2011 IZOD IndyCar Series Team Preview
AFS Racing (Rafael Matos #17, TBA)
It looks like AFS will answer the bell for 2011, though exactly whom will be the driver after the Streets of St. Petersburg is still very much in question. We'll have to see exactly what their growing pains are, but don't expect this team to be a frontrunner on Day 1. Rafa Matos had a difficult offseason, losing his father and his ride at DeFerran Dragon Racing within 24 hours of each other. He's getting at least one more chance to show what he can do, but expectations should be managed with this program. AFS was successful in Firestone Indy Lights; can they find the same magic in the big cars?
Andretti Autosport (Danica Patrick #7, Marco Andretti #26, Mike Conway #27, Ryan Hunter-Reay #28)
After a tumultuous offseason (Tony Kanaan leaving, some sponsorship reductions), Andretti recovered in part with the surprise signing of Mike Conway and the addition of DHL as a major sponsor. This team is all about the expectations: will Danica return to form in what might be her last year full-time in an IndyCar? Can Marco Andretti finally break his winless streak and begin to turn some of those near-misses into trips to Victory Lane? How will Conway return from his grisly accident at Indy last May?
|All Eyes On Marco.|
This team won two races last year. Anything not surpassing that will be regarded as a disappointment.
(Target/Service Central/Norvo Nordisk) Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon #9, Dario Franchitti #10, Graham Rahal #38, Charlie Kimball #83)
Ganssi actually split his operation up between his usual team and newcomers Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal, but for our purposes, we're putting them all together. Dario Franchitti is a favorite to defend his IZOD IndyCar Series Championship, but this is Ganassi, so you know Scott Dixon will be right there as well. Graham Rahal's Service Central sponsorship grabbed him a spot with Ganassi's spinoff team, and it'll be both a chance and a test for the legacy driver's talent to be given a chance to show what he can really do. Charlie Kimball will need to do some on-the-job learning, but has a definite shot at Rookie of the Year if he can put it all together early on. Franchitti, Dixon, and occasionally Rahal should duke it out with Penske for ultimate bragging right in the 2011 campaign.
Conquest Racing (Sebastian Saavedra #34, TBA #36)
Sebastian Saavedra will be Conquest's main driver for 2011, but a lot of fans aren't exactly up on the young Colombian after his very public walkout and impolitic comments regarding Bryan Herta Autosport at Kentucky in Firestone Indy Lights last year. Saavedra's a rookie everywhere but at Indy, but the general consenus is he does have some speed. We'll see if it's enough to have him be a Rookie of the Year candidate and occasionally push Conquest out of the backmarker ranks.
The second Conquest car (#36) is still very much up in the air; it sounds as if team owner Eric Bachelart is trying to put together a deal starting a couple races into the season. No one seems sure if Bertrand Baguette could return here for some events, though he is trying to find a deal at least for Indy. Pippa Mann could quite possibly see a partial oval schedule here, or it could be a complete unknown currently off the radar. And therein lies the joy of trying to do a preseason preview for a mercurial team such as Conquest.
Dale Coyne Racing (James Jakes #18, Sebastien Bourdais/TBA #19)
|This is James Jakes.|
James Jakes tested with Coyne at Barber in the #19 car, in the sort of surprise move that really isn't a surprise when it's Dale Coyne Racing. He's looking full-time for DCR as well, but he's perhaps the least-known quantity out there. This might end up being the most bipolar (but fascinating!) team to watch develop on the entire grid. If Plowey or Lloyd get some time in the car, they should be interesting to watch, but otherwise this team's going to suffer on anything oval-shaped.
Dreyer and Reinbold Racing (Justin Wilson #22, Ana Beatriz #24)
Veteran Justin Wilson is in his second year with this team, and is one of the more highly regarded technical drivers in the series. He's more than capable of winning, especially on road courses; we'll have to see now if he can take Dreyer and Reinbold to the upper tier of IndyCar teams. His teammate this year, rookie Ana "Bia" Beatriz, has previously impressed fans in Indy Lights and karting, but she'll have to show more than she showed at the Barber test if she's to compete for Rookie of the Year honors.
Don't be surprised if you see a few races in a third car by a driver or two at Indy or later on. Paul Tracy is confirmed for at least the 500. Veteran Davey Hamilton also seems to be linked here with Kingdom Racing and his partial-season oval program.
Foyt Racing (Vitor Meira #14)
|Foyt's relationship and stability with Meira could bear|
If this the #14 car plugs along in 12th or 13th place in the standings all year, it'll have to be considered a disappointing year. A Top 10 points finish is not totally out of the question, but it'll be a fight--they'll have to improve upon the six Top 10 finishes from last year to have a shot at it.
HVM Racing (Simona de Silvestro, #78)
Simona charmed many fans last year as a rookie with her enthusiastic, cheery personality and a clear love of racing. Big things are expected of Sim and the HVM crew on the road courses; let's hope that a brand-new tub to replace the dinosaur that labored through the last portion of 2010 help fulfill those expectations. (A solid sponsorship doesn't hurt, either). Losing their race engineer late in the game to KV Racing won't help this team any, however, and we'll have to wait and see how they respond to the shake-up.
On the PR side, with Danica Patrick possibly on her way out the door to NASCAR in 2012, look to see if INDYCAR makes any moves to help promote Simona to their overall audience.
KV Racing Technology (Takuma Sato #5, EJ Viso #59, Tony Kanaan #82)
It's hard to think of a more nightmarish season than KV Racing endured in 2010; it seemed like Mario Moraes, Takuma Sato, and EJ Viso were hitting the wall at every turn. By sheer force of odds alone, one would think KV could not have another season like that this year, and for their sake, let's hope that's the case. The frustrating aspect of it all is that KV showed some very fast cars at times last year, with returning drivers Sato and Viso also capable of serious challenges in maddenly inconsistent bursts. Viso in particular continues to show great promise between incidents, but he really needs to find some consistently in his 4th year in the series.
|Viso and company look to put the past behind them.|
Tony Kanaan was a late addition to this team after his DeFerran Dragon Racing deal (and the team itself) dissolved late in the offseason. Kanaan showed last year he can still win, and he's still one of the most talented, popular drivers in the series. If this team can reduce the mix of errors and bad luck, they could grab the checkered flag at some point in 2011. The cars are speedy enough; the decisions and luck need to be better. Also, don't forget, Tomas Scheckter (likely) and Redline Energy/SH Racing should partner with this team for Indy.
Newman/Haas Racing (Oriol Servia #02, James Hinchcliffe #06)
Oriol Servia tested early and often with this team, but wasn't officially signed until very late in the game. Newman/Haas underachieved with Hideki Mutoh in the cockpit for 2010, but Servia is a smart, experienced driver who will bring the car home and should do the absolute most with what he's given.
James Hinchcliffe set the world on fire with his test at Barber, but still needs to have funding come through for a full season. Newman/Haas has struggled in the past couple of years off and on, but don't let that fool you: this team absolutely can contend. They shouldn't be off anyone's radar for very long.
Panther Racing (J.R. Hildebrand #4)
J.R. Hildebrand is a rookie, but a highly regarded one. He's replacing a popular former champion in Dan Wheldon, so you can imagine all eyes are going to be on Hildebrand to see if he can fill those (designer) shoes. Panther's test at Barber ended early with a mishap, but Hildebrand should compete with Ganassi's Charlie Kimball for Rookie of the Year honors. Panther should remain dangerous at Indy and the other ovals, but it will be interesting to see how their road course results stack up the mediocre results of years past. Watch to see if Hildebrand is capable of minimizing his growing pains, and look for Panther to add a second car at Indy and perhaps a couple of the ovals.
Penske Racing (Helio Castroneves #3, Ryan Briscoe #6, Will Power #12)
|It's good to be Penske.|
Sam Schmidt Motorsports (Alex Tagliani #77, Townsend Bell #99, Others)
The finances behind FAZZT Race Team had always been questioned, but there's little doubt of the talent of Alex Tagliani and the crew assembled there. Sam Schmidt bought up the troubled team's assets, which should mean more financial stability overall. This team isn't currently at the level of a Penske or Ganassi, but perhaps of all the smaller teams, they're the ones most capable of giving them plenty of headaches. Watch for Tag to challenge those perennial frontrunners at multiple points this season. If they can up the consistency of their good outings, look out.
Townsend Bell is confirmed for Indy and Vegas, but we'll have to see if he runs any races in between those two. This team will also be running Wade Cunningham for few races, and Jay Howard (in partnership with Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan) at Indy. It's great to see Cunningham finally get his shot; for Howard, this may be his best chance yet to qualify for that elusive spot in the Indy 500.
Sarah Fisher Racing (Ed Carpenter #67)
Hometown favorite Ed Carpenter is running all the domestic ovals and likely three road courses as part of SFR's partial season. Fisher's results were generally poor last year and often attributed to a defective tub. We'll have to see if Carpenter can bring some of his oval magic to this team, or if he'll be stuck near the back. With Fisher herself retired from active driving and settling into a full-time role as owner-only, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic and results of this team respond.
Depending on how things go, SFR could field a second car for Indy, but you have to think they'd be pretty careful after failing to make it in on Bump Day with Jay Howard last year.
Other Drivers Not Mentioned Above
Dan Wheldon has seemed confident of a ride, but the money right now is on him being Indy-only. If Dragon Racing emerges at this late date from the ashes of De Ferran Dragon, he could go there, as well as the possibility of later races with AFS or another team. We also could see Indy Lights driver Brandon Wagner find a seat later in the year, and "Speedy" Dan Clarke has been brought forth as a possibility as well. So long as we remember that silly season doesn't strictly end when the green flag drops for the first time, nothing that happens should be a total shock.
Of course, there's all the five drivers who will be invited for the Vegas Challenge, but we'll just have to wait and see on that, though I can't think of a better way to end the silly season than with having Alex Zanardi confirmed for that race. Let's hope it happens.
(Images courtesy of IndyCar Media).