RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Chip Ganassi Racing.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
2022 Entrants’ Championship (1-25):
3rd, No. 9 Honda with Scott Dixon
5th, No. 10 Honda with Alex Palou
6th, No. 8 Honda with Marcus Ericsson
22nd, No. 48 Honda with Jimmie Johnson
No. 8 Honda with Marcus Ericsson
No. 9 Honda with Scott Dixon
No. 10 Honda with Alex Palou
No. 11 Honda with Marcus Armstrong (R) and Takuma Sato
Chip Ganassi Racing’s long-awaited return to victory lane at the Indianapolis 500 was the story of its 2022 season, and after Marcus Ericsson’s career-defining triumph, the rest of the story was centered on an unexpected dynamic where the rest of the team’s title contenders reached July before earning their first wins of the season.
Coming off back-to-back championships with Scott Dixon in 2020 and Alex Palou in 2021, there was a rightful belief that both drivers would be in the title hunt from the outset. Palou claimed three podiums from the opening four races and was certainly in the early mix, but by the time he broke through and got his first win, it was the final race of the season and Team Penske had run away with the points lead. Dixon, whose first podium arrived in Detroit, went on a point-scoring rampage and added two gritty wins to haul himself up to third in the final standings, but like Palou, it was a case of too little, too late.
The most pleasant surprise of the year was Ericsson, who produced three podiums from the opening eight races, including his win at the double points Indy 500 which shot him into the championship lead. Holding eighth entering the Speedway, Ericsson’s win catapulted him to the lead in the standings and he either stayed there or remained in the top three through Nashville. It was over the last four races where the tailwind from Indy began to wane with poor qualifying runs or unspectacular finishes that saw the No. 8 Honda fall out of title contention and settle for sixth in the championship.
Combined, CGR had Dixon surging, Ericsson falling, and Palou — amid all manner of self-induced distractions and legal entanglements — slightly off his game until a peace accord was signed. Wind the clock forward, and the team has undergone a few notable changes, but for the most part, CGR has locked in with its core personnel and players to focus on the business of winning more championships.
Starting with Dixon, the six-time IndyCar champion enters the new season with a new race engineer in Ross Bunnell from Dale Coyne Racing where he and rookie David Malukas made for a surprisingly effective duo. Regarded as one of the sharpest and most promising young race engineers in IndyCar, Bunnell has everything it takes to win races with Dixon.
What they don’t have, due to the same testing restrictions that have limited every team from completing a lot of pre-season running, is a sufficient amount of time working together as driver and race engineer. Dixon and Bunnell have the potential to be scary-good, but it would be unusual for the new combo to be operating at 100 percent in St Petersburg. They’ll use each practice session to learn more about each other’s working styles and needs.
They’ll have the No. 9 Honda in its customary place at the sharp end of the field, without a doubt. It’s just a question of whether they’ll surprise everyone and go on the attack at St. Petersburg or if it will be more of a Texas or Long Beach podium arrival.
After Bunnell, Anna Chatten, who looked after Jimmie Johnson’s gearboxes on the former No. 48 entry, has also joined the No. 9 program in the same role. The other significant addition is former Arrow McLaren president Taylor Kiel, who joined as a team manager complementing team veterans Barry Wanser and Blair Julian in overseeing the IndyCar program. With CGR’s Mike O’Gara shifting from managing and performing race strategy duties on Ericsson’s No. 8 entry to running the team’s factory IMSA GTP program for Cadillac, Kiel steps onto the No. 8 timing stand.
Race engineer Eric Cowdin and newcomer Marcus Armstrong were impressive at Spring Training as they started their journey with the No. 11 Honda the New Zealander will share with Takuma Sato, who has signed to drive the car on the ovals. I can’t wait to see what Cowdin, the Indy 500-winning race engineer from 2013 with Tony Kanaan, and the two-time Indy 500 winner can produce together. Don’t sleep on this combo once we get to May.
Armstrong’s only in for 12 of 17 races, but if his pre-season pace is an indicator of what’s to come, the Kiwi could easily earn more points than the rest of the rookies who are in for the entire season. Although he’ll need to learn every road and street course along the way, Armstrong’s smart and fast; this could be the first time CGR has four fully competitive cars at every round.
Of its quartet, only Palou’s entry is free of significant personnel changes. The refocused Spaniard is the driver his title rivals point to as a serious championship concern. Armed once again with race engineer and CGR technical director Julian Robertson, Palou and the No. 10 Honda effort have the same look and feel as they did in 2021, and that could be a problem for the rest of the field.
WHAT THEY NEED
A strong collective start that doesn’t fade. Palou was on that path until the post-Indy contract dramas derailed his season. Team Penske hit hard to open 2022 and kept hitting throughout the season, leaving CGR, Andretti Autosport, and Arrow McLaren to play from behind for most of the year. There’s no reason to believe Penske and Chevy have taken backward steps, so in the big picture, CGR can’t afford to slowly work its way into contention during the first few months of the season. Registering big early results is the first order of business.
The second is similar to a key area of improvement we highlighted for Andretti, and that’s qualifying.
Palou was the best qualifier for the team last year with eight starts inside the top six, but there were zero poles and only two front-row appearances. From 17 races, Ericsson started 10th or worse at 10 rounds, which made for hard race days with far too much passing required to grab meaningful points. Of all the things Ericsson and the No. 8 crew need to address, it’s the routinely underwhelming performances in qualifying.
The same note applies to Dixon; his Speedway pole was the only pole for CGR all season. With 68 combined opportunities to earn pole across its four entries, starting first just once was a team-wide issue, and like Ericsson, Dixon qualified 10th or worse at 10 races. With improved single-lap pace, CGR’s quest to win another championship would be significantly eased.
Looking at the big picture, everything Palou went through last year has made him stronger and I can’t think of anything that would jeopardize his effectiveness this season. He’s not saying it, and his team isn’t saying it, but they know 2023 is Palou’s last ride in the No. 10 entry before he heads to Arrow McLaren, and there’s a firm understanding that they have everything in hand to vie for another championship before parting ways.
I will not be surprised if we’re congratulating Palou on winning his second IndyCar title later this year, and I also won’t be surprised if he finds his way to victory lane at the Indy 500. More than any of his teammates, Palou and the No. 10 stand out as the entry that’s ready to mount an immediate assault on their rivals.
Finally, Ericsson is believed to be heading into a contract year, and while I’m sure CGR would love to hold onto him, he could draw interest from a few suitors if he’s able to factor in the championship throughout the season. His stock was quite high at times in 2022, and if he can hold onto that value, the Swede might have a hard decision to make once the silly season gets rolling.
Of the teams that could topple Penske, CGR is closer than the rest. Dial up the speed in qualifying, get off to a strong start, and Dixon, Palou, and Ericsson should all factor in how the title is settled.