IndyCar 2017 season preview, driver-by-driver
Just four days away from the opening round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, here's your guide to each driver competing in three or more rounds.
#1 Simon Pagenaud – Team Penske Chevrolet
2016 Position: 1st / Indy car career wins: 9 / career poles: 9
A masterful series of drives resulted in last year’s championship title, and it’s difficult to see many flaws in his game. Once he built up his points lead, he didn’t wilt with frustration at Toronto and Road America when, respectively, an unlucky caution period and an engine malady cost him what should have been at least runner-up positions. Pagenaud’s only true drop-the-ball moment was when he saw his teammate and title rival Will Power pull away from him at Pocono, but the tenacity he had shown to beat Power at Mid-Ohio made up for that. Expect to see those teeth bared even more often in 2017 with a title under his belt.
#2 Josef Newgarden – Team Penske Chevrolet
2016 Position: 4th / Indy car career wins: 3 / career poles: 1
His sixth season in the IndyCar Series is, in some ways, his biggest challenge yet. But only in some ways. Unlike Pagenaud two years ago, Josef walks into an already existing arm of Team Penske and, as suggested by his 2016 championship position – beaten only by three Penske drivers – Newgarden already had the qualifying pace and race chops at Ed Carpenter Racing. Now armed with what one assumes will be an even better car, he should be dynamite. If he learns from his three teammates and listens well to strategist Tim Cindric, he’s going to be a regular contender for victory, and possibly even a title threat.
#3 Helio Castroneves – Team Penske Chevrolet
2016 Position: 3rd / Indy car career wins: 29 / career poles: 46
Happy-go-lucky Helio has retained the demeanor but of luck there has been little sign lately. June will mark the third anniversary of his last win, and while there have been chances missed through no fault of his own, there have also been times in racing situations when he’s looked a little too cautious. But there remain weekends when he appears a match for anybody, so he will surely find his way to victory lane again soon.
#4 Conor Daly – AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
2016 Position: 18th / Indy car career wins: 0 / career poles: 0
Rapid and knows how to fight hard but clean. Daly’s performance this year will very much depend on how quickly the team can get its head around the Chevrolet aerokit after switching from Honda. Will Phillips, as technical director, will most definitely insist on good feedback and a disciplined approach, and while Phillips is race engineer for Daly’s teammate Carlos Munoz, Conor and his race engineer Daniele Cucciaroni only stand to benefit. CD will also be aware that CM is a great yardstick for his own performances.
#5 James Hinchcliffe – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
2016 Position: 13th / Indy car career wins: 4 / career poles: 1
One of the most popular drivers in the series, even before he jitterbugged his way into the hearts of Dancing with the Stars devotees, Hinch has smartly compartmentalized his life, so that no one ever finds reason to question how seriously he takes his racing. Last season’s fairytale pole position at the track that almost killed him a year earlier could have been closely followed by victory at Texas. But it’s the way he dug in and got decent finishes when the car was less than perfect – Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Barber – that really impressed. Such grit will serve him well in 2017 and could produce a win or two.
#7 Mikhail Aleshin – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
2016 Position: 15th / Indy car career wins: 0 / career poles: 1
The worries over his funding have disappeared for another year, and Aleshin has a second consecutive season in the same team for the first time since 2013. His easy and swift adaptation to ovals is commendable, and he has always shone on road courses, but to prove he’s ready to fight for the title he’ll need to match and then surpass teammate Hinchcliffe on a consistent basis – no easy task, because Hinch is an excellent all-’rounder, but the potential is there.
#8 Max Chilton – Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
2016 Position: 19th / Indy car career wins: 0 / career poles: 0
It was good to see Chilton sound ever-more committed to IndyCar as 2016 went on, and there were definite glimmers of pace whenever the series visited natural road courses. Fastest race laps may not always be a great indicator of speed because of late tire changes from off-sequence cars, but for Chilton to claim that award at Road America – considering how hard Kanaan and Pagenaud were chasing after Power – is a commendable achievement. If the Ganassi team figures out the Honda aerokit, Max could land a podium or two this year.
#9 Scott Dixon – Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
2016 Position: 6th / Indy car career wins: 40 / career poles: 25
Blessed with fast hands, fast feet and a quick brain, Dixon is the benchmark for his rivals and teammates – beat him and there’s also a strong chance you’re going to be on the podium, maybe even the top step. Scott is also going to be a very useful gauge for the team, regarding how far it has come in teasing out the last couple of tenths of potential from the HPD aero package. If that happens – and you’d never bet against it, given Ganassi’s track record – then with race engineer Chris Simmons and some canny strategies from team director Mike Hull, Dixon should be winning races and capable of taking the title for a fifth time.
#10 Tony Kanaan – Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
2016 Position: 7th / Indy car career wins: 17 / career poles: 16
Consistent enough to beat a Penske driver in last year’s championship, TK was unlucky to land only two podiums, and to go a second consecutive year without a win. But at least he continued to dismiss the notion that he’s a one-trick pony; his challenge for victory at Road America owed nothing to luck, and he retains his good racer’s instinct for knowing what is and isn’t feasible in wheel-to-wheel situations. But it is true to say that ovals remain the strongest part of his game, and HPD’s engine and aerokit combo should see him vying for wins at Pocono, Texas (which he almost won last year) – and Indy.
#12 Will Power – Team Penske Chevrolet
2016 Position: 2nd / Indy car career wins: 29 / career poles: 44
Power will be the first to admit that the world didn’t see 100 percent of his best 100 percent of the time last season, as illness prevented him from regularly cresting the same wave that teammate Pagenaud surfed along quite happily for much of the year. Even at Detroit, when Power started his amazing six-race run of firsts and seconds, there was still a misfire or two, like being beaten to pole and victory by Pagenaud at Mid-Ohio. Expect the 2014 champion to be up on the wheel from the very start of the 2017 season to the very end; he’s the man most likely to topple Simon from the throne, and should adapt well to his new strategist, Jon Bouslog.
#14 Carlos Munoz – AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
2016 Position: 10th / Indy car career wins: 1 / career poles: 1
A first IndyCar pole at Texas, and finishing as top Andretti Autosport driver in last year’s championship were Carlos’ 2016 highlights. His lowpoint, ironically, came while recording his best result of the season – second overall and first of the late splash n dashers in the Indy 500. A fresh start is what he needed, having lived in the shadow of Ryan Hunter-Reay at AA, and this is his chance to lead a team’s development path, along with race engineer Will Phillips. If Chevrolet rejuvenates the team, Carlos will shine.
#15 Graham Rahal – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
2016 Position: 5th / Indy car career wins: 4 / career poles: 2
Underestimate young Rahal at your peril; there’s a resilience in him that overcame a dreadful career lull to come back as one of the most respected drivers on the IndyCar grid today. Critics sometimes tire of him mentioning he’s in a single-car team, but he’s not wrong to mention it; running solo makes him more dependent than most on the car rolling off the truck somewhere near an optimized setup, because there’s less chance for the team to experiment in practice sessions. Still, 2016 highlighted the tracks where they struggled, and Tom German’s arrival should help fill in the remaining holes in RLLR’s technical data bank.
#16 Oriol Servia – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
2016 Position: 24th (part-time) / Indy car career wins: 1 / career poles: 1
The man who has become regarded as the ideal No. 2 driver in fact has more than just technical savvy and a team-oriented disposition. He is fast and, following a vigorous workout regime in the off-season, he's also fit. Right now, team owner Bobby Rahal has the veteran slated only for Indy and the Detroit double-header, but he's openly admitted he'd like more if sponsorship can be found. Watch this space.
#18 Sebastien Bourdais – Dale Coyne Racing Honda
2016 Position: 14th / Indy car career wins: 35 / career poles: 33
If Newgarden stole the show as the highest profile driver move of the off-season, Super Seb’s switch from the dying KV Racing outfit to Dale Coyne’s team was barely less remarkable. The fact that he’s joined by Craig Hampson – the man who masterminded Bourdais’ 31 wins at Newman/Haas Racing – rightfully has Dale more excited than he’s been since the late Justin Wilson and Bill Pappas worked for him. Rahal, as a former teammate of Bourdais, has already said he expects the #18 to appear in Victory Lane this year and frankly, we wouldn’t argue.
#19 Ed Jones – Dale Coyne Racing Honda
2016 Position: n/a / IndyCar rookie; 2016 Indy Lights champion
Smart, swift and smooth, Jones was a very polished driver in Indy Lights – the complete package, in fact. Now, starting at base camp once more, he’s going to have to slightly unhinge himself to find the last tenths from qualifying tires on street courses. Race engineer Michael Cannon will maximize Ed’s potential, while learning from the data provided by teammate Bourdais will increase that potential. Ed knows this, so expect him to draw closer over the course of the season.
#20 Spencer Pigot (road/street courses) – Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
2016 Position: 21st (part-time) / Indy car career wins: 0 / career poles: 0
After a somewhat disrupted start to his IndyCar career – he took his three Mazda Road To Indy prize rides with RLLR, then switched to Ed Carpenter’s team at Detroit – the results from Spencer were inconclusive. In practice sessions, on primary tires, he could look very fast; on alternates for qualifying, his rookie inexperience showed. He didn’t have many shunts, but he now needs to show the edge we saw on his run to the 2015 Indy Lights title.
#20 Ed Carpenter (ovals) – Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
2016 Position: 25th (part-time) / Indy car career wins: 3 / career poles: 3
Ed hasn’t won a race (as a driver) since Texas in 2014, his first season of becoming an oval specialist, and he has six opportunities to end that drought in 2017. He’s more than capable, so is his team, and Phoenix testing looked very promising for ECR as a whole. Ed is a complex case, though. He’s produced some unforced errors over the past couple of years and yet, paradoxically, were he to find himself leading the Indy 500 in its final stages, he’s one of few drivers who you’d trust to bring the car home safely and not be overcome by the enormity of the occasion. Unlike the local fans, one would imagine…
#21 JR Hildebrand – Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
2016 Position: 23rd (part-time) / Indy car career wins: 0 / career poles: 0
There will eventually be pressure on Hildebrand this year because everyone knows how Newgarden performed in this ride, and JR will be granted only a few road and street course races before he’s expected to emulate his predecessor – or be tainted forever. This is JR’s chance for redemption after four seasons of being a part-timer, and the odds look favorable to contend for victory on ovals – he knows what he wants and the team knows how to deliver. Can he and ex-Audi WEC engineer Justin Taylor produce the same magic as Newgarden/Jeremy Milless?
#26 Takuma Sato – Andretti Autosport Honda
2016 Position: 17th / Indy car career wins: 1 / career poles: 5
A good man and, on his day – a wet day, for example – a fabulous driver. But Taku has too often lived for the moment, resulting in inexplicable incidents, and after four seasons at AJ Foyt Racing, a split made sense for both driver and team. At Andretti, Japan’s only IndyCar driver may take time to fully exploit the various resources now available to him, but he’s got a strong brain and should definitely contribute to the team making much-needed forward progress in 2017. However, he needs to rein in his enthusiasm; team owner Michael Andretti isn’t a fan of bent cars.
#27 Marco Andretti – Andretti Autosport Honda
2016 Position: 16th / Indy car career wins: 2 / career poles: 4
Marco’s best finish last year was eighth and, as ever, he’s been open about why – what sounds almost like a very mild form of PTSD following the Indy 500 letdown. While he – along with most drivers – puts his performance at IMS above all else, in fact the most vital thing for Marco is to remedy his underperformance on road and street courses. As noted here before, he’s fine when the whole team is struggling, but he needs to find a new limit when his dad’s team is at its best. Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay’s set-ups may not suit his preferred driving style, but they’re quick, so it’s time for Marco to modify his natural style.
#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay – Andretti Autosport Honda
2016 Position: 12th / Indy car career wins: 16 / career poles: 6
Fast, unlucky, and not currently equipped with the best car, Ryan is potentially your underdog hero. He’s also one of four, maybe five current IndyCar drivers who can transcend his car and score a win that the team doesn’t deserve. But more importantly, Andretti Autosport is supposed to find its way out of the wilderness this year and is aiming to be, at the very least, top Honda team. RHR will consider anything outside the top six a failure, but he will keep trying, whatever the scenario.
#83 Charlie Kimball – Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
2016 Position: 9th / Indy car career wins: 1 / career poles: 0
One of the hardest fighters in the series, CK will never be an IndyCar champion but after a couple of years on a plateau, he started making progress again in 2016. The highs weren’t as high – no podium finishes – but his consistency across the board was remarkable, as he clocked 11 Top-10 finishes in the season’s 16 races. Even equipped with a Ganassi car, that’s tough in IndyCar right now. If CGR take HPD to a Chevy-beating level, expect another top-three finish or two.
#98 Alexander Rossi – Andretti Autosport Honda
2016 Position: 11th / Indy car career wins: 1 / career poles: 0
Had Newgarden’s talks with Penske come to naught, Rossi – who was also in discussions with The Captain’s team – was the only other driver who made sense as a possible Juan Pablo Montoya replacement. The Indy 500 winner is smart and getting smarter, quick and getting quicker. How he compares with Hunter-Reay over the coming season will define his status within IndyCar… but expect him to show well.
Captain's Corner - Simon Pagenaud
St Pete IndyCar: Andretti leads opening practice
IndyCar 2017 season preview, driver-by-driver
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