The off-season officially comes to an end next weekend, as the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to the Sunshine State to begin the 2018 campaign. The 1.8-mile street course in St Petersburg once again hosts the opening round of the season. While many of the names and faces return, a lot has changed since we last saw Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden celebrating his first career championship at Sonoma Raceway.
Although it was just as long, this off-season felt a little different. The excitement and anticipation that creeps up in February was super sized even more with the new universal aero kit drawing plenty of eyeballs. The sleek new kit has received rave reviews, and has performed just as well as it looks. The cars aren’t the only thing that has changed.
They key to growth in IndyCar has always been about more teams, not necessarily more cars. The more owners in the sport, the better. That has been the theme lately, as the paddock is filling up with more of them this season. Juncos Racing was the first, as they make the transition into IndyCar from Indy Lights. Team owner Ricardo Juncos has built this company into what it is today, and the future looks good for his organization.
Harding Racing committed to doing the full season with Gabby Chaves, and even added Brian Barnhart as President of the team. Michael Shank has teamed up with Sam Schmidt to field Jack Harvey for a partial season, and Carlin Racing has joined the series with two full-time cars. Owners can see that the series is headed in the right direction.
The biggest headlines in the off-season usually come with Silly Season, as drivers move around looking for a new place to call home. There was plenty of driver movement this year, which began with reigning Indianapolis 500 champ Takuma Sato returning to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which will now have two full-time cars. The next domino to fall was Tony Kanaan, who moved over to AJ Foyt Racing where he will pilot the legendary No. 14 car. He will team with fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist, who won three races last year in Indy Lights.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports kept their lovable Canadian James Hinchcliffe, and added another one in countryman Robert Wickens. the first All-Canadian lineup in North American open-wheel racing since 2004. Kyle Kaiser is moving up to IndyCar with Juncos, whom he won the Indy Lights Championship with last season. Carlin’s duo for the upcoming season is former Ganassi teammates Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball.
Ed Carpenter Racing will have Spencer Pigot in the No. 21 car each race weekend, and either Carpenter (ovals) or British driver Jordan King (non-ovals) in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Chevrolet. Andretti Autosport will once again field four full-time cars this season, with Rookie Zach Veach stepping into the No. 26 car. There was also a slight shakeup with the team, as Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi essentially swapped rides. Rossi takes his NAPA sponsorship to the No. 27 car, and Marco will work with Bryan Herta in the No. 98 Honda.
The biggest move of the off-season was Ed Jones moving on from Dale Coyne Racing, and teaming up with Scott Dixon at Chip Ganassi Racing. The two-car effort gives Ganassi two incredible talents that will contend for wins each weekend. The vacated seat at Coyne will be split between Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi.
When it comes to Indianapolis 500 one-offs, there are a few that have already come together. Carlos Munoz is returning to Andretti, where he has had great success at IMS. Stefan Wilson also has an Indy 500 ride with the team, as they will field six cars in this year’s race. Helio Castroneves will once again aim for his fourth Indy 500 victory with Roger Penske. He is no longer a full-time driver, but he knows his way around IMS better than anyone.
Danica Patrick will make her return to IndyCar, where she will drive a third car for ECR in the Indianapolis 500. This will be her eighth Indy 500 start, and the final race of her career. Though she hasn’t driven an IndyCar since 2011, Danica has always been fast on the 2.5-mile oval. In her seven Indy starts, she has led more laps than Newgarden, Rahal, and Bourdais, combined. She has more top-five finishes than Newgarden, Carpenter, Hildebrand, Bourdais, Pagenaud, Sato, and Hinchcliffe. Only two current drivers have a better average finishing position (8.7) in the race.
There isn’t much change to the schedule this year, but there is one big one. The series will return to the Pacific Northwest on Labor Day weekend, racing in Portland for the first time in 11 years. Also, Opening Day for Indianapoli 500 practice will begin on Tuesday, May 15 this year. There will still be a Monday practice following the weekend of qualifications. Driver and entrant points will only be awarded to the top nine qualifiers for the race.
The cars themselves look different, but that is not only because of the aero kit. Last season saw half of the field in blue and white cars, but that is no longer the case. ECR has a new feel, with Pigot’s bright green, and the No. 20 car sporting a nice black with white trim look. Bourdais has a brilliant red/black/yellow livery with SealMaster sponsorship, and Dixon is carrying the orange and blue colors of PNC Bank all season long. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal are each sporting new liveries as well, thanks to new sponsorship.
With new teams, the new body kits, a solid group of Rookies, and a few drivers driving for different teams, there will be plenty of things to keep an eye on as the year progresses. The 2018 season will be packed full of surprises, memorable moments, and plenty of excitement. All of which will all play out over the course of the next seven months.
The action begins next weekend, as the streets of St Petersburg once again play host for the season opener. ABC will provide coverage for the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, which begins at 12:30 PM ET on Sunday.
1. Which Rookie driver will turn heads this season?
There tends to be a driver or two each year that outperforms expectations, and really turns some heads. Newgarden and Jones are prime examples of that. This season is oozing with young talent, so there should be plenty of candidates. Kanaan is going to be a great mentor for Leist, and Veach will have plenty of help at Andretti.
Prediction: Robert Wickens
2. Will the universal aero kits improve the racing, or make it worse?
While this one is impossible to predict, it is one of the biggest questions entering the season. Every track is different, and there are so many factors that will play into how the racing is impacted. It will be something to monitor closely as the season progresses, as well as seeing which drivers and teams get a handle on the new kit.
Prediction: Based on testing and responses from a few different drivers and teams, early expectations are that the competition will be even better on the ovals, with a little more separation on the road and street courses.
3. Will there be a first-time race winner this season?
The depth of talent in IndyCar is immense. Chaves, Veach, Chilton, and Wickens are all drivers that will likely win races at some point, but would be considered “dark horses” this season, for various reasons. While it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of them in victory lane this year, there are two drivers that could easily break through and grab their first career win.
Prediction: Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot
4. Which team is primed for a bounce-back year?
The first team that comes to mind is AJ Foyt Racing. After a down year with the switch to Chevrolet, separate team shops, and plenty of new faces, they could be on the rise with a talented veteran and promising young Rookie. Two other candidates here would be ECR and SPM. Neither team had sustained success last season, but have made numerous off-season improvements. A solid second driver and the addition of race engineer Leena Gade will go a long way in 2018.
Prediction: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
5. Who will win the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500?
History would suggest another victory for a Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti car as they have won 11 of the last 13 races. Michael Andretti’s team has won three of the last four, and he will have six cars in the field this year. Dixon and Jones are two very good candidates, and the four cars at Penske are always strong favorites. Since 2000, the only current full-time team other than the “big three” to win the race is RLL with Buddy Rice. Their top driver has been knocking on the door for awhile, and he now has a teammate who happens to be the defending Indy 500 winner.
Prediction: Graham Rahal