It was an interesting offseason for IndyCar. First, there was the long layoff. Then came Brian Barnhart's reinstatement as Race Director. Then, local officials suddenly cancelled the season-opener Brazilian race. It was a continuous stream of bad news.
Then, Honda showed their aerokit, and suddenly none of that mattered.
For the first time since the merger, there are two distinct looks to IndyCar. What's absolutely fascinating is that the two designs come from very different backgrounds. The sleek Chevrolet kit was underwhelming in render form, but with the liveries on it suddenly became clear how much like a traditional IndyCar it is (in Stefano Coletti's KV getup, it looks downright ChampCar-esque), with sidepods that curve in to direct air to the rear of the car, and big flips in front of the rear wheel to send air over the tire. Meanwhile, the Honda's radical collection of wings comes directly from F1, where downforce is king, with the wide sidepods a nod to their success in sports prototypes.
Last week's Spring Training at Barber was the most intriguing testing session in the post-merger era. There was a lot of hinting at sandbagging, but if teams were at least somewhat honest then a few things can be gleaned: First, right now at least, Chevy has the edge. A Honda never topped the time charts, and Chevy took 8 of the top 10 times of the 2 days. Hopeful pundits are speculating that it's easier to find the sweet spot with the simpler Chevy, and while it will take some time to get there, the Honda might have a far higher ceiling. Secondly, and more heartening, the top 21 cars were covered by less than a second, which bodes well for the competitive balance of the coming year.
Both Chevy and Honda will have 12 full time cars, with additional entries for both coming in the month of May. The Bow Tie Brigade consists of two 4 car teams and two 2 car teams, with Hondas spread among one 4 car team, three 2 car teams, and two 1 car operations. We'll start our preview with the Chevrolet squads, and feature the Honda guys in the 2nd installment later this week.
- 1 - Will Power (AUS)
- 2 - Juan Pablo Montoya (COL)
- 3 - Helio Castroneves (BRA)
- 22 - Simon Pagenaud (FRA)
Roger Penske has never been one for passing up a chance at utter domination. So while 2014 was an unquestionable success for IndyCar's premier team, with Power and Castroneves fighting for the Championship down to the final race, and Montoya capping his return to the series with a win at Pocono, Penske still had his sights set higher. Pagenaud's 2015 destination was a major storyline throughout last season, and after turning Sam Schmidt's Honda team from a backmarker to a championship contender over the last 3 seasons, many thought he was destined to remain with the Japanese marque, either there or at Andretti. But, when Roger comes calling, you answer. Now, Team Penske is loaded with alpha dogs, and while Power might have the number 1 on his rear pods, he is by no means the clear number one driver in his own team. Even if the championship hunt comes down to these four men, which it may very well, the interplay between them will be a big talking point, especially considering Power and Pagenaud's contentious past. But if they can hold it together, then it's the same as it ever was: Team Penske is the team to beat.
Chip Ganassi Racing
- 8 - Sage Karam (USA)
- 9 - Scott Dixon (NZL)
- 10 - Tony Kanaan (BRA)
- 83 - Charlie Kimball (USA)
...except for that Dixon guy. Chip Ganassi's squad is traditionally the other major player in the series, and while 2014 was something of a down year, especially at the outset, they came on strong in the summer and look to carry the momentum into this season. Power's arch nemesis Dixon was right there the Penskes at the Barber test, and as he is now the sole proper Target car, he'll have all the impetus he needs to fight for yet another title. If anyone is going to spoil the Penske party, it's him. Kanaan ended last year with a well earned win at Fontana, and now that he's settled into Ganassi's operation, expect even more success, especially on the big ovals. Kimball is a consistent, decently fast, but unspectacular driver, and while his results have underwhelmed for the team he is on, don't be surprised when contends for a few wins. Rookie Karam is only officially confirmed for St. Petersburg, but that looks to be more of a gambit on Chip's part to lure in some sponsorship for open races later in the year, and in all likelihood this will be a full time ride when the season closes. Karam's Spring Training didn't go so hot - he broke a hand and the tub of his car spearing off the track - but he'll be ready to go in St. Pete, and will bring speed with him.
KV Racing Technology
- 4 - Stefano Coletti (MON)
- 11 - Sebastien Bourdais (FRA)
Bourdais' win last season in Toronto was significant in many aspects. On a wider scale, the ChampCar dominator's scoring an IndyCar victory felt like the book truly closing on the Split. More importantly for him, however, it was validation that KV Racing could hang with the big boys, and that his signing a multi-year deal with the team was more than for a sense of stability, it was a legitimate chance at renewed relevancy. Bourdais was big time fast at Barber, and this should be the year that we see the Sebastien of old fighting with the big dogs for a shot at the title. Coletti is a GP2 veteran with 5 wins to his resume who hit the wall of F1's dearth of open seats. He brings money but there is serious talent there as well, and he actually put in the 3rd quickest time of Spring Training. Familiarity with the tracks on the schedule will be an issue, but he could excel far beyond expectations this season.
- 20 - Luca Filippi (ITA)/Ed Carpenter (USA)
- 67 - Josef Newgarden (USA)
One of the biggest bombs dropped during the 2014 season was Chevy's Ed Carpenter Racing merging with Honda's Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Despite the mixed manufacturers, it made a ton of sense: ECR was a team that was winning multiple races a year with a split oval/road program, and SFHR was on the verge of big things with their young driver, and needed a second car to help with development. Oh, and Ed Carpenter won his first race driving for Sarah Fisher, which might also have something to do with it. The former ECR 20 car once again will have split driving duties. Once labeled as a joke, Carpenter has arguably developed into IndyCar's best oval racer, and is a threat to win at any of those tracks. Mike Conway won two races last year in the road/street driver role, and was rewarded with a factory drive with Toyota in the WEC, so now Luca Filippi will fill that slot. Filippi is still a rookie and is quick, but has some room to grow. Meanwhile, Newgarden is the big winner in the merger, as he now has the development support to match his talent. This is a critical year for him, he's had three seasons to mature and should be poised to win, now more than ever with the additional data he'll be getting.