For the first time in many years, Indycar will have a rich intake of fresh rookies ahead of its next season – not just in terms of drivers, but in terms of teams as well. While the total amount of full-time entries remains stagnant, the diversity in teams and drivers is stronger than recent years, and for the first time in a few years Bump Day at the Indianapolis 500 could hold some significance. But what makes 2018 the right time to join the series?
2018 will be the year that Carlin, Michael Shank Racing, Juncos Racing and Harding Racing all join the series in a significant capacity. IMSA team Shank, with support from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, will do six races in 2018. Juncos, which debuted at the Indianapolis 500 last year and has a rich legacy in Indy Lights – IndyCar’s tried and tested feeder series, will join with one car, with at least two drivers running select races part-time. Harding, which ran three races in 2017, will run full-time with one car, and has recruited Indycar legend Al Unser Jr as a consultant. Another Lights team – Carlin, will run two cars full-time. Carlin, as those familiar with the European feeder series ladder will be aware, has had massive success in some hugely competitive championships and comes in with the strongest heritage. All four of these teams should be taken seriously and shouldn’t be expected to be bringing up the rear particularly often.
Four teams are joining the series and seven rookies from a wide range of backgrounds will make their debut too – three of them full-time. Details on each will come in a full season preview, but ultimately there is a strong intake in terms of drivers in 2018. Robert Wickens is the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 champion, Kyle Kaiser is the reigning Lights champion, and third-generation driver Pietro Fittipaldi is the reigning 3.5 series champion, where Rene Binder was a multiple race winner. Matheus Leist is the 2016 British Formula 3 champion. Jordan King is a race winner at GP2 level, while Zach Veach, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Jack Harvey are all race winners at Lights level.
Indycar racing is going through its biggest change in more than half a decade. The biggest incentive to join at this moment in time is the all-new aerokit. The reduction in downforce will make the cars more reliant on mechanical grip and will make for an easier adjustment for drivers who are more familiar with low-downforce (in comparison to the manufacturer aerokit era, or Formula 1) cars. The reliance on mechanical grip may be of benefit to teams with experience in just that. This goes beyond the whole ‘new car should reset the field’ ideology, which should also logically apply as well. Ultimately, a significant change in regulation is a perfect time for new teams and drivers to join a series.
In exchange for the new entries, some of the biggest teams in the series have reduced their efforts. Both Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, which run multiple programs in several series, have reduced their assault to three and two entries respectively. This eliminates three consistently competitive cars from the running and thus might allow other teams to have a chance to shine, including new teams.
Looking beyond the entry lists and strength in depth of the rookie field this year, the series itself is on a continual upward swing. A decade on from reunification, Indycar racing is in really good health. The new aerokit is probably the best decision made by the powers that be since the introduction of the current car. While Formula 1 continues to be locked in a political war over the critical 2021 regulations and even sportscar racing, which has often provided a sanctuary for teams and drivers, has looked a bit shaky in recent years at the top level, American open-wheel racing is in a golden age arguably not seen in over 20 years since the days of Mansell, Fittipaldi, Unser Jr, Vasser and Zanardi. With so many great champions in the field and talented drivers in the field yet to win a championship, it’s an ideal time for some of the finest teams and drivers in the world to be putting an interest in the series.
As Fernando Alonso’s tread into the waters of Indycar racing showed, a big-name jumping ship can bring incredible amounts of interest. Alonso has claimed that he is not yet done with the Indy 500, and so he may well bring the attention in once again sooner rather than later. That amount of attention given to a series in such good health already should make things even better.
The series has had a major upward swing over the past decade, and the talent coming through for 2018 justifies the choices made by the powers that be. Drivers, teams and OEMs looking to make a move into Indycar any time soon will be looking at the new intake and the contribution it makes to an already-strong series.