his fortunes will change? That’s where the surprise awaits. He’s one of the best; that’s been proven over many years. There’s zero reason for Pagenaud to run behind his teammates, and when he’s able to connect with the primal side of his brain, he’s impossible to catch. And when he’s stuck in his thoughts, processing data and thinking his way through each corner, the animal vibe is lost. It’s not the bodywork acting as a barrier; it’s much deeper.
Interestingly, it’s a trait he shares with fellow Penske veteran Will Power. When the Australian lets the world slip away, he’s an unstoppable force. When he overthinks his driving, he’s an easier puzzle to solve. Power picked up on this trend a while ago and has worked hard to find and hold onto that Zen-like mindset behind the wheel.
Pagenaud’s also aware of this inner struggle, and if we’re going to see the all-conquering version of the man, it won’t have much to do with UAK18s. It’s the personal war between his ears where the battle awaits.
Colton Herta has the look of a future IndyCar star. All the signs point to the teenager from California possessing the talent necessary to forge a long career, and after the recent funding debacle between his team and former teammate Pato O’Ward, we can only hope Herta’s rookie campaign with Harding Steinbrenner Racing is an uncomplicated experience. Considering the undelivered promises with O’Ward, count me among those who can’t wait to see Colton’s car covered with sponsors. As long as there’s more bare real estate than sponsor signage, I’ll be uneasy.