Preview: Who needs a big year in IndyCar in 2023?
Nothing can be taken for granted as the new IndyCar season prepares for launch – and as ever, reputations are on the precipice at the pinnacle of U.S. single-seater racing. The pressure is on at several teams down the pitlane for drivers to safeguard their positions amid fierce competition on the 27-car grid.
A cast list of drivers largely staying the same, and largely in the same places, might lead you to expect the 2023 IndyCar season to be a rerun of 2022. This belief could be compounded by the fact that the campaign ahead will be the 12th for the 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s from Chevrolet and Honda, the sixth for the universal aerokit, and the fourth for the aeroscreen. Even the schedule is largely the same, aside from Detroit’s race switching from Belle Isle to a new 1.7-mile course in downtown Motown.
But it’s the very tightness of the formula that means, from year to year, the narrative can be nudged in a different direction, according to a team's mini breakthroughs with engine, aerodynamics, shocks and dampers. For example, who would have expected in the twilight of the current engine era that Chevrolet would gain such a noticeable edge for 2022 that it could take 11 wins and 13 poles from 17 races after four straight years of defeat in the manufacturers’ championship? Did anyone foresee Andretti Autosport suddenly becoming strong on the Indy road course – formerly its bête noire – yet lose its previous superiority on street courses as Penske caught up?
Of course, IndyCar isn’t always about burning the formbook. Some existing themes were extended in 2022, including Chip Ganassi Racing’s superiority at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which actually increased. But who would be shocked if Ganassi’s forte in 2023 became temporary tracks, and Penske suddenly returned to its 2018-’19 form at the Speedway? These are, after all, two of the greatest open-wheel teams in the world.
The point is, in IndyCar the formbook should be regarded only as a guide, not an almanac, even as these cars and this formula approaches the end of its life cycle. The biggest brains in the paddock are trying to squeeze out the last fractions of potential from their cars and have been poring over data accumulated from their race weekend notes, the simulator, the wind tunnel and the shaker rig. Chances are, they’ve found plenty of items to investigate in opening practice sessions during the season’s first quarter.
Nonetheless, the spec nature of the cars does throw the emphasis very much onto the drivers, and for some this has to be a huge year.
Felix Rosenqvist has the specter of Alex Palou hanging over him as he enters his third season at Arrow McLaren, just as he did at Ganassi in 2019. The team has expanded to three full-time cars this year, but Rosenqvist only retained his seat after Palou failed to extract himself from Ganassi, and the 31-year-old Swede knows that incumbent team-mate Pato O’Ward and newly arrived stablemate Alexander Rossi both have AM contracts that will see them through next year, too. So assuming Palou is McLaren-bound yet can’t find a race seat in the Formula 1 team for 2024, then Rosenqvist is fighting for a place in IndyCar for 2024.
Rosenqvist faces a challenge from Palou to keep his place at Arrow McLaren, assuming the Spaniard's days at Ganassi are numbered
Photo by: IndyCar Series
Rosenqvist brushes off the topic, says the right things – “I feel like I have good support from the team to go and perform,” etc – but he’s not naive. He knows he must elevate his chances of a worthy ride next year by shining when in direct comparison with O’Ward and Rosenqvist. Can he do it?
Well, losing his former race engineer Craig Hampson to Rossi is a blow, but Rosenqvist and others speak highly of replacement Chris Lawrence, who has served as assistant race engineer on the #7 car that Rosenqvist previously drove. And without question, he has potential that has not yet borne fruit and possesses remarkable resilience.
He outqualified O’Ward only four times in 2022, but twice that resulted in pole position, and he was rarely a long way off the Mexican. More relevantly, there were enough times when Rosenqvist outraced him, too, which suggests he can do enough to prove himself to potential new employers.
"We overachieved some places and we underachieved by trying to overachieve at some other places! It’s unfortunate, but I learned so much and I can’t wait to take what I learned into this season" Kyle Kirkwood
Ex-F1 ace Romain Grosjean is another driver with much to prove in 2023, despite having a secure option with Andretti Autosport for 2024. With only a single podium to his name from his first season with AA – albeit in a very up-and-down year for Michael Andretti’s squad as a whole – he was frankly a disappointment for much of 2022. The Frenchman could look extremely fast and then make an error, or he could fade into mediocrity, as the line between pace and prudence often eluded him.
And things won’t get any easier, since the ultra-fast Colton Herta remains at the team, and the departing Rossi has been replaced by America’s next Boy Wonder, Kyle Kirkwood. Or at least we think Kirkwood is the next big thing. His record in junior formulas is impeccable, but the jury is out because his rookie season at AJ Foyt Racing contained too many incidents – to which he readily admits.
“That’s completely fair to say,” he agrees. “When you’re 20th and you feel stuck, naturally you’re not going to just give up, you’re going to push to the absolute limits. In a sense that’s what we did [at Foyt]. We overachieved some places and we underachieved by trying to overachieve at some other places! It’s unfortunate, but I learned so much and I can’t wait to take what I learned into this season.”
If pre-season testing is representative, Kirkwood has immediately adapted back to the Andretti Autosport set-ups that he first tested as reward for winning the Indy Lights title in 2021. The intra-team battle between him, Herta and Grosjean will be fascinating.
Grosjean has greater internal competition this year as Kirkwood arrives eager to prove a point following a mixed rookie year at Foyt
Photo by: IndyCar Series
Their semi-team-mates at Meyer Shank Racing, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, will need big helpings of points this season, after finishing 18th and 15th respectively in 2022. Sure, the alliance with AA is a double-edged sword, but it was a shock that so frequently this experienced pair – 46 wins and more than 500 starts between them – could not find a set-up that suited them or Firestone’s tire compounds. Another year like the last, and Michael Shank and Jim Meyer may conclude that wholesale change is needed in its line-up, especially with IMSA champion Tom Blomqvist in-house and more than willing to switch disciplines…
The IndyCar driver with the most to prove this year is Jack Harvey, who endured a wretched first season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan. While the team also struggled in the first half of 2022, its mid-season turnaround seemed only to benefit Harvey’s team-mates, Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard. Sponsor Hy-Vee has been switched to Lundgaard’s car this year, which is not exactly a vote of confidence for Harvey, but he’s gritty enough to ride that out.
The key to improving his form, the Briton says, is to “become more flexible” when chasing set-ups, accept when his car’s handling isn’t ideal, and instead adapt his driving to suit what he’s got. Otherwise he’s going to find himself buried in a field that now includes 27 full-time entries.
Of the drivers who raced in every round of 2022, Dalton Kellett and Jimmie Johnson have gone, while the rookie intake comprises Marcus Armstrong (road and street courses for Chip Ganassi Racing, in a ride-share with oval-only veteran Takuma Sato), Indy Lights graduates Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen joining Foyt and Dale Coyne Racing respectively, and Argentine touring car legend Agustin Canapino swelling Juncos Hollinger Racing’s presence from one car to two.
Harvey needs a big season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after a trying 2022 campaign in which he was beaten by his team-mates
Photo by: IndyCar Series
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