It’s no secret that the Verizon IndyCar Series is ending a long-time absence from the St. Louis, Missouri area this weekend. A lot has changed since 2003 – our country is in a different place, the series is one and ‘the split’ is over, the cars are incredibly different… but one thing that hasn’t changed is the hair of the most recent winner.
Helio Castroneves (No. 3, Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevy) won the pole position and the race that year, and he will be looking to continue that in an attempt to earn his fourth pole and second win of the year. Achieving those feats could get him closer to his overall focus in 2017 – winning his first season championship.
Castroneves has five previous starts here and is one of three current drivers with experience at Gateway. The other two are Scott Dixon (No. 9 NTT Data Ganassi Racing Honda) with a single start and Tony Kanaan (No. 10 NTT Data Ganassi Racing Honda) with four starts. Castroneves is the only one of those three with a pole or win.
That advantage and the track format is likely to set us up for a Penske-strong weekend in Southern Illinois. Will Power (No. 12, Verizon Team Penske Chey) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2, PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevy) have both racked up three wins. They are both in the midst of the championship battle which Newgarden currently leads.
Their teammate Simon Pagenaud is also in that fight and looking to get his second win of the year. His sole victory in 2017 was back at Phoenix International Raceway, earning his first oval trophy. With Gateway being partially modeled after Phoenix, that could absolutely work to the advantage of our current series champ.
Staying within the field of French IndyCar drivers, maybe the biggest story heading into the Gateway weekend, is the return of Sebastien Bourdais. The Dale Coyne driver will be back behind the wheel just 14 weeks after his horrifying accident during Indianapolis 500 qualifying at IMS. From day one, the 4-time champion has been vocal about his determination to race before the end of the season. Coyne initially didn’t think it was a realistic goal, but as with most pivotal moments in his career, Bourdais surprised everyone and proved any nay-sayers wrong.
Bourdais updated fans and media via Twitter over the past 3 and a 1/2 months with photos from rehab, with breaking news when he was able to walk again without crutches or accouterments of any kind, and with that kid-in-a-candy-shop smile after his Mid-Ohio test at the tail-end of July. He was officially cleared shortly after that private testing session. The announcement to return for the Gateway contest was made earlier this week, to which Bourdais expressed happily:
“You have no idea how excited I am to be getting back in the car this weekend and for the remainder of the season. It’s been a long 14 weeks and I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. Following the crash, I had one goal in mind and that was to be back for Sonoma, and here I am getting back in the car with three races to go. It’s a bit unbelievable but I can’t wait to try out that new surface at Gateway this weekend!”
With Bourdais’ return, we say thank you and goodbye (for now) to Estaban Gutierrez. While the idea of running three cars was mentioned earlier in the season, it was obviously not something feasible for the team at this time. Given the number of chassis’ that have been wrecked and the damage costs that went along with all of that, it’s not too surprising to see Coyne stick with two cars for the remainder of 2017. If solid sponsorship comes through for a future season, maybe we could see a 3-car full-season Coyne team, but right now it’s a pipe dream.
What’s not a pipe dream though, is the IndyCar Series ability to produce some stunning racing on this 1.25 mile oval this weekend. That’s a guarantee. So get to the track, root on your favorite drivers and teams, and help us kick off our return to the track in the way that only IndyCar fans can!
Photo credit: Chris Jones, IndyCar