2010 Season Preview
After an offseason that has felt like an eternity, the Izod IndyCar Season finally kicks off this weekend with the Sao Paulo Indy 300. For the second season in a row, the series begins on a temporary street circuit – this time on another continent. The 2.6 mile course was designed by Tony Cotman and has one of the longest straightaways I have ever seen. The backstretch of the course is almost a mile in length and will allow speeds to reach well over 190 mph. That’s frighteningly fast for the tight concrete confines of a street course.
The pieces have all fallen into place over the last forty-eight hours as three seats were partially filled in that time frame. Alex Lloyd was confirmed for the primary Dale Coyne Boy Scouts of America car on Wednesday. Thursday, it was announced that Mario Moraes had landed back with his old team from 2009, although not in the same seat. The biggest surprise was announced on Wednesday when we learned that Graham Rahal would drive two races for Sarah Fisher Racing. He will pilot her Dollar General No. 67 Dallara for the races at St. Petersburg and Barber, in a win-win situation for both parties.
I look for several things to change this season, while I also expect many things to stay the same. I don’t think I’ll be going out on a limb to predict that the 2010 champion will come from one of two teams – Penske or Ganassi. That much is given. My years as a fan of Team Penske may cloud my objectivity, but I’m willing to bet that this year’s champion will come from the Penske stable.
Quite simply put – they are due. When Team Penske left CART for the IRL in 2002, who would have thought that heading into their ninth full season in the Indy Racing League – they would have only hoisted one IndyCar champion’s trophy? In that time, they have won the Indianapolis 500 four times, but have only one season championship to show for it. Of course, given the choice between the two – I think most people would take Indy ten times out of ten, but it probably irks The Captain that they have not been able to bring home the hardware at the end of the season.
Between the three drivers at Team Penske, my money would have to go on Ryan Briscoe with Helio Castroneves as a close second. I think Helio is ready to exorcise the IRS demons from his past, once and for all. He is no longer a young man and I think he hears the clock ticking on his legacy. For all the accolades he has received in his career, being a champion is not one of them – at any level. This is probably his last best shot to stake his claim as Team Penske being “Helio’s Team” and I hope he is successful.
Helio is still my favorite driver out there and I want to see him have continued success. If his season falls apart in the second half as it did last season, I think we may be looking at the beginning of the end for Helio. Roger Penske has a history of cutting drivers loose a little too early rather than a little too late. It wouldn’t surprise me if Helio has a mediocre season in 2010, for Team Penske to be back to a two-car team next year and Helio being the odd man out. If he wants to reach his goal of being a five-time Indy winner, chances are he will need to remain at Team Penske and he’ll probably need to produce this year to stay.
Back to Briscoe – I just think his time is now. I think it eats away at him for him to have driven the race of his life in the season finale at Homestead, only to let things slip away as it did. Of course, what should REALLY be bothering him is the brain-fade he had leaving the pits at Motegi. That one slip-up cost him his first championship. I think he has the desire, the skill and certainly the crew to carry him all the way. Will Power is a great driver and will win races this season, but I think he is a couple of years away from seriously challenging for the championship.
Look for Dario Franchitti to carry the banner for Target Chip Ganassi. He has surely heard the claims that he backed into last year’s championship by winning a fuel-mileage race. Keep in mind that he has won the championship for the two consecutive years he has driven in the series. Don’t overlook the fact that Darrell Waltrip says that Dario’s short stint in NASCAR is what gave him the skills needed to win last year’s title. God only knows how he won the title in 2007.
For whatever reason, I expect a slight drop off from Scott Dixon. I have nothing to rely on but a gut feeling by saying that. Now that I’ve thrown that out there, my history of predictions say that he’ll win the championship going away – but I don’t think so.
So that brings us to everyone else. Some teams made great strides in the offseason, while others took a few steps back. In the former category, you have to put Dreyer & Reinbold at the top of the list. They held onto Mike Conway who had a much-improved second half of his rookie season, while bolstering their lineup with Justin Wilson – the only non-Penske/Ganassi driver to win a race last season. They also made several key team moves that will pay off on the track.
In the opposite direction goes Dale Coyne Racing. Not only did they lose Justin Wilson, they also lost the main reason the team was competitive on road courses – engineer Bill Pappas, who left for KV Racing Technologies. Add the presence of Milka Duno and Dale Coyne is back to the bottom for 2010.
Back in the other direction is the aforementioned KV Racing Technologies. While Mario Moraes was a late addition to the team, in his old seat is former Formula One driver Takuma Sato who was very impressive in the test at Barber. Added to the mix is team newcomer EJ Viso, who was always exciting to watch during his two-year stint at HVM. Now that he has moved to a much better team, it will be interesting to see where his talent level can take him. Better team or not, he will still need to bring a higher level of maturity before anything sustained is to be expected of him.
Another team that will certainly have a lot more expected of them will be the newly renamed de Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing. I don’t think enough can be said about how much leadership Gil de Ferran will bring to this team. I think he will be the missing ingredient that this team has needed. He will be the stabilizing force that second year driver Rafa Matos has needed, along with part-time teammate Davey Hamilton. I predict that this team will win a race this year.
I am hopeful that AJ Foyt Racing can improve with a well-rested Vitor Meira returning to the cockpit, but I’m not so sure. Before his injury at Indy, I had predicted that Meira and the fiery Texan would part ways before the end of June. If Vitor can get out of the gate early with some decent runs early, they may be much improved. This team tends to be up and down from year to year. After last year’s disastrous campaign which included one of the most embarrassing runs I’ve ever seen – Paul Tracy in the Foyt car at Milwaukee, the team is due for a better run of luck this year. I’m a Foyt fan and I like Vitor, so I hope they can put it together.
For Tony Kanaan’s sake, I am cautiously optimistic that Andretti Autosport can have a turnaround season. The addition of Tom Anderson should certainly help, but I don’t think they have eliminated all of the distractions that has plagued this team in the past. The restructuring at the top should help streamline things, but it’s too early to tell how Danica Patrick will respond to the distractions of her NASCAR attempts. Ryan Hunter-Reay is an upgrade over Hideki Mutoh, but his deal is still part-time only for now. There are still more questions than answers with this team. No answers magically appeared at Barber, so it’ll be interesting to see how well they do this weekend.
Sarah Fisher is making great strides with her home-grown team, and I continue to be impressed with how she has slowly grown this effort. Hiring Graham Rahal for St. Petersburg and Barber will pay off for them, as they can utilize his expertise in getting their car up to speed on road courses. With her still running a part-time schedule and Jay Howard running selected races, they may be a surprise at a couple of races.
Several teams will be flat or taking a step back this season. In that grouping is HVM with promising rookie Simona de Silvestro. I don’t expect much more out of Dan Wheldon and Panther than what we got last year. Conquest may be slightly better and Alex Tagliani’s new Fazzt team will most likely struggle. Look for Newman/Haas/Lanigan to take several steps back this season. This is not the same team they were just a couple of years ago. The death of Paul Newman and Carl Haas’s physical condition have certainly changed the complexion of this team. For the first time in over twenty years, they will be a one car effort with Hideki Mutoh.
As usual, I went longer than planned…but what else is new? I get excited at this time of year and tend to get a little carried away. I still can’t believe we’ll be watching qualifying tomorrow. Enjoy it. I know I will.