It’s Not Time To Panic…Yet
Don’t look now, but after this weekend the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season will be at the end of its first quarter. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be the fourth in a sixteen race season. It seems like the season just started.
After three weeks, we can already draw some conclusions; Penske and Ganassi are both strong, Honda appears to be in trouble again, Race Control has many kinks to work out while Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing are having disappointing seasons.
On the plus side, Scott Dixon and Juan Montoya are both having the type of season we expected. Tony Kanaan has been steady and sits solidly in fifth place in the championship heading into Barber. Simon Pagenaud is probably the biggest pleasant surprise after three races; having already won a race and finishing second in the other two, on his way to being the early points leader. Takuma Sato is the sole bright spot for Honda, currently sitting at sixth in the points.
Although it is still too early to panic, there are a number of drivers who were mentioned as possible championship contenders before the season started, that have gotten off to slow start. They need to turn their seasons around quickly, before they fall into a hole so deep that they can’t crawl out of it. Those that I feel need to have a big weekend at Barber to begin that turnaround are as follows (in no particular order):
Will Power: Although he has an excuse by missing the opening race of the season, Will Power cannot have any more off weekends if he wants to be in championship contention at the end of the season. He had a strong third-place finish at Phoenix, but was curiously quiet throughout Sunday’s race at Long Beach while finishing seventh. After leaving St. Petersburg dead last in points, Power climbed to twelfth after Phoenix and is currently eighth heading into this weekend. He could sure use a win at Barber and have those at the top of the points all have a bad weekend in order to get back on even ground with the top drivers. While it’s not likely that all of his competitors will run into bad luck, I’d say chances are good that some will. I predict that Power will be within reach of the leaders after the month of May…provided he doesn’t have one of those Will Power brain-fades between now and then.
Sébastien Bourdais: He may not have been considered a championship contender before the season, but Sébastien Bourdais is off to a very disappointing start. After a disastrous beginning to the season at St. Petersburg, where Bourdais finished twenty-first – he has had two middle-of-the-pack finishes to find himself at an underwhelming fourteenth in points after three races. After two years of having teammates (Sebastian Saavedra & Stefano Coletti), Bourdais and KVSH Racing are now a one-car effort and it may be showing. It’s an uphill battle to make anything of data compiled on only one car. To be remotely competitive in today’s IndyCar world, teams need to run at least two cars. Graham Rahal bucked that trend last year, but his luck may have run out too.
Graham Rahal: As mentioned above, last year Graham Rahal beat the odds by winning two races and staying in the championship hunt going into the final weekend, while driving a Honda on a one-car team. Most of us hoped that he could repeat the magic of 2015 and have another great season this year.
He still can, but his luck needs to turn around quickly. Fortunately, the series returns to the track where his run of good luck began last year – Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that Rahal carved his way through the field and finished second. Then he followed that up with another second in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and a fifth in the Indianapolis 500. If Rahal plans on replicating the success he had in 2015, now would be the time to do it.
Josef Newgarden: Perhaps one of the biggest head-scratchers of the season is that Josef Newgarden is on this list. The Nashville native had a disastrous twenty-second finish at St. Petersburg, then had what was a slightly disappointing sixth place finish at Phoenix before a very mediocre tenth place finish at Long Beach.
As someone pointed out the other day on here, losing the No.20 car on the road courses probably hurts for the same reason I mentioned earlier regarding single-car teams. Although Ed Carpenter and Luca Filippi rotated in and out of the No.20 car, it was there collecting data all season. Though the No.20 car seems to struggle most of last season, Newgarden flourished in that arrangement and had a breakout season last year with two wins and finishing seventh in points. Now that he is a one-car effort on non-ovals, this could be a long year for the young driver that has already begun his fifth IndyCar season.
Newgarden is currently twelfth in points, is really only two points removed from fifteenth and seventy-eight points behind Pagenaud. Like Rahal, Newgarden will be returning to a track with good memories this weekend. Barber was the site of his first career IndyCar victory last season. His Ed Carpenter Racing team needs to put their heads together and come up with a better way to set up their car with the favored Chevy engine. If Newgarden struggles this weekend, I think you can cross him off of the list of anyone having a remote possibility to win the championship.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: The only Indianapolis 500 winner on this list may actually be driving the best he’s driven in his career. The 2012 IndyCar champion and the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner just happens to be saddled with a car that has no answers. At Long Beach, he considered himself lucky just to keep it out of the fence.
His season has gotten progressively worse. After Hunter-Reay scored a podium finish at St. Petersburg, he finished tenth at Phoenix and eighteenth out of twenty-one cars at Long Beach this past Sunday.
The problem is not with Hunter-Reay, but his Honda-powered car and his Andretti Autosport team. To be perfectly frank, the Andretti cars have been dreadful all season. It seems the more they chase the setup, the worse things get.
Hunter-Reay is the class of the four-car Andretti team sitting in seventh place in the championship standings. Carlos Muñoz is fifteenth, rookie Alexander Rossi sits in eighteenth and eleven-year veteran Marco Andretti is nineteenth. This is a pattern going back to last year. Most consider Michael Andretti’s team to be the lead Honda team. They did all of the initial development work on last year’s Honda aero kit, yet they spent much of last season trailing their fellow Honda teams. Something just doesn’t add up.
But as I said, even though he sits in seventh and looks to be a longshot to win the championship, Ryan Hunter-Reay is doing the best he can do with what he’s got. Like a couple of others, I fear that 2016 will be a long season for Hunter-Reay.
Of course a lot can change over the next three races. Between now and June, the Verizon IndyCar Series visits the natural terrain road-course at Barber before heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Grand Prix and then the double-points paying Indianapolis 500.
There is still a lot of racing to go and a lot can change quickly. But anyone looking up at the top-five consisting of three Penske cars and two Ganassi cars has a big hill to climb. They’d better start the climbing in April before it gets insurmountable this summer.