Monday, March 19, 2012

Zack’s Team-By-Team IndyCar Season Preview

(Welcome to IndyCar Advocate's week-long INDYCAR Kickoff! Each day, we'll be featuring a different big article in anticipation of this weekend's big IZOD IndyCar Series opener at St. Pete).

Finally, the IZOD IndyCar Series season is almost here. If you would have told me in October that I’d be this excited and optimistic about the upcoming season, I would have considered you crazy. But even in the wake of terrible loss, there’s hope and optimism for what will be a pivotal season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. New cars, new engines, and what looks to be the most tremendously talented field we’ve had in over a decade. We'll miss Dan Wheldon terribly, but his memory and legacy will live on in the drivers, fans, and Series he meant so much to.

Along with this comes my pledge to you for this season: this site is 100% IndyCar. That means we feature stories on the IZOD IndyCar Series, Indy 500, and Mazda Road to Indy. Occasionally, we might check on the odd IndyCar alumnus or prospect in ALMS or USAC, but we are dedicated heart and soul to IndyCar. No politics in this election year (split or national), probably no F1, and definitely no NASCAR. There are sites out there that will be happy to inject those topics into their articles (and do a fine job of it), but we aren’t one of them. We deal in IndyCar, friends.

With public service announcement that out of the way, here's the breakdown of all the expected full-time teams of the IZOD IndyCar series for the 2012 series. If you hibernated throughout the winter or are simply getting back into IndyCar after a long layoff, fear not, we've got you covered:

Andretti Autosport
-#26, Marco Andretti
-#27, James Hinchcliffe
-#28, Ryan Hunter-Reay

Andretti Autosport won’t have Danica Patrick this year, but they do have what looks to be a very solid three-car lineup. The Chevy-aligned team won thrice last year, but struggled in qualifying at Indianapolis. They’ll be hoping that the new season sees them back in their place as a very top-tier team in the Series.

Marco will look to build off last year's win.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Marco Andretti once again had a number of bizarre incidents (most of which were not his fault), but he broke his winless streak in an epic duel with Tony Kanaan at Iowa. The bar will always be high for the Andretti scion, but don’t think he can’t win anywhere from Indy to Sonoma. Plus, there are few drivers more fun to watch on cold tires.

James Hinchcliffe was the 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and he’s occupying the GoDaddy seat that would have belonged to Dan Wheldon in the wake of Danica Patrick’s defection to NASCAR. Hinch should do honor to Wheldon in the seat; he’s charismatic, funny, fan-friendly in the extreme, and, oh yes, he’s a pretty good driver as well. He’s part of the next wave of IndyCar stars, and it’s going to be fun to watch him progress.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the rain-soaked New Hampshire race last year, and finished the campaign strong overall (P7 in points). He’s quietly become one of the best all-around threats in the Series over the last couple of years, and is developing nicely into a reliable veteran for Andretti. Depending on how the engine battle plays out, a Top 5 points finish is not out of reach.

Bryan Herta Autosport (Lotus/Team Barracuda)
-#98, Alex Tagliani

The Indianapolis 500-winning team returns as a full-time effort this season, after spending much of last year testing the new DW12 car with their 500 driver Dan Wheldon. BHA was an inspirational story at Indy, and Wheldon will be exceedingly missed. However, this plucky team should do fine honor to his memory this season, if their Lotus engine is anything close to competitive.

Alex Tagliani found himself out at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, but should be a solid presence for “Team Barracuda” and their Barracuda Networks sponsor this year. The 500 pole winner often showed pure speed last season, but couldn’t quite find victory lane. It will be the focus of the team, veteran engineer Todd Malloy, and Tag to make this team raise eyebrows once again in the season ahead.

Dale Coyne Racing
-#18, Justin Wilson
-#19, James Jakes

Coyne announced their drivers relatively early compared to their normal modus operandi, and managed to secure one of the Honda engine deals along the way. After a horrible start to 2011, the team managed to qualify one out of their two cars at Indianapolis (Alex Lloyd), and generally made a nice second-half comeback. Jakes was a virtual unknown to American open wheel fans before last season, but he did a nice job of improving in the latter half of the season, even if the result didn’t necessarily reflect that. He’ll try to avoid a sophomore slump as he returns to Coyne’s team.

Wilson is back with the team he won with at Watkins Glen in 2010, and he’ll also be reunited with engineer Bill Pappas. DCR has long been considered a backmarker team, but with the Wilson/Pappas team-up, they could very easily be moving up in the world this season. Wilson is coming off a season-ending back injury, but sounds ready to go. He could rebound in a big way this year.

(Lotus) Dragon Racing
-#6, Katherine Legge
-#7, Sèbastien Bourdais

One season after an embarrassing partial-season effort, Dragon Racing is reborn as a Lotus factory team. Further, they surprised everyone by announcing a two-car effort of Katherine Legge and former ChampCar ace Sèbastien Bourdais, who was impressive in a partial schedule with Dale Coyne last season. Still, with few details and specifics available as to their overall program, many fans are taking a wait-and-see approach to find out just what sort of Dragon emerges this year.

Legge managed to secure sponsorship from TrueCar, and will be back in American open wheel racing for the first time since the 2007 season. No one is quite sure how her return after a 5-year open wheel hiatus will go, and opinions range from one end of the spectrum to the other. Until the on-track action starts, she remains one of the biggest enigmas in this field.

Less of an unknown is Bourdais; the 4-time ChampCar champion had a rough start to his part-time deal with Coyne last year, but showed he could still run aggressively and well, finishing in the Top 10 in 5 of his last 6 races of the year. He’ll contest the whole season this year with the exception of Milwaukee, which interferes with Le Mans. If he feels as if he has anything left to prove, a couple of great finishes against the quality competitors this season should silence any doubts, especially since no one is quite sure what to expect from Dragon this season.

(Lotus) Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
-#22, Oriol Servia

Dereyer and Reinbold is coming off an immensely underwhelming season that saw the team suffer from both an engineering and injury standpoint. They’ll be starting with only one car this year, but have Jeff Britton and Yves Touron leading in engineering, with veteran Oriol Servia behind the wheel.

Servia finished a sterling P4 in the overall standings with Newman/Haas Racing last year, and showed why the journeyman driver deserves to be in a stable ride full-time. The veteran will give the Lotus factory partner team everything he can out of the car. Lotus DRR will likely add another car for at least Indianapolis.

Ed Carpenter Racing
-#20, Ed Carpenter

After winning at Kentucky with Sarah Fisher’s crew, Carpenter announced his new team this past fall, complete with a three-year sponsor deal with Fuzzy’s Vodka. Carpenter’s known primarily as an oval assassin, and the expectation is he’ll struggle on the road/street courses, but don’t forget, he’s got Derrick Walker and engineer Michael Cannon in his corner for his Chevy-powered machine. Make no mistake, Ed came to play. He should have some rock-solid engineering and setups this season. If he can ace the ovals and pull together some solid finishes in the other races, the hometown favorite’s overall points standing shouldn’t be too shabby.

Foyt Racing
-#14, Mike Conway

On the surface, the Conway/Foyt pairing looks strange, but the early returns are sounding positive for the Honda-affiliated team. Foyt has worked on the engineering side of things this offseason, after another middle-of-the-road season with Vitor Meira left all parties dissatisfied. With Conway, A.J. and Larry Foyt are looking to take advantage of his skill on the road/street courses that make up the majority of this year’s schedule. The team has reportedly been quick in early tests. The unflappable Conway won at Long Beach last season, but failed to qualify for Indy and had a poor second half of the season. However, he did prove he could come back from the leg-shattering accident at Indianapolis that had derailed his 2010 season.

(Lotus) HVM Racing
-#78, Simona de Silvestro

When looking back on 2011, there will be plenty Simona de Silvestro wants to forget, such as the concussion that kept her from racing at Iowa, and her brutal accident and burns at Indianapolis. However, there was also her incredibly gutsy series of qualifying runs with those painful burns to make the field at Indianapolis, and races like her spirited P4 to open the season. Not to jinx her, but you have to think just about any scenario for this season will still be easier than last year. The good news: she made it through, and we’re all convinced that there’s not much the “Iron Maiden” can’t fight her way past now. If Lotus is anywhere near the mark, don’t think Simona can’t find her way to some nice finishes on the twisties this year.

KV Racing Technology
-#5, E.J. Viso
-#8 Rubens Barrichello
-#11, Tony Kanaan

KV Racing is the team many are picking to infringe on Penske/Ganassi dominance this season, and they very well could be right. While E.J. Viso and Tony Kanaan were long expected to return to the team, the addition of Kanaan's close friend, F1 star Rubens Barrichello, to the team instantly heightened expectations. KV looked very fast last year, and as part of the deep field of Chevy teams, they very likely should find themselves taking the checkered flag at some point this season.

E.J. Viso has long been known for his lack of consistency on the track, but he still has shown the speed to contend before. Although it could be another long season if he can't put complete races together, Viso could still be a surprise winner if he manages to simply stay out of trouble. A move into the top half of the points standings would also be a welcome development.

Will Barrichello's debut live up to the hype?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Rubens Barrichello is not only the longest-tenured driver in Formula 1 history, he's also one of the most affable and accessible of all F1 drivers. There's no denying his signing with KV changes the conversation immensely; he'll be paired with his lifelong buddy Kanaan, and should genuinely enjoy the open atmosphere of American open wheel racing. On track, the new car's carbon brakes will be something he's used to from his previous career, and expectations are high that he will do well. Of particular interest will be how he adapts to oval tracks, such as Indianapolis.

Tony Kanaan is one of the true veterans of the sport, but showed he still had plenty in the tank last year, riding a last-minute deal with KV to an overall P5 finish in the standings. He's also a fan favorite to win the 500, after a series of memorable races there over the years. If the combination of the new car, new engine, and new teammate bear fruit as many think it might, this just might be TK's year to drink the milk at Indy.

Novo Nordisk/Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing
-#38, Graham Rahal
-#83, Charlie Kimball

Chip Ganassi’s “other” team brought two young American drivers full-time into the series for 2011, and they’re back with an unchanged roster for the new season. IndyCar legacy Graham Rahal didn’t get his second IndyCar win, but had great runs at Sao Paolo (P2), Milwaukee (P2), and Indy (P3). In the wake of the loss of Dan Wheldon in the offseason, Rahal stepped up, organizing a massive auction to benefit his family, and more recently announced he was working on a bus trip for fans of the Milwaukee race. It seems like it’s been a maturation period for the 23 year-old driver, whom we often forget is still so young. He’ll be a big star for IndyCar, that much seems sure; it’s just a matter of when.

Rahal’s teammate Kimball graduated to the IICS from Firestone Indy Lights last year, and worked through his rookie learning curve, securing two Top 10 finishes before the season is over. Kimball will have good equipment, and a higher overall points finish, a string of Top 10s, and sneaking in for a podium or two would all be good signs of development. Novo Nordisk seems happy with their sponsorship of Kimball, whom as a diabetic racer has been an ideal representative for their product.

Panther Racing
-#4 J.R. Hildebrand

Hildebrand was a favorite for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors last season, but narrowly lost out in a spirited battle to James Hinchcliffe. Only a single, unforgettable turn away from winning the Indy 500 as a rookie, Hildebrand had 3 other Top 10s during the year, but struggled with his overall consistency. No one doubts he can be a star in this series, though, and his sophomore progress should be fun to watch.

Look for Panther to run well as usual at Indianapolis; the team now has finished second at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for the last four years in a row. They’ll hope that Chevy power, a seasoned Hildebrand, and the luck they’ve been missing will get them over that hurdle.

Penske Racing
-#2, Ryan Briscoe
-#3, Helio Castroneves
-#12, Will Power

Penske Racing returns all three drivers from what was, overall, a disappointing year for a team long-accustomed to IndyCar dominance. Ryan Briscoe has long thought to have been "on the bubble" at Penske, as the expectation was they would revert back to a 2-car team, but Roger Penske continues to have faith in him. He finished P6 in the standings this past season, but despite a triad of podiums couldn't break into victory lane. He'll look to address that in short order this season, with all the power of Penske behind him.

Helio Castroneves had probably his worst season in American open wheel ever last year, finishing out of the Top 10 in points, failing to win a race, and having a number of well-publicized on-track incidents that affected other drivers. However, he has seemed to enthusiastically take to the new DW12, and there seems to be a perception that he's more focused, enthusiastic, and ready to try to climb back up the rankings this season. Of course, Helio will always be a threat to win at Indianapolis, and we all know how much that matters to his employer.

Will Power narrowly lost the championship for the second year in a row to Dario Franchitti, but was still unbelievably dominant on the road-and-street courses. He'll still be looking to improve on the ovals, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be in contention for the championship on this twisty-heavy schedule. We know Power should start the season well; let's see how he finishes it.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
-#15, Takuma Sato

The RLLR team returns full-time, albeit with only one full-time entry to start off with instead of the two that were projected earlier in the season. This will be their first full season in INDYCAR since 2009, and they’ll be participating as one of the Honda engine teams.

With the signing of Takuma Sato, RLLR gains a driver that made big strides in 2011 after a crash-filled 2010, but still needs to show he can seal the deal in this Series. Sato won two poles last season and looked very sharp at times, but between bad luck and some unfortunate on-track incidents, his highest finish for the season was P4 at Mid-Ohio. Taku has the raw speed to win, but needs to demonstrate he also has the type of consistency needed to do so.

Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports
-#77, Simon Pagenaud

After running Alex Tagliani and a host of part-time drivers in 2011, Sam Schmidt Motorsports has taken on Davey Hamilton as co-owner to form Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. Long-time Honda favorite Simon Pagenaud will finally be taking on a full-time ride in the Series for the team, and he's considered a top contender for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Pagenaud is pretty highly regarded, and the expectation is he'll have at least a part-time teammate at some point later in the season. Schmidt's team was on the pole at Indianapolis last year, and they should be up for some lively finishes over the course of this season.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
-#67, Josef Newgarden

After a long offseason that saw Wink Hartman come on as a co-owner and drama over whether or not Sarah Fisher's team would secure an engine deal (they did, with Honda), SFHR should still feel pretty good about where they're at. This will be the first full-time season in the IZOD IndyCar Series for the team, and after winning at Kentucky with Ed Carpenter last season, the Little Team That Could is more a fan favorite than ever.

Although there are still some questions as to how the team will do on setup this year, few doubt that their rookie driver this season, 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champ Josef Newgarden, is one of the best American prospects we've seen in recent years. He's poised and smart, and handles himself as if he's 10 years old than he really is (21). He could very possibly give Fisher fans another reason to cheer, as he's bound to have some good moments even as he goes through his Series education.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing
-#9, Scott Dixon
-#10, Dario Franchitti

What can we say about Target Chip Ganassi? We might tease Chip for his curmudgeonly nature and continued use of "backmarker" as a swear word during TV broadcasts, but no one can argue with the results of this team over the past few seasons.

Scott Dixon and the Ganassi boys should be tough this year.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Dario Franchitti is turning 39 in May, but the four-time IndyCar champ isn't showing any signs of slowing down. Still a master at doing what he needs to finish at the top of the standings, there are few drivers more consistent over an entire season. Franchitti seems to do his absolute best driving from the front, so if he's going to continue to streak, qualifying well will be a big part of that. Don't forget, he'll also be going for a third Indy 500 this year, which would be another tremendous accomplishment.

Scott Dixon is the other part of the TCGR tandem, and has just as much of a chance as his teammate to walk away with a championship this season. He finishes only 55 points behind Franchitti enroute to third place in the championship standings last year, and secured the AJ Foyt oval trophy without winning a single oval race. Expect Dixon to get his share of glory this year, as this team continues to fight at the top tier of the sport.

(Tomorrow on IndyCar Advocate: An in-depth interview and season preview with IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball!)

1 comment:

  1. Great work Looking forward to that interview tomorrow!