While we are all very ready for this off season to be over, there is no denying that a lot has happened in the duration of it. Teams changing engines, new engines all together, drivers changing teams, new drivers entering the series & getting their first shot, old drivers returning to the series in search of former glory, new liveries and numbers, new sponsors, lost sponsors and even a lost team. It all happened and some of it is still happening… let’s take a look at how the newly branded Verizon IndyCar Series is looking as we get ready to head into St. Pete’s next week for the kick-off of the 2014 season.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Takuma Sato returns as Foyt’s full-time driver for 2014 – also coming back with ABC Supply as primary sponsor & Honda as their engine choice. The biggest change here is the new Honda twin-turbocharged engine, which Sato seemed to adjust to very quickly, showing his proficiency with handling it at the Sebring Open Test earlier this week. He found himself in the Top 5 fastest drivers overall (P4) and the 2nd fastest Honda driver at the end of the two day test.
Foyt has opted to run a second car at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis & the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500. Back in September 2013, Foyt fielded a question about growing to a two car team: “The way I look at that, I would like to run two cars again, but getting a proper sponsor and doing it 100 percent… I’m not doing it until we can do it right.” While 2014 did not pan out to be the right time for two full-season drivers, running a second car in the 500 is a commitment he opted to repeat. Last year, Indiana native Conor Daly drove for Foyt on Memorial Day weekend. While many fans were hoping to see Conor back in a DW 12 this season, the team announced last month that Martin Plowman was their choice for that second ride for the entire month of May. Plowman had impressive stints in the Indy Lights series in 2009 & 2010. He continued on to the IndyCar Series in 2011, where he showed solid performances at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma & Baltimore.
There is a lot to cover here, so let’s attack it in numerical order. The #25 Snapple-sponsored Honda will be wheeled again by Marco Andretti. Andretti comes off a growing season from 2013 and sounds to be hungry for a win or two in 2014 – his ultimate goal, of course, is to be an IndyCar champion and this could be a proving year for him. His focus seems to be on point and even though it might sound ironic to refer to an Andretti as a dark horse, I think he may be just that if he can find that elusive balance of clean & aggressive driving on the circuits.
The “#27 United Fiber & Data Honda-powered Dallara for Andretti Autosport” – as stated so eloquently by James Hinchcliffe while passing the time at Barber this week, will most definitely be seeking to add more time in the winner’s circle this season. That quest will begin next week when Hinch defends his 2013 win at St. Pete’s, and attempts back-to-back wins. The #27 will certainly look different in victory lane with a strikingly different livery than we’re used to. The bright green of GoDaddy is just a memory now, as is the Chevy emblem. Hinch’s Honda is now sponsored by United Fiber & Data and LIVE, in a blue and white scheme. As the video link at the beginning of this paragraph shows you, it’s a new season with new contracts, but he’s still the same Mayor we know, love and laugh at. I mean WITH, the same Mayor we laugh with…
Ryan Hunter-Reay finds himself in a relatively similar livery to last year, with Sundrop taking over as primary sponsor this year instead of DHL – the sunny exterior of his yellow DW12 escaping any dramatic aesthetic changes. Ryan has been pegged by many in the industry as being a contender for the Championship in 2014. Can he rise past the missteps and entanglements that affected his finishes last year and relive the glory he experienced in 2012 when he held the Astor Cup at the end of the season? Only one way to find out…
Last but not least for Andretti Autosport is the newest member of the IndyCar Series team, Carlos Munoz, in the #34 Cinsay-sponsored Honda. Making one heck of a show during his limited time on the track last year, Munoz has already come up on top of one thing before this season even starts – he completed the most laps at Barber in the open test this week – 121! This kid is certainly one to watch. I think this year will be a learning one for him, which is appropriate as a rookie. However, I do NOT think this driver will experience a rookie season like most – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him knock out a good amount of leading laps, and possibly a win in 2014. I think if Munoz can run the car in his signature style while respecting the road that was paved for him by the veteran drivers he is sharing the track with, he will find his place very quickly… and it’s sure to be towards the front of the pack.
Bryan Herta Autosport
BHA has been featured in two of my most recent articles – one regarding their new partial-season sponsor with Cleveland roots and the other discussing their choice of driver for 2014, Jack Hawksworth. While conversation still swirls around about why Jack was picked from the Indy Lights drivers pool over 2013 Champion, Sage Karam, Herta was fully confident in his choice, stating at the time of the announcement,
“Quite frankly, Jack really impressed us with a very strong test in Sebring last month. He has had success at every level he has competed in to date and we believe he has the skills to maintain that going into the IndyCar series. Jack is well aware of the level of competition he is stepping into and we look forward to the season ahead.”
So do we, Bryan! Keep an eye out for Jack – he will be in the #98 Charter Honda, showing off its dark side in a sharp navy blue & black livery.
Chip Ganassi Racing
This team had more than a few significant changes in the off season. They switched from Honda to Chevrolet power; they went from a 3-car team to a 4-car team with the addition of Ryan Briscoe; and the unexpected retirement of living legend Dario Franchitti left an empty seat in the #10 Target car, which is now being filled by current Indianapolis 500 Champion and fan favorite, Tony Kanaan.
A couple things remained consistent for CGR however – 2013 Mid-Ohio winner, Charlie Kimball is staying in the #83 with primary sponsor Novo Nordisk and 2014 IndyCar Series Champion, Scott Dixon will be in his familiar red and white #9 Target chassis.
Ganassi and his drivers are certainly not afraid of change and I believe they actually thrive in it. This team looks to be stronger than ever, with veteran experience, young talent and a slew of victories too numerous to count on your hands. Chip’s crew is always one to keep your eye on and this season will be no different… just when you think they’re laying low, you spot them flying up behind you in the rear view mirror and challenging you with everything they have.
Dale Coyne Racing
Justin Wilson returns to the Dale Coyne team this year in the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. His end of season hip injury has not slowed him down. Justin participated in the TUDOR sportscar series races the past few months at Daytona & Sebring with Michael Shank in addition to preparing for the IndyCar season which is quickly approaching. The other thing quickly approaching is Justin’s time to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. This driver has been climbing the ranks and making his name more and more known for years – last year he finished the Indy 500 in 5th place, made podium four times, ended the Championship fight in 6th and then, he came in 2nd fastest at Barber this week – and that was only .0038 of a second behind Will Power. If someone asks you who you think is underrated in the IndyCar series and you DON’T mention Wilson somewhere in the conversation… than it is probably not a discussion you should be engaging in, in the first place. Also, I am fascinated by subliminal messaging.
Ed Carpenter Racing
I featured many of the changes for the ECR team in an article last month. The most unique aspect to their setup this season is that while they will employ 2 drivers, they will be sharing one car. The #20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet will be wheeled by team owner Ed Carpenter on the oval tracks in 2014 and by Mike Conway for the road courses and street circuits. This is actually a great compromise because as you might remember, Mike was involved in a terrifying accident in the last lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 where his car made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay, went airborne and ended up bouncing off the catch fence. The car splintered apart but left him safe (relatively speaking) within the survival cell with only a broken leg. He did not race the remainder of the season. I was sitting at Turn 3 and saw this accident live – it’s the only Indy 500 where I didn’t see the ending because I was crying and couldn’t take my eyes of of Mike & what was left of his car. It’s understandable that he has not been all that comfortable racing ovals since that experience. He completed the full circuit in 2011 & 2012 but opted to only run Long Beach and the 3 street circuit double-headers last season in Detroit, Toronto and Houston.
I also think this sharing of duties will prove to be a good partnership since Ed’s strength tends to be the ovals. I look forward to seeing how things balance out for this team. Should be interesting if nothing else!
I profiled this team in a recent column – please check out Strength in Numbers: The Sebs for more info on Sebastian Saavedra, Sebastien Bourdais and the KV Racing team in 2014. It was even endorsed by Saavedra himself, on Twitter!
Like many other teams this year, the number of cars for Team Penske has changed since the 2013 season. They increased by one bringing their total to 3. I am not necessarily a superstitious person, but I do not believe in coincidence either. Let’s look at that number 3 for Penske.
3 is the number of cars they’re running full time this season, it’s the number on Helio’s car, it’s the number of times that Helio has won the Indianapolis 500. I could stretch it and say it’s the total if you add up the two numbers in Will Power’s car number (he’s #12… 1+2 = 3) and that would be a completely legit example if you had the prior knowledge that I am a big math nerd. (I took accounting in college for fun. True story.) Anyways, back to the task at hand… 3 is also the number of racing series that Penske is invested in, and the amount of seasons that he employed 3 full-time drivers in the past (2010, 2011, 2012).
Seems like 3 is definitely this teams lucky number and the addition of Juan Pablo Montoya this season seems to be adding to that pattern – he has competed regularly in 3 of the most popular racing series in the world – NASCAR, F1 and IndyCar. And according to Juan during a press conference at the Detroit Auto Show this past January, “IndyCar is the most fun and most exciting racing.” I can’t argue with him there. What can I say? Numbers don’t lie.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
This is a team that I profiled previously, as well. The second half of Save Me a Seat discusses the addition of Oriol Servia to the team in 2014 as well as the National Guard coming over to RLL as Graham Rahal’s primary sponsor. I hope you enjoy the read and are looking forward to the interactions between these two in the paddock this year, as much as I am. Because frankly, if this photo from their shoot is any indication, I’d guess we are in for a great dynamic on AND off the track.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Josef Newgarden, in the #67 Honda-powered Dalara, will be returning to SFH racing for his third season – the only team he’s been with since he graduated from the Indy Lights series at the end of 2011. Coming off a season where he placed in the Top 5 at four races, one of which was a podium standing in 2nd place at the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Newgarden is ready to work on reaching the top of that podium and putting a win on his IndyCar resume. Having lost his head engineer to James Hinchcliffe’s team, it should be interesting to see how a new crew dynamic will affect his progress. Hopefully it will be a positive change and he will be on his way to becoming a household name. Even though, I have to say, watching Josef making fun of himself for being “unknown” is nearly as entertaining as watching an IndyCar race.
Schmidt Peterson (Hamilton) Motorsports
Simon Pagenaud returns to the series this year for the third season in a row under Sam Schmidt. He will again be behind the wheel of the #77 HP Honda-powered DW12. He is joined by IndyCar Rookie, Mikhail Aleshin, who will be driving the #7. A Russian driver, Mikhail competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series for 7 out of the last 8 years. This is quite an accomplishment, especially when you take into account that he is only 26 years old. Simon he has respect for Mikhail’s career and what he can bring to the table, which he spoke about at IndyCar Media Day last month in Orlando:
“[Mikhail]’s very down to business, very professional. I think he’s a great addition to the team. I think we both understand to make ourselves better, we need to make our cars better together, and that will elevate the team, therefore that can elevate us. We both understand the same thing, which I think is a big plus and will certainly help us this year.“
However, those who work hard have the right to play hard. And sometimes that means playing a guitar! Now for your “did you know?” moment of the day: Did you know that Mikhail Aleshin has some serious musical skill?! Well you do now. These teammates have had time in the off season to get to know one another a bit and based on their recent YouTube video, I would say that they are getting along just fine. Check it out!
Unfortunately, not all the updates I have are positive ones. Panther Racing has given up their Leader’s Circle Entry for 2014 and the last update from the team in regards to the IndyCar series was a testing completed at Sebring in early February with Carlos Huertas. Unfortunately, with the loss of their primary sponsor, the National Guard, and the subsequent legal action the racing team attempted to take against their former sponsor and another IndyCar team, it looks like Panther Racing will not be competing in the 2014 IndyCar season. There are additional unconfirmed details about the Panther Racing team circulating “on the street”, but I am not comfortable bringing those conversations to the table until they have been verified by a source on the team itself.
I think all in all, this season is really shaping up to be one for the books. Having Verizon on board as the Series title sponsor is a great step in the right direction and provides fantastic opportunities for relevance and marketing. The vast array of drivers we have this year is going to really mix things up and provide endless entertainment and energy. Helio Castroneves voiced some positive perspective from a driver’s vantage point in Orlando last month, when he said,
“I feel great about the series getting on their feet, getting back to the way it used to be. It’s been a long time I haven’t felt that positiveness in the series. I’m excited. I’m honestly really excited. Media say… they always say the same thing. But this year, with Derrick and Mark Miles, good things for the series and could create a new generation of drivers.”
If it’s one thing I know as an IndyCar fan, it’s this – when Helio gets excited, YOU get excited! His happiness is contagious in the best way possible. And honestly, what’s NOT to be excited about right now? We are a week away from track time in St. Pete’s… we are on the precipice of a potentially “turning-point” season for this series and it’s fans… and for those of us in the Midwest, Spring is officially here today… after the longest Winter in recorded human history. Sorry, that last part wasn’t REALLY related to the IndyCar Series… but it is a (possibly exaggerated) fact and I felt the need to share with all of you. Seriously though, this racing series is one of, if not THE most diverse racing series on the planet. Our full-time drivers hail from 10 different countries across 5 continents. They race on ovals, road courses and street circuits. They break the stereotype of “only turning left” and yet when they do, it’s usually at speeds topping 200 mph and in spectacular fashion!
So whether you have all the races written on your calendar, programmed in your iPhone, or spackled around your cubicle walls with post-it notes… just don’t forget to tune in to ABC on Sunday, March 30th at 3PM EST and watch these boys put on one HECK of a show that was 162 days in the making. Not that I counted…