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Hopes and dreams for IndyCar in 2017

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Hopes and dreams for IndyCar in 2017
By:
Jan 12, 2017, 11:04 PM

David Malsher looks ahead to the prospects for the upcoming IndyCar season and veneers them with ideal-world scenarios. Some of them are easily achievable.

Simon Pagenaud
A.J. Foyt
A.J. Foyt's ring
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport-Honda
Arie Luyendyk
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Jack Hawksworth, A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Race winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with A.J. Foyt
J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda
Conor Daly, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Bryan Clauson, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Podium: race winner and 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet, second place Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, third place Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske Chevrolet
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing
Conor Daly, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda and father Bobby Rahal
Champion Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet with Roger Penske
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Start: Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet leads
Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Championship contenders Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Race winner and 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet gets a kiss from his girlfriend
Restart: James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads

Safety fast

The first and most obvious wish - while our sport must remain a thrilling one, based on each competitor’s determination to drive faster and race harder than his or her rivals, we of course hope all can remain on life's tightrope for the remainder of their natural careers. The death of the brilliant and self-effacing Bryan Clauson will remain a black mark on last year, and I know his loss has caused irreparable damage to the enthusiasm some have for the sport. The dignity and modesty shown by Bryan’s family on accepting the IndyCar ‘Fan Favorite’ Award on his behalf last October was an example to all of us in how to handle the worst days of our lives. There were clear echoes of the sad stoicism demonstrated by Justin Wilson’s family little more than one year earlier.

Penske challengers

It may take only two cars to make a race, but to create a compelling title battle over the course of a 16- or 17-race season requires rather more than that. Or at least, should there be only two contenders, they need to come from different teams. In 2016, the racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series was as healthy as it had been the year before – but the championship fight was something of a faît accomplit by Monsieur Pagenaud after he strung together Indy car racing’s strongest opening five-race sequence since Bobby Unser’s in 1968.

The fans reacted to the Pagenaud/Will Power championship fight as you’d expect – with acknowledgment of a job well done, but not with fervent passion. By the same token, Penske’s 10 wins from 16 races was neither highly praised nor deeply resented. Instead I think most – including myself – were left perplexed by the inconsistency of their rivals.

Sure, Penske was even more dominant in 1994, both in terms of wins and its performance advantage over its rivals. But much has changed in the intervening two decades or so: Fans now express their opinions instantaneously on social media, and within seconds of a race report appearing here on Motorsport.com. Larry and LaRonda Laptop soon let everybody know if they think a race or result sucks. Of course, it’s not up to Penske to hold back, nor IndyCar to manipulate the racing; it’s up to the others to catch the Captain’s squad. Otherwise RP will fully deserve a 1-2-3-4 in the championship standings.

Honda to up its game

This is linked directly to the point above, because with the greatest will in the world, I don’t see another Chevrolet runner threatening Penske over the course of a whole season. I’m confident Honda Performance Development returnees Chip Ganassi Racing will figure out their new aerokit – but there’s not a soul in the paddock who thinks HPD’s road/street/short-oval kit is a match for Chevy’s in terms of hitting the sweetspot in the drag/downforce ratio. With aerokits frozen for this year, it’s therefore important that HPD gains on Chevy in the engine department.

The encouraging thing is that several drivers believe in certain areas, the Japanese brand’s engine is already superior to the Chevy unit, especially in terms of torque curves and power delivery. But it needs more grunt at road/street course boost. Pace at Indy, Pocono and Texas isn’t going to be enough for a Honda team to threaten Penske for the championship. Ganassi, Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Schmidt Peterson need to regularly be part of the fight, and for that they need the HPD 2.2-liter V6 twin-turbo to overachieve.

Arise Andretti (plural)

Since Ryan Hunter-Reay won the 2012 IndyCar championship, Andretti Autosport has been flailing somewhat… notwithstanding Indy 500 victories in two of the last three years, of course…

Despite RHR’s race engineer Ray Gosselin helping to spearhead the team’s technical direction, there’s been the impression that the team doesn’t know why it’s fast when it’s fast, and is therefore terminally puzzled when it’s slow. It happens to all teams at some point, but Andretti sometimes takes longer than most to figure out why. HPD can take some of the blame for the past couple of aerokit-blighted years, but the compact Rahal team has proven time and again that in fact, Honda isn’t that far off Chevy.

AA is going through an exciting time right now, as it finds Alexander Rossi emerging as a future star – an American one, too. It would be sad to see him depart at season’s end simply through frustration over the team’s lack of cohesion. So I hope that with Josef Newgarden’s ex-engineer Jeremy Milless working on the #98, Gosselin pinpointing his focus once more on engineering Hunter-Reay, and Eric Bretzman working behind the scenes, Andretti Autosport can once more fulfill its immense potential.

Arise Andretti (singular)

And then there’s Marco. There were times last year where I did lose hope for him, when I felt ‘He’s gotten as good as he can get and it’s not enough at this level.’ But a couple of things keep my pilot light of hope burning for him in IndyCar. We all recall the leap he made from 2012 to ’13 in terms of personal performance, and there are times when the whole team is out to lunch, and he’s fastest of the quartet. It’s when the team finds direction that Andretti is left trailing.

One of Andretti’s rivals has now convinced me it’s a confidence issue. Driver X remarked to me last summer, “Have you noticed that Marco never makes a mistake on race weekend? During practice and qualifying, the rest of us use runoff areas, bounce off tire walls, run wide into sandtraps, but he never screws up.

“To me, that means he’s not on the edge. It’s like he’s psyched himself out – not because he’s not brave. He’s definitely got the balls, as we see on ovals. It’s more like he’s worried about going too far, giving the team more work, whatever. It’s weird, because in testing he's fast.”

It is, and if there’s substance to this theory, then it’s something only Marco can resolve. He’s a good person and a fearfully honest one; he fully admits that, just as the team can’t blame Honda for all its ills, nor can he blame the team and Honda for his own underperformance. He is also promotable, but only if he can get his act together on track. His public act of seppuku every time a mic is waved under his nose is extremely awkward.

No new-team blues for Newgarden

We’ve all believed in his pace. We’ve watched him eradicate his errors. Now he has a shot in the premier class. Josef Newgarden cannot afford to have a Simon Pagenaud-like difficult first season at Team Penske. Roger expects, IndyCar fans expect… And the series needs it. While I’m not convinced an American challenging for the title will necessarily ratchet up the interest of those already hooked on IndyCar, I do believe it can draw in new interest. The series management admits that its apathy towards Hunter-Reay grabbing the title four years ago was a major blunder; it surely won’t make the same mistake twice.

Faster Foyt

We media like to bang on about how Andretti and Rahal (teams and drivers) need to be prominent to help maintain IndyCar’s links with its past. But we shouldn't forget that AJ Foyt, one of the world’s greatest ever racers, runs a team. Having SuperTex’s team up front might attract the old-school fans who are otherwise disenchanted with the spec-car era of IndyCar. They see the Penske team as the 50-year-old Goliath of the sport, they never quite warmed to the discreet Bobby Rahal, nor the shy and awkward Michael Andretti, so they have no connection there. But Foyt?! That big old bear is passionate, polarizing, he redefines the word ‘candor’ and he’s a throwback to a time when racing drivers were right up there with test pilots and astronauts in terms of heroism.

And AJ Foyt Racing’s prospects are strong. Takuma Sato may flourish at Andretti, but the guy coming the other way, Carlos Munoz, brings with him technical knowledge about what to do and what not to do, pooled from his own experience and those of several other drivers and engineers at Andretti Autosport. After three years in Hunter-Reay’s shadow, this is his chance to lead a team.

Alongside him will be Conor Daly, a driver who has proven a hard but fair fighter, one who knows when to push and when to back down. He has just 22 IndyCar starts under his wheels, but he has shown enough glimmers of talent and single-mindedness to suggest he could have a long and fruitful future here.

Then there’s Chevrolet’s arrival and the shakeup of the technical staff. Importantly, considering the team and both drivers come from Honda backgrounds, there is knowledge of the Chevy aerokit among the new team personnel.

Life after Newgarden

Ed Carpenter Racing’s stock has never been higher, thanks to the impressive efforts and results of the last three years. But now there are new question marks – can the team maintain this level without Josef Newgarden at the wheel, and Jeremy Milless on the engineering stand?

Hildebrand’s mid-season firing by Panther Racing in 2013 was wrong, in my opinion, but his work with Carpenter’s team over the past three seasons, although very infrequent, has been more than impressive. For the sake of the team, I’m rooting for him to display why he fully deserves this return to fulltimer status.

As for Pigot, he used his slightly fractured rookie season to show class and composure; now it’s time for him to more consistent qualifying pace, and to show his claws on raceday.

Servia right

I want Oriol Servia to have one last full season, and I wish Bobby Rahal the best of luck in trying to make it happen. Servia is a good man and a good driver who has had a top car for just one season in his career which stretches back to 2000. I truly believe he can help elevate RLLR to the benefit of himself, the team and of course Graham Rahal.

Improving the show

• I hope Race Control will be discreet, decisive and swift and its decisions accurate and understandable. Let’s have no more dreary debate about blend lines and how many wheels you can have across them at any given point. Nail a traffic cone at the point you wish all cars to reach before rejoining the track on pit exit. There! That’s a $10 solution to a problem that shouldn’t be overshadowing a race result, dominating a race report nor occupying the minds of intelligent people.

• Everyone – in the cars, in the pits, in the grandstands or watching TV – deserve races fought between the fastest and smartest drivers and teams. So I hope the series will consult with strategists, drivers and team managers over how to avoid the dull fuel-window dictated parade we saw at Long Beach last year, when everyone drove to a ridiculous fuel number, and depended on pitstops to move them ahead of their rivals. Had Daly not suffered suspension failure at Road America, causing a full-course yellow, that race was heading the same way. Everyone knew that beforehand, so in other words, it was avoidable. If five laps need to be added to or subtracted from a race distance to prevent teams trying to reduce the number of pitstops and telling their drivers to go at 95 percent of their potential, then this needs to happen.

• I'm in two minds about double-file restarts, having seen the wreck-fests they can propagate, but also love watching opportunism at its finest. But jumped starts and restarts, from anywhere in the field, cannot be tolerated. It's called cheating and Race Control should operate a zero tolerance policy. RC should also, however, check the telemetry from the cars to verify that the other guy isn't deliberately delaying his getaway to make his nearest rival look like the bad guy. We've all seen it done, and we can smile wryly, but that too, is cheating. 

Wake-up calls

• I hope to see Watkins Glen prove a raging success now that Michael Printup has been given a full year to take a swing at promoting the event, rather than fielding a last-minute curveball.

• I hope all you fans who (quite justifiably) bitch about the decline of IndyCar’s oval roster will gas up and put the miles in to attend some of the best racing on the planet. Give Gateway a big vote of confidence on its return to the schedule. Revive Iowa’s dwindling numbers (despite the fact it’s on a Sunday), enjoy the beautiful Poconos for a couple of days and then watch agog as IndyCars go four-wide down the front stretch. Smear your house in Rainguard Water Sealers products, and then bathe in it before attending Texas Motor Speedway’s race, just in case there’s a repeat of 2016’s fiasco. (You’ve got to love Eddie Gossage’s sense of irony when signing his new sponsor). Because at least we know the racing will ultimately be worth it.

And then of course attend the Indy 500. But this is something you must do every year.

• Finally, I want adrenaline shots to be provided to ABC’s expert commentators, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. We all know they’re knowledgeable, but they need to listen to NBCSN’s Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy and Robin Miller and learn how to sound both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. If the experts who are paid to be there don’t sound like they give a damn, you can bet the majority of their viewers won’t, either, nor will they part with their hard-earned cash to attend the races.

So these are one person’s primary hopes and dreams for the IndyCar season ahead. Let’s see yours.

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