What To Expect This Season
Every year, I look forward to a new racing season. I started this site in 2009. Oddly enough, I haven’t done a “season preview” post since the beginning of the 2010 season. Maybe it’s due to the extra-long offseason we’ve all endured. It could be all of the off-track turmoil that went on since the season ended at Fontana. Perhaps it’s seeing the IZOD IndyCar Series as the last season on the planet to kick off its season. Whatever the case, I think I find myself more excited about this particular season getting started than any season in the past few years. Consequently, I feel the need to give a preview and make some dreaded predictions that will not have a chance of coming true if they are like most of my picks.
The thing is – there is no logical reason for me to be eagerly anticipating this season like I am. There is no Centennial Celebration like in 2011. There are no new chassis or engines to speculate about. There are no aero-kits for this year to spice up the looks of the grid. Even the new tracks on the schedule are not really new – just some re-treads from the past. The only new items for this season are double-header weekends for three races and standing starts at a couple of those.
So, what is new? First of all, it’s who’s missing that’s new. Ryan Briscoe has no ride in the series. Team Penske, his former team, could only offer him a part-time ride. Forgetting what Rick Mears once said about a part-time gig at Penske is better than a full-time ride somewhere else, Briscoe felt he had earned more after being with the team full-time since 2008 and winning eight races. He informed The Captain that he had other offers and would be moving on. Either he was bluffing or the other offers changed. Whatever the case, Briscoe will watch American driver and NASCAR refugee AJ Allmendinger pilot his old car at selected races in 2013.
There is also a case of what’s missing. Lotus has mercifully left the series. After beginning last season with five cars and seeing that number dwindle to one by last year’s Indianapolis 500, the fabled British name now owned by a Malaysian conglomerate suffered through a season of embarrassing punch lines and decided enough was enough. Other than fans who no longer have to watch the underpowered Lotus engine try to push cars around the track, the one most certain to benefit from this is Simona de Silvestro – one of the new faces at a different team.
For three years, we watched Simona squeeze as much as she could out of bad equipment. Although she was always on an under-funded team that had older and slower equipment, she kept her head up and her mouth shut. Not once did we ever hear Simona complain about her situation. Even when she had badly burned hands from a practice crash in 2011, she kept her thoughts to herself and summoned up the courage to put her backup car in the field at Indianapolis. Such determination and demeanor should not go unrewarded.
Her patience paid off. For this season, Simona de Silvestro will be paired with former series champion Tony Kanaan at KV Racing Technolgy. She now has the resources, the power, the equipment and a teammate to share data with. We will finally get to see what she can do on a good team. She did not disappoint at testing at Barber last week, as she posted the twelfth best time among twenty-eight different car and driver combinations. That’s quite a change from her usual spot of dead last with the woeful Lotus. She is one driver I’ll certainly be pulling for throughout the season.
It should come as no surprise to those that know me that I’ll also be pulling for her KV teammate, Tony Kanaan. Since he first came onto the scene, I’ve long been a fan of TK. I like his demeanor on and off the track and he has always been one of my favorites. He is not getting younger and his window to win a coveted Indianapolis 500 is starting to close. His childhood friend, Helio Castroneves, has been another one of my longtime favorites. He has three Indianapolis 500 wins to his credit and is chasing a record-tying fourth. But Helio has no championships to show for his efforts. He has been agonizingly close, but close doesn’t count. With those two goals still looming, Helio is not lacking for motivation.
Unfortunately for Helio, Dario Franchitti is also chasing a fourth Borg-Warner trophy. His Target Chip Ganassi Racing team has won three out of the past five Indianapolis 500’s, so it’ll be interesting to see which, if either, lands that fourth bottle of milk.
But things didn’t go well for Chip Ganassi last season. They had the Honda engine which won only four races last season, compared to Chevy’s eleven. Logic would tell you that the Honda engine will be improved, but so will the Chevy. Other than winning the Indianapolis 500, Franchitti won no other races as the three-time defending series champ. Scott Dixon had a better season, winning two races and finishing third in points. Had it not been for a controversial penalty at Milwaukee last year, Scott Dixon may have won the championship last season. Look for that to continue.
At team Penske, Helio will be strong at Indianapolis and could factor into the championship. AJ Allmendinger will be a nice story, but won’t be much of a factor this season. He is part-time and showed at Barber that he has a lot to learn with these new cars. Of course, the strongest championship contender from the Penske camp will be Will Power. The pressure got to him down the stretch last season. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds going forward.
Last year’s championship winning team, Andretti Autosport, has added EJ Viso to the mix. I don’t see him doing much more than he did last season at KV, when he finished twentieth. Marco Andretti will show his usual flashes of brilliance interspersed with huge helpings of mediocrity. He finished sixteenth last season. I doubt he’ll crack the top ten by the end of this season. The two stars of this team are the defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and rising star James Hinchcliffe. Hunter-Reay is the present of this sport, while Hinchcliffe is the future. I think Hunter-Reay will contend again for the championship and Hinchcliffe will win at least two races in a breakout season for the young Canadian.
So that’s the big three, right? Well, it’s now grown to the big four. Sam Schmidt has quietly built an impressive organization. He will have two French drivers that will make some noise. Tristan Vautier is a lock to win rookie of the year honors. I’m not making a bold prediction – he’s the only rookie in the field. His teammate, Simon Pagenaud, turned heads last season. I think he will also have a breakout season and win at least one race.
Keep an eye out for Graham Rahal, now at his father’s team. I think they will be strong at Indianapolis. Also look for better things for fellow Nashvillian and second-year driver Josef Newgarden, who will have a much-improved season for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Charlie Kimball also came on in the second half of last season. I think the third year driver will continue to show improvement. The most interesting driver at a new team is Takuma Sato at AJ Foyt Enterprises. Sato has proven he is quick, but he has also shown he can tear up a lot of equipment. It’ll be fun watching the Japanese driver and the fiery Texan interact all season. Ed Carpenter will shine on the ovals – especially the big ovals like Indianapolis and Fontana; but will struggle mightily on the road and street courses.
All of this sounds pretty rosy, doesn’t it. Well someone has to have bad seasons for all of these drivers to have good ones. Aside from Viso and Marco, I think James Jakes will have a disappointing season in the second Rahal car. I think Justin Wilson in the first Dale Coyne car, and his brother Stefan and Ana Beatriz splitting time in the second Coyne car will all have disappointing seasons. I just keep thinking that Dale Coyne is Dale Coyne. For Justin Wilson’s sake, I hope I’m wrong. I also don’t see JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing being much of a factor. The same goes for his quasi-teammate Oriol Servia. Sébastien Bourdais will make some noise at a few races for Dragon Racing, while his teammate Sebastian Saavedra will be a backmarker for the most part.
Those deserving of a ride for the Indianapolis 500 include Ryan Briscoe, Pippa Mann, Tomas Scheckter, Townsend Bell and Bruno Junqueira.
So how will it play out? My top-five picks from fifth to first are 5. James Hinchcliffe; 4. Helio Castroneves; 3. Ryan Hunter-Reay; 2. Will Power; and the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion will be…Scott Dixon. We’ll see how it all plays out in October.