Who Has Had The Best Offseason?
The so-called silly season has all but wound down now. It is now to the point that only part-time rides are left and even some of them are being filled. There is still the seat for the non-oval races for the No.20 car, which is occupied by Ed Carpenter on the ovals. Then there is the future KVSH, which is the mystery for 2017. Other than that, the lineup for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg seems pretty well set.
Now may be as good a time as any to look at each team and evaluate whether or not they improved, remained about the same or weakened their driver lineup for 2017.
Team Penske: On the surface, when you give up a former series champion and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner for a driver with only three career wins; one might draw the conclusion that Team Penske downgraded over last year. But when you realize that Juan Montoya is forty-one and Josef Newgarden is still about ten days from his twenty-sixth birthday, you realize that Penske is banking on Newgarden’s potential more than Montoya’s experience. A closer look at the stat sheet reveals that both drivers had two wins in 2015 and one this past season. Newgarden drove injured for half the year and finished fourth in the points. Montoya was at full-strength and finished eighth, while his Penske teammates finished first, second and third in the championship. Upgrade
Chip Ganassi Racing: The entire four driver lineup from this past season remains intact for 2017. The big change at Ganassi is that they have left Chevrolet for Honda. I don’t think I’m too far off base to say that you probably need a Chevy engine/aero kit package if you want to win the championship; but you can certainly win the Indianapolis 500 with a Honda. The fact that such a strong team may benefit all other Honda teams is out there, but I‘m still of the opinion that the Chevy package will be more desirable at any track that is not the oval at Indianapolis or Pocono. Downgrade
Andretti Autosport: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are both Indianapolis 500 champions, while Hunter-Reay also has an IndyCar championship to his credit. Marco Andretti is, well…let’s assume he’ll have a better year in 2017, he was probably lucky to finish a forgettable sixteenth in points this past season.
The wild-card is the No.26 car; piloted last year by Carlos Muñoz and finishing tenth – higher than any other driver on the team. Lack of money forced Muñoz to seek other opportunities in the paddock, finally landing a paid ride in the famous No.14 at AJ Foyt Enterprises. In turn, the former driver at Foyt, Takuma Sato, eventually landed in the No.26 at Michael Andretti’s team. Sato is fast, but he crashes a lot. We’ll call this a wash. Even
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Last season, driver James Hinchcliffe was coming off of a long recovery from the injuries sustained in a practice crash at Indianapolis in May of 2015. His prognosis was good, but there was still uncertainty about his stamina. After the first two races where Hinch finished nineteenth and eighteenth respectively, his season improved immensely, culminating with winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and contending for the win the entire race.
The other uncertainty was his new teammate, Mikhail Aleshin, who had also been recovering from a horrific crash at Fontana in 2014, when he was also driving for SPM. Both drivers had strong second halves to the season. Hinchcliffe finished thirteenth and Aleshin fifteenth. Both drivers carry momentum into 2017. The only uncertainty at SPM is a possible third car in probably a part-time role. The momentum and continuity from last season tells me this team should have better results in 2017. Upgrade
AJ Foyt Enterprises: Two new drivers and a new engine manufacturer will be featured for this team that struggled last season. Carlos Muñoz has long proven he can contend to win at Indianapolis, and has been consistently fast at other tracks. Conor Daly is a fan-favorite who understands what it means to drive for the legendary AJ Foyt. Along with the expected rookie mistakes this past season, Daly also showed he can run up front and stay there. With the Chevy package all through the season, I expect this team to make big strides next season. Upgrade
Ed Carpenter Racing: One of the few remaining question marks of next season is regarding who will split time with Ed Carpenter in the car for the non-ovals. But the other question was answered last month when JR Hildebrand was tabbed to replace Josef Newgarden in the vacated No.21 car. Hildebrand is a solid choice and is who I was hoping would get the ride. But he has not been in a car fulltime since John Barnes unceremoniously kicked him to the curb two days after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. With no wins to his credit and replacing a driver with three wins in the past two seasons, and the uncertainty of which driver will be his part-time teammate, you’d have to say this is a downgrade – until he proves otherwise, which he is certainly capable of. Downgrade
Rahal Letterman Lanigan: Graham Rahal has had two stellar seasons, especially for a one-car team. He did have rookie Spencer Pigot as a teammate for three races, but is a part-time rookie teammate an asset or a liability. For 2017, Rahal gets veteran driver Oriol Servia as a teammate for at least the Indianapolis 500 and possibly more. It all depends on how much sponsorship can be found in the next few months.
With everything else being equal, trading Spencer Pigot for Oriol Servia is a definite plus for this team. Upgrade
Dale Coyne Racing: Last season, Dale Coyne had a fulltime rookie in Conor Daly in one car, and a revolving door for the other with rokkie RC Enerson, Luca Filippi and Gabby Chaves splitting time in the other. The results were predictably not good. For 2017, Coyne gets four-time series champion Sébastien Bourdais for one car and rookie Ed Jones in the other – both on a full-time basis. Upgrade
KVSH Racing: At this point, we don’t even know if this team, or derivative of it, will even answer the bell for 2017. One thing is certain, this much uncertainty in the offseason is certainly not good. And yes, I used certainly several times on purpose. Incomplete
So that’s five upgrades, two downgrades, one even and one incomplete among the nine fulltime teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Do the upgrades go straight to the top, while the downgrades fall straight to the bottom? Of course not, some downgrades may turn out for the best, while the upgrades may be minimal or not at all. And it’s all relative.
At this point, I still think the championship will be decided between Penske and Ganassi just as it has for the past few years. But if Ganassi is strong with the Honda engine, there is a good chance that Andretti and possibly Schmidt may be contenders also.
It looks to be an entertaining season. The best news? The green flag flies for the opening race in St. Petersburg, exactly three months from today.