Well hello there, strangers! It’s been a minute. This off-season has been one of the most chaotic and jam-packed one that I can remember. Additional work and responsibilities in my career have put racing on a back-burner, but we are less than a month out from the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the excitement is palpable and we can feel the energy in the air, so it’s time to get back on track.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.
The off-season was even busier for IndyCar than it was for little ol’ me though, so let’s take a look at all the changes that have happened over these past 5 months. The paddock is about to look very different, and this multi-part series will run down which drivers are back, which drivers are new, and which drivers we will be missing in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series. Not to mention the new teams that have joined the best open-wheel racing competition on the planet.
Tony Kanaan kicks off his 21st season in the series with a switch over the No. 14 car of A.J. Foyt Racing. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner will be paired with fellow Brazilian-born driver Matheus Leist in the No. 4, who was born in 1998. For those doing the math, yes, that’s the same year that Kanaan won the title of CART rookie of the year.
Both drivers spent a short time in Indy Lights before moving up to “the big cars” – Kanaan winning the Lights Championship only 2 years in, and Leist finishing fourth overall at the end of his first and only Lights season. Leist racked up 3 wins at the Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, in the first of two races at Road America, and then on the short-oval of Iowa Speedway. Those wins show his ability to contend and come out victorious at a variety of track styles, and that is exactly what team owners are looking for when they bring drivers up from the Mazda Road to Indy.
The timing couldn’t be better for Lights drivers to make the step up to IndyCar, with the new aerokits producing a feel that is much closer to that of the Lights car. When Leist spoke to Autosport.com last month, he told them that he was already ‘feeling very comfortable’ with the car after his test at Sebring.
Kanaan had a positive outlook after testing as well, running third quickest over the Phoenix weekend and saying,
“…All in all I think it was a positive test for us. We learned a lot , we didn’t have any major problems, which that’s what we’re looking for at this team right now is just to build. Build confidence and build momentum.”
That confidence building will help when it comes to getting adjusted to downforce levels for both teammates, and specifically for Leist – the brakes, pit stops, and length of races, as those are just some of the additional factors that he and the other MRTI graduates who will start as IndyCar rookies in this season’s field will need to adapt to in order to find success. Thankfully, the teammate dynamic seems to be going very smoothly this season at Foyt.
It’s clear that Leist and Kanaan have been getting along, joking around, and seem very comfortable in their respective roles of rookie and mentor. Kanaan finished his rookie year inside the Top 10 for points, and made it to the podium twice. Might we see the same or better from Leist? Owner A.J. Foyt certainly hopes so. And although blatant optimism isn’t exactly habit for Big Tex, it seems fair to anticipate a solid year for his enterprise in 2018. -LFT-