The 2016 IndyCar season was largely contested between two of Penske’s juggernauts – Will Power of Australia and Simon Pagenaud of France. In the end, it was Pagenaud who came out on top in the double points finale at Sonoma.
The 2017 IndyCar season may be much of the same, but some high-profile changes could well just spring a few surprises. It is also time to see two of the series’ biggest names challenge Penske more frequently than they managed to in 2016.
The biggest change over the off-season has been Ganassi’s switch from Chevrolet to Honda. The freeze in aero kit development will should see them feature a bit more on circuits where the Hondas were a bit better last season, whilst the Japanese manufacturer should also continue to make progress on the engine side. Honda was notably a bit short on outright horsepower at various points last year. Of the big teams, Ganassi is the only team to retain its line-up from 2016, which includes Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton.
The biggest weapon in Ganassi’s armoury is Dixon, who consistently challenges for race wins and for championships each year. Counting Dixon out at any stage of the season before it becomes mathematically impossible is unwise, especially as he snatched the title from the hands of Power and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015. Kanaan is entering the twilight of his IndyCar career, but continues to be a force in the series. Kanaan is seeking his first win for Ganassi since 2014. Kimball occasionally features in races, and is also seeking his first win in a very long time. Chilton had a very cautious rookie campaign, but showed some good speed at a number of tracks. The British driver, who raced in Formula 1 with Marussia, is targeting podiums and then race wins in 2017.
Andretti will be looking to bounce back after a season which saw them take just one race win – Alexander Rossi’s dramatic maiden win at Indianapolis in the Andretti/Bryan Herta tie-up entry. There is a bit of a driver line-up change, but Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and of course, Marco Andretti, all return to the team in 2017.
Veteran Takuma Sato joins the team from A.J. Foyt Racing at the expense of Carlos Munoz, who goes the other way. Sato – who is often regarded as quick but erratic (as he has for much of his long career), may be able to use his vast experience at the team, where he will be the oldest driver in the line-up. The third-generation Andretti absolutely needs to have a strong season, following another winless season which saw him being judged by Paul Tracy as a driver good enough only for Uber. Andretti did not have a year to remember in 2016.
2012 champion Hunter-Reay salvaged a few results last year, but went winless (despite an epic performance at Pocono which saw him carve through the field twice). 2016 was his worst season since joining Andretti, and he will look to amend that in 2017. Rossi will look to build on a strong rookie campaign, with 2017 being the first year he has not had to worry about money in racing following winning the 100th Indianapolis 500.
Penske also is not immune to change, and they have signed one of the most impressive young American drivers to come through Mazda’s Road to Indy in a number of years. However, their most recent Indy 500 champion will run solely at the Brickyard in an attempt to win his third crown there. The four drivers within Penske’s stable forms one of the strongest teams in motorsport today.
Reigning champion Pagenaud established himself as one of the top active drivers in the world in 2016 – especially on any given day on any given road or street course. His lack of race wins on ovals may come to haunt him in 2017, but Pagenaud must be entering the year as the favourite. Josef Newgarden finally makes his jump to a top team, at the expense of Montoya. What is a given is that Newgarden is good – very good. Just how good however is yet to be seen, and how he can deal with the pressure of driving for ‘The Captain’ Roger Penske will be fascinating to watch. Do not be surprised if we see wins from the off from Newgarden.
Helio Castroneves is in a prolonged winless streak which has gone on seemingly forever. The popular Brazilian still features at the sharp end of the field, and is always fearsome in qualifying despite his age. After so many championship misses when at the peak of his powers, Castroneves’ ability to challenge for a championship at the age of 41 must be in question. Will Power missed out on a second championship last year, after an impressive run of results in the middle of the year. He is another driver who will almost certainly enter the year as one of the favourites for the title.
As we have seen in recent seasons, it is not just the powerhouses of the IndyCar scene who can challenge for race wins and championships. Graham Rahal has done a truly stellar job in the aero kit-shod era with effectively a single-car effort. He will be joined by Oriol Servia for at least three races in 2017, and the Spaniard’s experience of nearly 200 starts will certainly be of use to the small team looking to perform a giant-killing.
Ed Carpenter Racing has shown in recent years that it has the ability to fight for race victories when the opportunity arises. They lost their strongest asset in Newgarden to Penske for 2017, but will run a strong team regardless. Ed Carpenter himself will again drive the ovals this year, and he will be replaced on the road and street courses by Spencer Pigot, who showed a lot of promise in the races he did last year. Replacing Newgarden will be J.R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand returns to a full-time seat for only the third time in his IndyCar career to date. The 29-year-old Californian has a lot to prove.
A. J. Foyt’s team will run the Chevrolet engines which were previously Ganassi’s in 2017. The team will also be running an entirely new driver pairing – with Sato off to Andretti and Jack Hawksworth off to the IMSA SportsCar Championship. In their place, will be Munoz, which has already been mentioned and Conor Daly, who impressed many with his performances at Dale Coyne Racing last year. For Munoz, a strong Indy run will be expected as is the norm from the young Colombian, but a fresh start should be a positive for him as well. Foyt has two impressive, young guys in his camp now.
Dale Coyne Racing will run the ultimate mixture of youth and experience. Four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais moves over from KV Racing, which is a massive name for the small team. Bourdais has been able to deliver some fine victories in recent years with unconventional strategies or on pace alone. Coyne as a strategist has also been able to use strategy to good effect. Partnering Bourdais will be rookie Ed Jones, who will become the first IndyCar driver to race under the United Arab Emirates flag. Jones won the 2016 Indy Lights championship, and is set to be the only full-time rookie in the field.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will retain both James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin in 2017. Aleshin’s position in IndyCar was under threat over the winter, but ‘The Mad Russian’ was able to secure his sponsorship for the year. Aleshin had a strong second full campaign last year, with his performances at Pocono and Mid Ohio which nearly resulted in at least one race win being his strongest performances to date in the States.
Hinchcliffe was also unfortunate to end the year without victory in 2016. The 2016 Indy 500 pole winner ran well in the big race and dominated much of the proceedings at the rescheduled Texas race late in the year, before being passed late by Rahal. Schmidt will also run a third car, solely for the 500 with 2006 Lights champion Jay Howard, with support from the Tony Stewart Foundation.
A number of one-off entries will also run for Indy. As of the time of writing, only Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is one of the only two teams entered, with Sage Karam who also ran with the team last year. However, joining the ranks for the 500 is Indy Lights team Juncos Racing, who has acquired the assets of the now-defunct KV Racing team. Juncos, along with Carlin, are two teams rumoured to be entering the series full-time in the near future.
There is only one significant calendar change for 2017, with Gateway Motorsports Park being added to the roster, bringing the total of races being run to 17. This will be the 15th round of the season. The only other real change is the Phoenix round being the fourth round of the season, as opposed to the second round last year. The races at Long Beach and at Alabama both have been brought forward by one round compared to last year as a result.
There are several tweaks to the regulations for this year. Firstly, each team will be allocated an extra set of the red-walled ‘alternate’ tyre for each race weekend. As mentioned earlier, the aero kit freeze will put more emphasis on engine development. Due to the converging of the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits, there should not be specific tracks which suit one manufacturer over the other. Another change is the push-to-pass system reverting to a time allotment system.
It is tricky to predict an outright winner at this stage of the season, but safe bets would be put on one of the Penske runners. However, should those drivers trip up over each other, then it would be very unwise to count out Dixon and Hunter-Reay, who are both capable of championships. In what could be the final year for Dallara’s DW12 chassis, it deserves a real send-off if that is the case. We have seen some incredible racing from it over the past five seasons, and this season should be no different.