IndyCar 2017: Team by team mid-season review

Nine races down, eight to go, and the usual suspects are starting to assert themselves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series after a very open start to the season. But certain statistical anomalies could have far-reaching effects, says David Malsher.

IndyCar 2017: Team by team mid-season review
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and traffic
Podium: second place Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Polesitter Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Race winner Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet
Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport Honda makes a pit stop ahead of the field
Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Podium: race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, pit action
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing Honda momo gloves
Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing Honda, Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Esteban Gutierrez, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing Chevrolet
Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing Chevrolet
Sebastian Saavedra, Juncos Racing Chevrolet, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Fernando Alonso, McLaren

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon has produced an impressively consistent first half to the season – hardly a tradition for him – but has not been able to find Victory Lane… yet is leading the championship.

The ludicrous helping of points handed out for Indy 500 qualifying is partly responsible for the polesitter’s tally, but Dixon also missed out in a huge way at that event. On race day his spectacular flip into the fence rendered him a very early casualty at quarter distance in a double-points race.

That system means that the event’s big winner, Takuma Sato – Q4, F1 – is somewhat artificially third in the championship, but he’s done a good job at most other tracks and suffered fewer reliability issues than his Andretti Autosport-Honda colleagues.

We’ve had a few welcome and unexpected results, too – Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais winning from last on the grid at St. Petersburg, albeit with the aid of yellows; James Hinchcliffe conquering the streets of Long Beach for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports; Graham Rahal’s near-domination of the Detroit double-header.

If you notice, all those highlighted so far have been Honda powered and there’s no question at all that the biggest surprise of the year has been how much the guys and gals of HPD in Santa Clarita, Calif., have been able to improve their engine in the off-season.

All of us who expected the frozen aero regulations would see 2017 largely replicate 2016 in terms of the relative performances of Chevrolet and Honda (14-2 in victories last year, remember…) have been made to look pretty foolish. Currently the tally stands at 5-4, in Honda’s favor.

Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda

Scott Dixon 1st, Tony Kanaan 8th, Max Chilton 11th, Charlie Kimball 18th

It’s wretched luck that has prevented Chip’s team from showing how much of a difference it has improved Honda’s chances thus far this year.

Bourdais, Hinchcliffe and Will Power should not take it as an insult when it’s pointed out that Dixon could have won at St. Petersburg (running order flipped on its head by a caution for debris), Long Beach (called to the pits and switched strategy in reaction to an expected caution period that never came), and Texas (dueling for the lead with Power when eliminated by a Sato error).

The rival team owner who told me Dixon would win the 2017 championship by stringing together top-five finishes may well be proven right – but let’s not underestimate the amount of winning potential he’s shown, too.

His teammates have all played occasional starring roles – Chilton and Kimball both led and shone in the Indy 500, and the latter might have won had it not been for engine failure. His spectacularly bad end to 2016/bad start to 2017 has largely been forgotten and he was strong again at Texas (where he took first ever IndyCar pole) until another mechanical failure.

Kanaan, Texas missteps apart, is often on the pace of Dixon although rarely for a whole race weekend unless it’s an oval. Yet TK may well prove to be Ganassi’s first race winner this year because he has that potential. However, an apparent lack of consistency, despite he and Kimball swapping race engineers, means the odds are against him, because he’s not regularly beating on that door to victory lane.

Team Penske-Chevrolet

Simon Pagenaud 2nd, Helio Castroneves 4th, Will Power 5th, Josef Newgarden 7th

Defending champion Pagenaud has had a very odd year, bringing in good points-hauls seemingly everywhere but rarely looking like the dominator we know he can be. His first-ever oval victory at Phoenix was impressive and quite flawless, but he was gifted the lead by the way the yellows fell in relation to his strategy.

Most surprisingly, and aero damage notwithstanding, he looked anonymous at Indy, otherwise he would be leading the points at this stage. For my money, his best performance of the year was his charge from the back of the grid at Long Beach, resulting in fourth place.

Power is the only driver other than Rahal to earn two victories this year – Indy road course and Texas – while Phoenix and Barber (late-race puncture) should also have gone his way. Power’s three pole positions are further indicators that he’s on top form. His only significant error came at St. Pete when he severely flatspotted his tire on the first turn of the first lap, compromising his strategy, but a rare mechanical DNF rendered that mistake ultimately irrelevant.

The positive outlook for Power is that despite finishing outside the top 12 in five of the nine races, including a DNF at double-points Indy, he’s fifth in the title race, just 40 points off the lead.

Castroneves’ and Newgarden’s campaigns have gone much as you’d expect. Helio the experienced warrior has gathered points and came oh-so-close to Indy victory, while Josef is looking like the enthusiastic new Penske recruit who you know is going to be a star but still makes the occasional blunder.

His bravery got him into trouble at Phoenix and Texas, he got unlucky at Indy, he looked superb at Detroit, and won (somewhat fortunately) at Barber. But he is learning and believes he and race engineer Brian Campe have now made a setup breakthrough for road/street courses.

Andretti Autosport-Honda

Takuma Sato 3rd, Alexander Rossi 9th, Marco Andretti 13th, Ryan Hunter-Reay 14th

If your team wins Indy, how bad can life be? Michael Andretti can of course be very satisfied with Sato’s thrilling success in the 500, and Andretti Autosport collectively deserved that; their immense competitiveness throughout practice, qualifying and the race and after witnessing the demise of Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso through engine failure.

But Michael has every right to be pissed at his squad’s bad luck elsewhere. Rossi and Hunter-Reay might have scored a 1-2 at Long Beach, but went out with engine failure and electrical issues respectively. Rossi and Hunter-Reay were embroiled in two of the major shunts at Texas, while at that same race, Sato may have ruined his chance for a second win in four races by crashing into Dixon rather than passing him and Power. That was an annoying reversion to his old self.

A week earlier in Detroit, Taku drove a perfect Race 2, recognizing that despite his pole position, he had neither the race pace nor fuel mileage to finish on the podium and instead settled for fourth – ahead of Pagenaud and Dixon. That’s the mentality he needs to retain, and it’s one that Hunter-Reay and Rossi already possess.

Meanwhile Marco Andretti has had a very anonymous season, even on his beloved ovals, and his sixth place at Texas was a reward for dogged persistence rather than outright pace.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda

Graham Rahal 6th

Detroit remains the track where an IndyCar team’s shock/damper program gets its severest test, and in the past Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has shown the depth of its engineering quality there. This year, Graham Rahal and the team capitalized fully, and he led 96 of the 140 laps across the two Motown races, looked relatively unthreatened and muscled his way back into prominence in the title fight.

Up until that weekend, the team owned and run by three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal had been one of the disappointments of 2017. For the past two years, Graham had finished top five in the championship and been Honda’s top driver.

Now it appeared that with Andretti Autosport rediscovering pace (if not luck) and Chip Ganassi Racing arriving in the HPD ranks, Rahal had been pushed into midfield obscurity.

Yes, there has been bad luck and Graham is one of about a dozen drivers who think they “could have won Indy”, but he wasn’t wrong about needing to find the key to unlocking some qualifying pace.

Did Detroit signal a breakthrough in that area, given that the #15 started first and third for those two races? Let’s hope so for RLLR’s sake, because Dixon and Power, Ganassi and Penske, are tough enough championship opponents even when you start in the same zip code on the starting grid.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda

James Hinchcliffe 10th, Mikhail Aleshin 15th

Watching Hinchcliffe win Long Beach has been one of the highlights of the season so far, even for objective IndyCar fans. Yes, he was somewhat fortunate that the opposition from Rossi and Hunter-Reay failed to materialize in the closing stages thanks to their technical issues, and that bad strategy had already put Dixon out of the equation.

But SPM kept Hinch out a lap longer than Andretti Autosport had done for Rossi and RHR, James had a strong in-lap, and it proved crucial to jumping the #5 car into the lead. Hinch appreciates that – and the prestige of winning at Long Beach – like few others.

Elsewhere, he’s been unfortunate, particularly his elimination in someone else’s shunt at Indy. The same is also true of Texas, whatever Mr. Ganassi might say. After his pitlane faux pas and penalty, Hinch proved he was able to run on the leaders’ pace and fought his way back into contention only to be eliminated by Kanaan’s wandering car.

The series’ only Canadian is not flawless. He faded from view in St. Pete, despite starting on the front row, an issue exacerbated by the running-order flip-flop that was outside his or the team’s control, and there are times when you wonder if he can carry a mediocre car or whether he’s locked in step with the competitiveness of his team on any given weekend. But that’s probably the last question mark over this hard fighter.

The same is true for Mikhail Aleshin. He’s usually on Hinchcliffe’s pace, at least on race day, but seems to be caught in wrong place/wrong time syndrome at the moment. He needs a strong result soon, and needs to tidy up his qualifying technique on road/street courses. Hopefully Honda’s resurgence in 2017 eventually pays dividends for both himself and the SPM team.

Dale Coyne Racing-Honda

Ed Jones 12th, Sebastien Bourdais 20th

You could write a book about the storms and tempests this little team has been through in just four months of competition.

While no one is denying that Bourdais got lucky in St. Petersburg with that full-course caution that placed him near the front, he did still beat defending champion Pagenaud in a straight fight. And looking at the big picture, that victory for DCR is some reward for Dale Coyne renewing his commitment to success by hiring Seb and Craig Hampson.

Since then, fate has done little but slap the big man in the face, the nadir of course being Bourdais’ horrendous self-induced shunt during qualifying at Indy.

Even Ed Jones’ superb third place in the 500 was tainted by controversy over whether the reigning Indy Lights champion should have beaten Alonso to Indy’s Rookie of the Year title. And DCR’s double wipeout in the The Big One at Texas was the latest in a long line of heartbreaking instances that have cost the team so much in financial outlay as well as time and effort.

Jones, despite his status as Lights champ, has nonetheless been a revelation in terms of pace and vigor in the big cars, and Michael Cannon is helping him flourish on all types of track.

Meanwhile ex-F1 driver Esteban Gutierrez could prove a strong stand-in for Bourdais, and will make life difficult for Coyne once it comes time to choose a line-up for 2018… and now Tristan Vautier, too, has reminded everyone of his talent.

It's an indicator of how far this team has come in 2017 that there’s now an immense amount of interest regarding who gets the #18 car for the remainder of the season. It wasn't so long ago when no one gave a damn.

Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet

JR Hildebrand 16th, Spencer Pigot 21st, Ed Carpenter 22nd

Spencer Pigot, after a subdued rookie campaign in 2016, is now driving with the flair that earned him the 2015 Indy Lights championship, and the fact that his best finish so far is only eighth is not a fair reflection on his efforts.

It’s a shame that, one-off for Juncos Racing at Indy aside, he is not getting the chance to prove himself on ovals too, but he accepts this is part of the very good value deal he’s getting at Ed Carpenter Racing.

The big question surrounding ECR is this: are the cars exceptional and Pigot is being flattered by JR Hildebrand not yet reaching the pace of his predecessor Josef Newgarden? Or has Spencer stepped it up so much that he’s highlighting JR’s lack of experience of the current breed of cars?

Whatever the case, JR needs to start performing – notwithstanding his excellent third place at Phoenix. Given his car control and ability to drive ‘loose’ cars, the 2018 breed of aerokit should play in Hildebrand’s favor, but right now he desperately needs to do enough to earn himself another full season next year.

AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet

Carlos Munoz 17th, Conor Daly 19th

It’s AJ Foyt Racing’s bad fortune to have switched from Honda to Chevrolet just as HPD’s engine started to create the power that helps overcome its drag on road/street/short-oval courses.

Without the manpower and resources of Chip Ganassi Racing, who of course went in the opposite direction, and having only gotten hold of the Chevy aerokit earlier this year, the team has been running up a steep hill.

There’s nothing wrong with the driver lineup, but Daly and Munoz, who are pushing each other well, may have to resign themselves to this being a season of treading water before everyone gets a do-over with the universal aerokits.

Honorable mentions

Harding Racing-Chevrolet and Gabby Chaves could scarcely have done a better job of impressing this year – ninth place on the team’s debut at Indy, fifth place in their second race at Texas Motor Speeway. The only other race they’re due to contest is Pocono, which is likely to favor Honda, but another top 10 would be a great way to head into the offseason and hopefully prepare for a full campaign in 2018.

Juncos Racing-Chevrolet didn’t have a smooth Month of May, but Sebastian Saavedra and Pigot brought their cars home in one piece on race day, and Ricardo is assembling a fine team of personnel ahead of being in action fulltime next year.

Enough compliments have been laid at the feet of Fernando Alonso to render anything else superfluous, but truly, he justified the hype.

As high profile additions, Juan Pablo Montoya at Penske looked predictably good at Indy, but tire-hungry on the road course. Oriol Servia was not on Rahal's pace in the second RLLR car in Detroit but was one of those dozen drivers who might have won Indy, until eliminated by Coyne's James Davison who until then had done a fine job as late stand-in for Bourdais.

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