2014 IndyCar Season Preview (Pit Lane Reporter)

(NOTE: This post originally appeared in issue one of “Pit Lane Reporteron 3/16/2014. My writing at PLR will all be archived here to keep my work compiled in a single location one month after originally appearing on/in PLR website and magazine. Didn’t download the first issue? Shame on you! Stay tuned for details about issue two next week.)

A frozen winter in North America and an unusually busy offseason for driver moves have punctuated the five months since the IndyCar paddock took the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway and Scott Dixon was crowned series champion. Teams have been engaged in preseason testing since January at a multitude of warm weather locations including Sebring International Raceway Short Course, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. In the midst of all the action, homeless drivers have been vying for the quickly shrinking pool of open seats.

The transition from 2013 to 2014 in IndyCar has been a relatively smooth one considering we are talking about open-wheel racing. INDYCAR and newly appointed CEO Mark Miles looked to streamline what had historically been a family run business lacking the acumen to consistently fortify the series’ place in the US and global motorsport world. Jay Frye as Chief Revenue Officer and CJ O’Donnell as Chief Marketing Officer and Mike Kitchel as Communication Director have been welcome additions as all three men bring a wealth of knowledge and history in the sports and motorsport world.

On-track, the largest change will undoubtedly be the transition of Honda from a single-turbo engine layout to a twin-turbo system. The change was to be series mandated as technical officials have had difficulties balancing the single system from Honda and twin system from Chevrolet, however Honda had plans for the switch anyway and was well into development when the rule change was announced.

Honda had lagged behind Chevy in a few key areas in 2012 and 2013 and the change to a twin-turbo layout was more of a competitive decision to stay on par with Chevy. Honda had made sacrifices the last two years in drivability and fuel economy to stay in the same range of horsepower as Chevy. By the end of 2013, Honda had made huge strides in containing the power of the bowtie brigade. The move to twin-turbos could give Honda a decisive advantage considering all the work they have done on engine drivability and power delivery on their tricky single-turbo unit.

After two years of development, the 2.2 liter direct injected turbo motors are purportedly making in the neighborhood of 725 horsepower while in road trim. This could be as much as 50 more than when the power plants debuted in 2012; a considerable increase in the heavily homologated engine formula with few windows for upgrades. And with two years of aero development in the bag, 2014 should see speeds increase at nearly all tracks, a trend continued from 2013.

Adding to the tangled web of engine talk, Chip Ganassi racing has swapped manufacturer during the offseason. The championship contending team has opted to go with Chevy for 2014 after perceived lack of commitment from Honda soured Ganassi on the partnership. Andretti Autosport went the other way, choosing to represent long-time partner Honda for the 2014 season.

The Grand Prix of Baltimore was unfortunately axed from the schedule because IndyCar and the city of Baltimore were unable to find a suitable date to hold the event. A future revival of the grand prix does not look to be an option for either party. IndyCar also lost the Sao Paulo Indy 300 due to the promoter backing out of the contract forcing the series to look elsewhere in Brazil for a possible return to the country sometime in the future.

Although two fan favorite races have been lost from the schedule, a new road course event has been added at the newly reconfigured Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix Course. The race will take place on what is traditionally opening weekend for the Indianapolis 500; the crown jewel of the series held on the famous oval during Memorial Day weekend.

The Indianapolis Grand Prix will complement the three returning double header weekends. Detroit, Houston and Toronto will host two full distance, full points paying races; one Saturday and one Sunday. Each double header weekend poses a true test of endurance and fortitude of the teams and drivers. Surviving race one intact and unscathed as to be in a strong position for race two is imperative to a successful championship push.

Also returning for 2014 will be the Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Triple Crown. A traditional sub-championship awarded to the winner of three 500 mile races; the Triple Crown will include the 500 mile oval races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. A 1,000,000 USD payout is the prize if a driver can see the checkered flag first at all three events.

For 2014, the IndyCar paddock is missing a few familiar faces, but it is also home to new and returning drivers looking to make their mark on IndyCar racing. Dario Franchitti’s retirement following his high-flying impact with the Houston catchfence and ensuing concussion and bone injuries was a shock to most of us. But unlike many of the drivers that came before him, Dario was able to retire in person and will continue to be involved in some capacity with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Also Absent from the 2014 paddock is Simona de Silvestro who left KV Racing Technologies to become an “affiliated driver” with Sauber F1 Team. What this means for the young Swiss driver’s career is still to be seen. Simona’s 2013 teammate and 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan has also left KVRT, but to fill the #10 seat left by Dario. 2013 Dragon Racing teammates Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra have both departed Dragon to fill the two KVRT seats leaving Dragon with no drivers and no current plans for the 2014 season.

Tony Kanaan will be joining current Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Charlie Kimball and 2013 series champion Scott Dixon along with Ryan Briscoe. Returning from a 2013 season of sports car racing, Briscoe parlayed his 2013 Indy 500 drive for the team into a full season charge. Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Will Power will be joined by Juan Pablo Montoya who returns to American open-wheel racing after a 13 year absence.

Largely unchanged for the 2014 season is Andretti Autosport as the team welcomes back its trio of North American drivers. James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay will be joined by rookie Carlos Munoz who drove for the team to dramatic effect at Indianapolis and Auto Club in 2013. The surprise driver signing of the year award goes to Andretti Autosport who inked a deal to run NASCAR driver Kurt Busch at the Indy 500.

Mikhail Aleshin, the second full season rookie competing in 2014, will team with veteran Simon Pagenaud at Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. This will be the second rookie stablemate Simon has taught in as many years. The team will also be home to Jacques Villeneuve for the Indy 500. Villeneuve, 1995 Indy 500 winner, 1995 CART champion and 1997 F1 World Champion, will be an interesting addition to the team and series this May by continuing the tradition of drivers in the twilight of their career coming to, or back to, Indy.

Single car operation AJ Foyt Enterprises welcomes back Takuma Sato for another year. The team will also have Martin Plowman making his IndyCar debut with them for both Indianapolis rounds. Ed Carpenter will take the wheel of his namesake team’s machine for the oval rounds, while sometimes IndyCar ace Mike Conway will take the honors of wheeling for the team on the remaining road and street courses.

Dale Coyne Racing and Justin Wilson will attempt to take on the big dogs for yet another year. Coyne’s second seat has always been a sort of enigma with late driver signings the norm; expect this seat to be filled for a second full season entry from the team by St. Petersburg weekend. Bryan Herta Autosport has enlisted the services of Mazda Road to Indy veteran Jack Hawksworth who has already been testing with the team at Sebring. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has signed up Joseph Newgarden to contest the championship for the third consecutive year with the team.

The National Guard sponsorship was transferred from Panther Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing during the offseason. The move not only secured Graham Rahal’s future with his father’s team, but it has also allowed the team to sign Orial Servia for at least four rounds this season. Losing this sponsorship has brought Panther Racings’ already unstable future into question. The team has done preseason testing with Carlos Huertas, but is currently tangled in a legal battle with RLLR, INDYCAR and the National Guard regarding the sponsorship transfer. The teams’ chances of securing a full season entry look very slim.

There should be between 22 and 24 cars on the grid for the season opening race in St. Petersburg. But the question at the start of most recent seasons has been: How does the series make it to the historic car count of 33 for the Indianapolis 500? First, the bulk of the balance will be made up by “Indy only” entrants from full season teams. Busch, Plowman and Villeneuve have already signed to such programs. Look for Townsend Bell, Buddy Lazier and Conor Daly to ink Indy only deals as well.

And there are a few Indy only teams that will most likely make an appearance as well. If Panther Racing or Dragon Racing miss the full season, they will almost certainly still attempt the 500. Dreyer & Reinbolt Racing, once a full season entrant, will also do their best to be back in May. A new and unknown Cutters Racing Team is also looking to crowd source the funding for an Indy 500 attempt.

Team Penske could be the team to beat in 2014 with Target Chip Ganassi very close behind. Helio Castroneves is chasing his elusive first championship to compliment his three Indy 500 wins and Will Power looking to finally clinch a championship in the absence of arch-rival Dario Franchitti. With the driver and engine shake-up at TCGR, the addition of Montoya to an already driven Team Penske and the slightly inconsistent Andretti Autosport, Penske looks primed to capture its first championship since 2006, an eternity for Team Penske.

However, IndyCar is not defined by the big teams. Simon Pagenaud won two races in 2013 and his team has coalesced to become one of the best teams on a budget in the paddock. A championship is not out of the question for the small operation. The move by Sebastien Bourdais, 4 time ChampCar series champion, to KVRT thus freeing himself from Dragon Racing may be the best career decision he has made since returning to the paddock in 2011. Finally, the cash infusion received by RLLR and Rahal may very well propel them into the realm serious contenders. Only time will tell how they use the new resources.

The championship is wide open in 2014 with as many as 15 drivers possessing the skill to take a win on any given week. A podium finish at sometime during the year will be within the grasp of every single driver taking the green flag. Pound for pound, IndyCar has some of the tightest competition in the motorsports world and the series’ history of nail biting races and championship finishes is prepped to deliver again in 2014.

Eric Hall

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