Just two remain in contention for the 2016 IndyCar season championship as we head into the final race at Sonoma. The season has largely been a Penske affair – with Will Power and Simon Pagenaud taking the spoils more often than anybody else and with that it will be a shootout between the two at Sonoma, with advantage to Pagenaud as it stands. However, 35 drivers have started an IndyCar race this year. Who has impressed and who needs to step up their game should they have a seat in 2017?
This may seem like an obvious choice, but IndyCar has successfully returned to three historic venues – Phoenix, Road America and Watkins Glen and all were well-received additions to the calendar. Fans flocked to these new races and the Indy 500 this year was in front of a sell-out crowd. Positively, all 14 venues visited this year (plus Gateway returning next year too) will host races again next year too.
The question going into this season on the lips of many was whether Pagenaud can do the business with Team Penske or not. It took just three races to debunk any suggestion that he couldn’t, and he was in commanding form early in the season. Regardless of what happens at Sonoma, this has been by far Pagenaud’s best season in IndyCar, and would be very deserving of a first championship.
Power started off his season very slowly but a mid-season string of wins and second places rocketed him up the standings. Sidelined straight away at St. Pete with an ear infection, the first part of the year was far from vintage Power, making uncharacteristic mistakes. However after the Indy 500, Power found his form of old, with four wins (including a brilliant win at Pocono and at Road America) in six races. Should he secure a second championship, he would also be a deserving champion.
It has been a strong campaign again from Newgarden, who is linked with a number of teams for 2017 and rightly so. His win at Iowa was an absolute demolition of the opposition, and he ran incredibly well at the Indy 500. His fitness cannot be questioned either, as despite a nasty crash at Texas, his form was not affected at all.
The top driver in the standings equipped with a Honda package again, Rahal has had a season of ups and downs which has seen him steal victory from the clutches of defeat in one of the closest finishes ever in IndyCar. Some of the results did not reflect Rahal’s performances and he has had a number of finishes outside of the top ten and that really prevented a championship challenge for the second year running. However Rahal’s breakthrough year in 2015 has turned out to not be a one-hit wonder.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Losing both Mikhail Aleshin and James Hinchcliffe from action within the space of less than a year must have been tough for the SPM team, but both drivers came back for 2016. Hinchcliffe has been unfortunate to not take any victories this season, losing out to Rahal at Texas and finishing seventh from pole at Indianapolis, but the popular Canadian is back to his best.
For Aleshin, nicknamed The Mad Russian, his second season has seen much improvement from his first back in 2014. He has troubled Hinchcliffe often and he has starred himself and was unfortunate to not win at either Mid Ohio or at Pocono, despite leading the most laps at both events. Given the tensions between the United States and Russia as well, having someone who has proven to be exciting to watch and a popular guy such as Aleshin (who has helped bring IndyCar to the masses in his homeland) is certainly a good thing.
The Rookie Class
IndyCar has been absolutely spoiled by the brilliant class of rookies seen this year. Alexander Rossi has gone from a nobody to a somebody very quickly and seems happy to stay in IndyCar for 2017 in addition to being set to take the Rookie of the Year honours this year. His Indy 500 win was incredibly well executed between himself and Bryan Herta (in a similar fashion to Dan Wheldon’s win in 2011) and he has also shown strong pace at other points this season. The manner in which he has adapted to the ovals has been extraordinary.
Conor Daly is the perfect driver for a team like Dale Coyne Racing and in his first full season the young American has driven some brilliant races. There have been times where strategy (and Coyne has always been masterful in that) has helped get a good result for Daly but there were other times where Daly was able to mix with the big boys from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti on talent alone. On top of all that, he is hugely popular in his native land and looks set to have a long IndyCar career, almost certainly with major success in the future.
Max Chilton has not always featured at the very front in the races in his rookie campaign but he has definitely shown progress as the year has gone on, appears on very good terms with Chip Ganassi and has notched up a couple of top tens. He usually keeps his nose clean as well, and any incident he has been involved in has not been through his error.
Spencer Pigot has only run a partial campaign in 2016 (three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan and a number of road course races in Ed Carpenter’s car) but he too has been impressive this season, with a peak finish of seventh at Mid Ohio. Carpenter seems keen to keep the youngster on for next season as well, however whether that is in a full-time seat or a part-season seat is yet to be seen.
IndyCar’s YouTube Channel
It has been incredibly refreshing to see IndyCar broadcasting as many of the practice and qualifying sessions as possible on their YouTube channel. However, for those with no access to the broadcasting stations in the United States, they miss out on any action which is shown on that channel which is unfortunate, as IndyCar does not stream sessions shown on TV at all. However, IndyCar uploads their races in full not long after the race itself, which is also brilliant and allows fans to catch up on races they may have missed.
A number of incidents have seen some odd penalties handed out this season. Queries over pit exiting, qualifying with an illegal car and worn skid-plates has seen a number of teams and drivers unhappy with how some things have been handled. In addition, numerous incidents in qualifying have seen a call for sessions to be extended on road and street courses as traffic can be such an issue. These calls and the inconsistency compared to say last year could be off putting for fans, and does bring the series into disrepute.
Perhaps calling reigning-champion, third-placed man and two-time winner in 2016 Dixon a loser is a bit harsh, but many must have been expecting a mid-season charge from the Kiwi which simply did not materialise. Strangely for IndyCar’s Iceman, a number of uncharacteristic errors were also made this season, but his two wins – Phoenix and Watkins Glen were vintage Dixon.
Juan Pablo Montoya
This season has been one to forget for last season’s runner up Juan Pablo Montoya. Qualifying has been a massive issue but as the year has progressed, the chance of a Montoya win has seemingly seemed less and less likely. Of the four Penske drivers, Montoya has by far looked the least competitive.
It has been a shocking season for Andretti, with just the one race win in 2016. There were times where they were a bit unlucky – Ryan Hunter-Reay’s performance at Pocono yielding only a third-place is a fine example, but they have struggled massively in qualifying taking just one pole position (Munoz, Texas) and that has cost them dearly in the races on a fair few occasions. Munoz brushed off a slow start and narrowly missing out on the Indy 500 again to be set to finish the top of the quartet but Hunter-Reay’s patchy results and Marco Andretti being absolutely nowhere on race day has seen them both in the wrong end of the table.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises
This season has been dismal for the Foyt team, which has seen some good qualifying results translating into absolutely nothing in the races. Of the 20 full-time drivers in 2016, their drivers are 18th and 20th in the standings, and have just two top five finishes to boast about. There have also been a number of costly crashes, and it must be questioned just how this team can try and make its way forward.