Wednesday , 19 September 2018
Josef Newgarden - Sonoma Raceway. Photo: IndyCar.

Better looks and better racing? 2018 IndyCar season preview

There’s a lot of change ahead of the 2018 IndyCar season. There is effectively a new car, there are exciting new teams and drivers and a return of a classic venue. However, the most intriguing change is probably the reduction in entrants for two of the series’ most powerful teams. All of these changes would imply that some of the smaller teams may be able to mount a more serious championship challenge, but just how realistic is that?

2018 IndyCar season preview

Technical

After three seasons of the manufacturer-based appendages to the original DW12 bodykit, the concept was deemed to be expensive and added very little, if anything, to the racing. Therefore it has been scrapped and chassis manufacturer Dallara has produced a new bodykit with the aim of reducing dirty air, while increasing ground effect and improving the appearance of the car as well. Initial impressions seem to be good, with both the road course and superspeedway variants of the car appearing very pleasing to the eye. At a time when Formula 1 is going through a period of making the car less attractive (although halo and t-wings are for another debate), this is a welcome change.

In addition to appearance, the car is now more difficult to drive, due to being more lively. What this is likely to do is increase the gaps in qualifying (more than a dozen cars were often separated by less than a second last year), but as a result the racing should be better. Dirty air is the enemy of racing, which makes this a much-needed change. It will look less spectacular from outside as corning speeds will lessen, but from the onboards and in wheel-to-wheel combat it will look considerably more frantic.

The objective tyre supplier Firestone was given over the winter was to increase the difference between the harder and the softer compound tyre. New wet tyres have also been introduced due to the new aerokit. New dry tyres could be introduced mid-season, which can throw a spanner in the works for some teams and drivers. Another major ‘under the hood’ change is to the brakes – which are produced by a new supplier.

The only other visible change is to the steering wheels, which will now feature a F1-style LCD screen. This is a minor change but will again change how things look from the onboards, and will change what can be displayed to the drivers.

Calendar

Continuity is the general theme with modern Indycar calendars, and 2018 is no exception. The schedule runs between the 11th of March and the 16th of September and spans 17 races across 15 venues. The only major change is the loss of Watkins Glen from the calendar. In its place will be the return of Portland International Raceway, which has not hosted a race since the demise of the Champ Car series at the end of 2007. It will be the penultimate round, at the beginning of September.

Teams and drivers

22 full-time entries, two part-time entries and several Indianapolis-only entries have been confirmed in 2017. A decade after reunification, the quality of the field continues to grow. Several new teams – Carlin, Michael Shank Racing, Juncos Racing and Harding Racing, have joined the party, but both Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have culled at least one entry.

Team Penske

1 – Josef Newgarden – 2017 champion

Newgarden’s overdue move to a top team reaped one of the ultimate rewards at the first time of asking. There were occasional mistakes made during the season – most famously at Watkins Glen at the pit exit, but his sheer consistency helped take him to his maiden title. This is clearly the man to beat, even if he is lacking that extra little bit across a hot lap.

12 – Will Power – 2014 champion

Power had the tools to take a second championship but was unable to make it happen in 2017. A combination of bad luck and silly mistakes was his undoing. He was as fearsome as ever in qualifying, taking six pole positions last year. Power is becoming a factor at pretty much every venue, oval or not, and he should be expected to fight for a second title again.

22 – Simon Pagenaud – 2016 champion

The 2016 champion finished in the runner-up spot last year, but that is perhaps doing his season a bit more justice than it was worth. Where Pagenaud was strong was in finishing races – the only driver to finish all 17, but he took just one pole and notably lost out in wheel-to-wheel contact with Newgarden at Gateway. He needs to be more aggressive this year, and be a bit more useful across one lap.

3 – Helio Castroneves – 2001, 2002, 2009 Indianapolis 500 winner (Indianapolis only)

The three-time Indy 500 champion-turned sportscar driver will make an appearance during the Month of May as he seeks a record-equalling fourth 500 win.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises

4 – Matheus “Matt” Leist – 2016 British F3 champion, 2017 Freedom 100 winner

The Brazilian rookie is one to watch. He absolutely dominated the Freedom 100 in what was his first oval race and took two more wins in his first season stateside. In a time when there is a lack of talent coming through from that part of the world, Leist is one of a few exciting drivers coming through.

14 – Tony Kanaan – 2004 champion

The most experienced and oldest driver in the field moves to Foyt’s team from Ganassi, after struggling to make a major impression there. This is expected to be a building period for the team, and Kanaan’s experience should help massively.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

5 – James Hinchcliffe – five-time Indycar winner

Schmidt has a new big name in the team in Leena Gade, who has come over from Bentley. Hinchcliffe won at Long Beach (somewhat fortuitously) last year and has established himself as a strong driver at a lot of venues. This is not a year that SPM is expected to challenge for the championship, but Hinchcliffe should be looking at race wins and multiple top-fives in 2018.

6 – Robert Wickens – 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 champion

Wickens has one appearance already in Indycar – as a substitute for Mikhail Aleshin in practice at Road America last year. He moves from the DTM over to join his compatriot and friend Hinchcliffe for 2018 and is the rookie with the most experience and pedigree. Expect Wickens to need to take a bit of time to get to grips with oval racing and single seater racing again, but his technical knowledge is very strong and his influence from Europe can come in handy.

7 – TBA

Chip Ganassi Racing

9 – Scott Dixon – 2003, 2008, 2013, 2015 champion, 2008 Indy 500 winner

Dixon took his sole win of 2018 at Road America, which was impeccable, but results like that were hard to come by against the Penske quartet. A frightening crash at Indy did not hinder him beyond losing out on the double points race there, and he should feature again in the fight for the championship. Dixon’s style should suit the new generation of cars, and he tends to adapt quickly to a new ruleset.

10 – Ed Jones – 2017 Indycar rookie of the year

Jones was arguably more deserving of the Indy 500 rookie of the year honours over Fernando Alonso. His third-place finish despite damage was magnificent and did a solid job in leading the Dale Coyne team after star driver Sebastien Bourdais was injured. Jones also rarely makes errors, and when Brendon Hartley’s move to Ganassi fell through, made him a very commendable choice to partner Dixon at the team which now runs just two cars.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

15 – Graham Rahal – six-time Indycar winner

Rahal has been producing some incredibly strong results in recent years despite the fact that he has rarely had a team-mate to bounce back off. That changes for 2018, as he has a full-time team-mate for the first time in a while, and he expects this to be of much help to him. What will be interesting will be how Rahal reacts to these cars, given how well he adapted to the higher downforce cars of the manufacturer kit era.

30 – Takuma Sato – 2017 Indy 500 champion

Sato stole the glory at Indy last year, adding to his Long Beach win a few years ago. This will be the third different team Sato has run for in as many years, but Rahal is not a new team to Sato. As he and his team-mate have similar driving styles, it should be of benefit to both drivers. Sato can feature for victories again in 2018.

TBA – TBA

Dale Coyne Racing

18 – Sebastien Bourdais – 2004-2007 Champ Car champion

Bourdais was able to produce some absolute giant-killer performances last year for one of the smaller teams in the series before his horrific accident at Indy. There is no reason why Bourdais should not be able to feature for wins again this year, especially with 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser onboard.

19 – Pietro Fittipaldi – 2017 Formula V8 3.5 champion
19 – Zachary Claman DeMelo – one Indycar start

The second Coyne seat will be shared between Indy Lights veteran Claman DeMelo and third-generation driver Fittipaldi. Given how well Jones fared in this seat last season, both drivers should be looking to produce similar performances this season in an attempt to make an impression on teams and sponsors for a full-time 2019 seat.

63 – Pippa Mann – one-time Indy Lights race winner

Oval-specialist Mann will continue to make a one-off appearance in the Indy 500 alongside her sportscar career. In 2017, she became the first woman to achieve a 230mph lap at the speedway.

Ed Carpenter Racing

20 – Ed Carpenter – three-time Indycar race winner
20 – Jordan King – two-time GP2 race winner

Team owner Carpenter will continue to race his cars on the ovals. He will be sharing the car with GP2/Formula 2 veteran Jordan King. Following on from Spencer Pigot, King has a tough driver to emulate. Carpenter is usually strong on the ovals and should expect to feature in the races he does.

21 – Spencer Pigot – 2015 Indy Lights champion

Remarkably, this will be Pigot’s first full season in Indycar and it is overdue. He has had some very strong runs on the road courses and a solid run at Indy for Juncos last year has given him an opportunity in the second Carpenter entry. This will be a year where Pigot should aim for some top-five finishes and perhaps more.

TBA – Danica Patrick – one-time Indycar race winner

In her final race before retiring from motorsport, Patrick will have one final crack at the Indy 500, nearly seven years after her most recent Indycar start in 2011.

Carlin

23 – Charlie Kimball – one-time Indycar race winner

New team Carlin, which moves up from Indy Lights, will have Kimball in its ranks after several years at Ganassi. He brings plenty of experience to a team which will need it. With a new team, it will be critical that Kimball keeps his nose clean – something he has not done often in his Indycar career to date.

59 – Max Chilton – one-time Indy Lights race winner

Also making a move from Ganassi is former F1 driver Chilton. He had a strong run at Indy last year but failed to make a major impression in two years at Ganassi. At Carlin, a team where Chilton has had a lot of success in the past, better things are expected.

Dreyer and Reinbold Racing

24 – Sage Karam – 2013 Indy Lights champion

Karam – who now regularly races in IMSA in the GTD class, will start with Dreyer and Reinbold for the third successive year, and fourth in total. He needs a clean race, but is usually very handy around the Indianapolis oval.

TBA – TBA

Having been restricted to just one Indy entry for the past couple of years, this team is expected to expand to two cars for the great race.

Andretti Autosport

26 – Zach Veach – two Indycar starts

Rookie Veach has several seasons in Indy Lights in experience so should be familiar with many of the tracks already. There is a lot of experience in the Andretti camp which should help him get up to speed quickly.

27 – Alexander Rossi – two-time Indycar race winner

2017 was Rossi’s real arrival on the Indycar scene as he looked competitive on many of the tracks, and was often the strongest of the Andretti quartet. This is the year that Rossi should form a genuine championship challenge. He looked strong pretty much everywhere at some point in his short Indycar career, which bodes well. He just needs to work a bit on qualifying and short oval pace and he will feature season-long.

28 – Ryan Hunter-Reay – 2012 champion, 2014 Indy 500 winner

It has been a very long time since Hunter-Reay featured for a championship, and perhaps a change of technical regulation will help change that. He has been unlucky at times in recent years, and at other times he has simply lacked pace.

98 – Marco Andretti – two-time Indycar race winner

The third-generation Andretti driver moves over to Andretti Herta (hence the number swap with Rossi) for this season, and the driver who has failed to win in a DW12 to date will be looking to change that. After Paul Tracy famously said he should drive for Uber instead of racing, question marks still remain over just how good Andretti can be.

25 – Stefan Wilson – two-time Indy Lights race winner

The younger brother of the late Justin Wilson will finally get his second crack at the Indy 500, having made way for Fernando Alonso last year.

29 – Carlos Munoz – two-time Indy 500 runner-up

After being dropped by Foyt after just one season, Munoz will make a one-off appearance at Indy, where he has contested for victory multiple times before.

Juncos Racing

32 – Kyle Kaiser – 2017 Indy Lights champion
32 – Rene Binder – four-time Formula V8 3.5 race winner

New team Juncos has a start at Indy to its name from last year and brings along its most recent Indy Lights champion as well as an experienced European single seater driver for a number of races in 2018. This is expected to be a building period for the team.

Michael Shank Racing

60 – Jack Harvey – one Indycar start

The sportscar team will make a few starts in 2018 with Harvey, with technical support from SPM. Like Juncos, this is to build experience.

Harding Racing

88 – Gabby Chaves – 2015 rookie of the year

Harding was a surprisingly competitive operation in the handful of oval races it did in 2017 with Chaves, and with Al Unser Jr. onboard for support, can surprise in 2018. How it will fare on road courses, however, is another story.

Lazier Partners Racing

TBA – Buddy Lazier – 1996 Indy 500 champion

Veteran Lazier is expected to make a one-off appearance at the Indy 500 again. He was on the pace last year before crashing out.

About Craig Woollard

Craig Woollard is an avid motor racing fan and freelance journalist and writer. A mathematics graduate from the University of Essex in 2013, Woollard has ambitions to work within motor racing. He is a member of Autosport's academy programme. In his spare time, he listens to music, sim races, wears hats and drinks cranberry juice.

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