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 Dale Coyne Racing.
2022 Entrants’ Championship (1-25):
16th, No. 18 Honda with David Malukas
19th, No. 51 Honda with Takuma Sato
No. 18 Honda with David Malukas
No. 51 Honda with Sting Ray Robb (R)
Dale Coyne Racing heads into the new season with a new driver, a new race engineer, about a dozen new crew members, and the absence of two of its biggest talents. But the Illinois-based team is accustomed to change, and while it might take some time for its young breakout star David Malukas to pick up where he left off in his rookie season, there are good reasons to feel optimistic about where DCR is headed.
Coyne is known for recruiting or developing major talent on the crew side of the organization, and while that has helped it to take on and occasionally beat IndyCar’s biggest teams, it also means that DCR’s rivals have long made a habit of hiring away some of its best people to join their programs. The latest departures include Malukas’ race engineer and DCR technical director Ross Bunnell, who is engineering Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon this year. Super chief mechanic Todd Phillips, another DCR staple, exited to become Alexander Rossi’s crew chief at Arrow McLaren.
There’s no doubt Coyne has grown tired of being treated as the paddock’s favorite recruiting office for high-caliber talent, but just as DCR did when Michael Cannon, Craig Hampson, and Olivier Boisson left in recent years, it will adapt and develop new talent to backfill the vacant roles.
In the case of Bunnell, his assistant race engineer Alex Athanasiadis has been promoted to run Malukas in the No. 18 Honda, and while this will be Athanasiadis’ first time working as a race engineer in IndyCar, Bunnell and Malukas both rate him highly and believe he will rise to the occasion. If we were talking about Bunnell and Malukas going into their second year together, I’d have the No. 18 as a big riser from the outset of the championship with expectations for a bevy of top 10s right out of the gate.
In light of the engineering change for Athanasiadis, we have yet another instance where a new combo needs to be given time to find their rhythm. We know Malukas can drive, and DCR is confident Athanasiadis will complement him in every way, so there’s something to watch here as the season gains momentum.
Parse through Sting Ray Robb’s years on the USF Championships presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel ladder, where he won the Indy Pro 2000 championship in 2020, and there’s a key takeaway that will likely govern his IndyCar debut. Coming off a disappointing start in Indy Lights in 2021, he returned and placed second in the standings, and as the young Idahoan has repeatedly demonstrated, with time, he finds the speed and competitiveness to shine.
Said another way, Robb hasn’t been a knockout artist like a Kyle Kirkwood who won the USF2000 championship straight away, jumped to Indy Pro 2000 and won that championship on debut, and motored to Indy Lights where he won the title on his first try. Robb did two years at each level and showed marked improvement in his second seasons, which suggests more of the same is in order as he embarks on his rookie IndyCar campaign.
He’s definitely got talent, and like fellow Indy Lights graduate Benjamin Pedersen at A.J. Foyt Racing, I’m looking to 2024 as the first time where any real pressure should be placed on his shoulders. Directly related to that notion, Robb’s paired with race engineer Don Bricker who worked with Takuma Sato last season on the car co-entered by Rick Ware Racing.
Bricker and Sato were quite effective on the five ovals, but their output on the 12 road and street courses left a lot to be desired. The situation was bad enough that a return to DCR w RWR on the ovals was believed to be the only offer that was extended to Sato who ultimately chose to leave for Ganassi. And that was with a 13-year IndyCar veteran who ended up placing 19th, three spots behind his rookie teammate in the standings.
Separate from the big learning curve Robb is already facing, if an exceedingly experienced driver like Sato struggled in the No. 51 at most of last year’s races, I’m not sure how a newcomer like Robb will achieve much more in the same entry with the same supporting cast.
WHAT THEY NEED
Once more, this is another IndyCar team that needs time to develop.
Unrelated to his significant speed and bravery, Malukas will need to step up and take the leadership role vacated by Sato. As a rookie, Malukas had a giant resource of experience and knowledge to draw from, and it made his IndyCar debut a comparatively easy affair. At 21, with a green 21-year-old teammate sitting across from him in the engineering meetings, Malukas has become the veteran who needs to help his rookie compatriot and to take a bigger role in steering the team’s engineering decisions.
Given a quick car, Malukas will charge forward. That’s not a concern. It’s how he develops and fares when the No. 18 Honda or the team as a whole has missed the setup window. For a Sato, who’s been to each track a dozen or more times, it was natural to reach back to something that worked at Circuit X when they had a similar handling problem and recommend a fix that worked with one of his former teams.
For Malukas, with all of 17 IndyCar races to his credit, that deep book of engineering solutions isn’t filled with a ton of entries, so he and his rookie race engineer and rookie teammate could be in for a lot of trial by error this season. And that’s not a knock on Malukas, Athanasiadis, or Robb. As the old saying goes, they don’t know what they don’t know, so they’ll have to learn together and use those new solutions to solve any performance issues that arise.
Drawing back to an increasing theme, Malukas is incredibly smart and intuitive; despite his youth, I expect him to meet the leadership challenge head-on and impress. DCR is confident Athanasiadis will do the same, and Robb is a sponge; wherever the tips and advice comes from, he’ll put it to immediate use.
IndyCar’s youngest driver combo will have some steep hills to climb, but don’t write them off. If there’s one thing Dale Coyne relishes each season, it’s out-performing whatever expectations or predictions that have been placed on his team. It could be a daunting year for Robb, but leave room to be swayed on occasion, and once Malukas and Athanasiadis click, the kid will put on a show.