PRUETT: IndyCar 2022, driver-by-driver, part 1

Michael Levitt/Lumen

PRUETT: IndyCar 2022, driver-by-driver, part 1

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: IndyCar 2022, driver-by-driver, part 1

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I hate season previews. I hate top 10 lists. And I hate making predictions because who the hell knows which driver is going to win the Indy 500, much less Round 2 at Iowa?

Instead, I figured it was time to turn a yearly conversation I had with Robin Miller into the basis of a column. We’d spend hours during the offseason pontificating about what each driver needed to hold onto their jobs, change their fortunes, break through to stardom, or keep kicking ass.

So starting with the defending champ and working down the finishing order of the 2021 standings with newcomers added in at the bottom, here’s a look at the various needs of the IndyCar field ahead of a new season.

What Alex Palou needs this season is to prove 2021 wasn’t a fluke.

Who predicted the Spaniard would win races, much less the championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing? Nobody. Not even his team. And yet on his debut as Scott Dixon’s teammate, the soft-spoken racer proved he was up to the mental challenge in going head-to-head with the imposing six-time champ. We knew Palou had speed, but the rest of his game was largely unproven. That’s no longer the case.

Palou won more races, earned more podiums, and on average, had better qualifying performances than IndyCar’s standard-bearer. But can Palou’s wild breakthrough year be repeated? That’s his mission. He’s done it once and become a one-time champion like 40 others since the dawn of IndyCar racing. It’s a wonderful thing, but not exactly unique. Is Palou capable of breaking free from the pack of one-timers? And if a second championship isn’t in the offering, can he maintain his new place atop Ganassi’s IndyCar driver rotation? Or will 2022 deliver a market correction of sorts, with Dixon reclaiming his status as CGR’s top dog?

As much as the new season will confirm where Palou belongs on Ganassi’s depth chart, his upcoming performances will also tell us whether he’s ready to lead the organization into the future. Palou’s either going to establish himself as the new and unmovable P1 within the program or fall behind Dixon. One way or the other, something significant will be changing by the end of the season.

What Josef Newgarden needs this season is to find chemistry with his new race engineer.

Team Penske’s main title contender welcomes his third race engineer since joining the team in 2017 and has the esteemed Eric Leichtle as the new person in charge of dialing speed and drivability into the No. 2 Chevy. Wiith IndyCar’s highly restrictive testing policies, the two-time champ and his engineer – who’s never engineered an IndyCar in a race-– have no alternative other than trying to form a bond as the season gets under way.

The good thing is that prior to Penske, Newgarden worked with a few different IndyCar engineers at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing. So while a change of race engineers isn’t always optimal, Newgarden’s been through the routine many times and he and Leichtle should find their stride early in the season. But, and here’s the part that could be problematic, if it does take a few rounds to get the most out of each other, will Newgarden be playing from behind in the championship once again, just as he did last year after crashing out in the first race?

Newgarden’s status as one of IndyCar’s best of the best hasn’t changed. But the theme to follow for his season is how quickly he and Leichtle can form a race-winning combination. It could happen at St Pete, or it might not happen until later in the year. But Newgarden’s chances of winning his third title rest upon the speed at which this relationship develops.

New year, new engineer for Josef Newgarden. But the two-time champion has been down this road before. Mike Levitt/Lumen

What Pato O’Ward needs this season is to make friends with 99.9 percent.

The thing that makes the Arrow McLaren SP driver so spectacular to watch is often the same thing that limits his race results. It would be easy to believe O’Ward took Ricky Bobby’s advice to heart, but as his team is hoping to impart upon the mercurial talent, you aren’t last if you aren’t first.

The piece of advice that would go a long way for the IndyCar star is that less is often more. O’Ward’s relentless aggression is an amazing thing to witness, and when he has a car that’s capable of decimating the field, that’s precisely what the young Mexican uses to distinguish himself from everyone else in IndyCar. Oversteer is an ally, and with some of the fastest hands in the series, O’Ward keeps his No. 5 Chevy dancing through the corners in ways that most cannot fathom.

And that’s where dialing the intensity back to 99.9 percent would do wonders for O’Ward whenever his car lacks the ability to win. He knows it’s not always in his best interest to be in maximum-attack mode, and made improvements here last season, but there are more gains to be made. Embracing the occasional need for less will bring more points, and with more points comes a stronger championship run and less of a need to drive beyond 100 percent in every race.

A related need for O’Ward can be found in joining the other frontrunners who are borderline obsessive-compulsive when it comes to spending time in the engineering office at the events. There’s a direct correlation between the drivers who are found in the front of the transporters pouring over data with their engineers long after the sun has gone down, and those who have earned championships.

What Scott Dixon needs this season is to prove the last was a fluke.

Dixon set an impossible standard to follow after leading the 2020 championship from start to finish on the way to his sixth title. He led the 2021 championship for three races, from Texas 1 through the Indy GP, but fell to second, then third, and took a hit from behind at Gateway that left him in fourth for the remainder of the season.

In a normal year, Dixon and the Chip Ganassi Racing team would be disappointed to have the No. 9 Honda lead the team to fourth, but it wasn’t a normal season as Palou won the opening round, never fell below third in the standings — in fact, he led the standings 10 times throughout the year — and did something rare by displacing Dixon and winning the title for CGR.

It’s often hard to pinpoint the moment when a changing of the guard happens among established stars and their understudies. Did we see the first signs of this in 2021, or is Dixon primed to claim his seventh championship and put that notion to rest?

What Colton Herta’s needs this season is to break free from his binary results.

When he wins, which he’s done six times in three seasons, it tends to happen in bold and spectacular fashion. But when Herta isn’t winning, he’s rarely close to the podium and raking in handfuls of points. For Herta, the binary output must stop; big wins can’t be followed by distant finishes that conspire against winning the title.

From the 16 races in 2021, Herta placed inside the top five at seven events, with three coming via victory. And while some of the poor finishes certainly weren’t his fault — he opened the year with a P22 after being taken out on the first lap by Josef Newgarden — it’s hard to ignore the other nine rounds where his best result was an eigth and the other eight were well outside the top 10.

The need is similar in some way to that of O’Ward, but Herta isn’t punishing his car at all times. The fix here is somewhat intangible; armed with one of the best race engineers in the paddock, Herta and Nathan O’Rourke are a formidable duo, and when they land upon the right setup, they can’t be topped. The key to a championship lies in getting more out of the car — and strategy — when winning isn’t on the cards.

In a growing trend for CGR drivers, what Marcus Ericsson needs this season is to prove 2021 wasn’t a fluke.

Many of the same things said about Palou apply to Ericsson, who wasn’t satisfied with one win last year and went on to capture a second. And in both instances, something weird or wild was involved, with Detroit race leader Will Power tripping his ECU into an endless loop that left his car sitting stationary while the Swede led the field away from the red flag and won in his absence. And then we had the bizarre collision with Sebastien Bourdais to open Nashville that sent Ericsson flying, broke his nose free from the car, and seemingly ended his day with a DNF until the wings dislodged from beneath his front tires which allowed him to drive back to pit lane for repairs. And if that wasn’t enough, he cycled to the lead, had Herta in hot pursuit, and watched in his mirrors as the former race leader stuffed it into the wall and guaranteed his second win would happen.

If last year is a guide, whenever something strange happens in a race, look for Ericsson to come out on top. But since he can’t rely on the misfortune of others to reach victory lane, the need here is to get his next win the old-fashioned way. Entering his fourth IndyCar season, Ericsson has made significant improvements each year: he earned 10 top 10 finishes on the way to sixth in the championship, which is impressive. What he hasn’t done, though, is earn a pole, or carve through the leaders to stand atop the podium without the assistance of adversity. To hold onto sixth, or move a few notches higher in the standings, Ericsson will need to continue living in the top 10 and take charge of a few events this season.

Ericsson will be looking to build on a stout 2021. Mike Levitt/Lumen

What Graham Rahal needs this season is the same thing he’s needed in previous seasons, and that’s to slay whatever’s keeping him from achieving better qualifying positions.

On average, he’s one of IndyCar’s biggest movers on race day. Starts 18th, finishes seventh. Starts 13th, finishes fifth. Starts 20th, finishes fifth. Starts 12th, finishes fourth. Those are actual stats from last season, and there are more like them that confirm how much of an animal Rahal has become between the green and checkered flags.

And just as he’s said numerous times and we’ve written plenty of times, imagine if Rahal had less work to do in the races to make up for the routine failings in qualifying? From 16 races, he started outside the top 10 a stunning 10 times last year, and despite the self-induced difficulties, Rahal fired his No. 15 Honda forward to finish inside the top 10… 10 times last year. No leading driver covers more distance than Rahal, and that’s not a good thing.

He made the Firestone Fast Six just once in 2021; how many wins he could earn if passing half the field was not required at most events? Whether it’s a mental thing or an engineering thing or a combination of the two, fixing qualifying would transform Rahal into an immediate championship player.

Looking down the road, as he enters his 16th IndyCar season, how many years does Rahal have left to improve the one aspect of his game that continually limits his ultimate potential?

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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