Fuel & Tires: Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season preview
Sunday marks the start of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The offseason saw a number of driver moves as well as the disappearance of one team and the addition of one rookie.
Chevrolet and Honda return as engine manufacturers while Firestone will supply tires for the 17 race season that sees one track make a long-awaited return.
The season runs through Sept. 17 and includes six oval races, including Gateway Motorsports Park, which last hosted IndyCar in 2003, as well as eleven road course and street circuits. The series will be at Elkhart Lake's Road America for the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday, June 25.
Television coverage will include four races on ABC, including the season opener and the Indianapolis 500, with the rest airing on NBCSN. ABC's commentators will include Alan Bestwick and the boredom-inducing duo of Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear along with pit reporters Jon Beekhuis, Rick DeBruhl and Dr. Jerry Punch.
NBCSN fares much better by retaining Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy in the booth with Beekhuis, Robin Miller, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider and Katie Hargitt reporting from the pits. This longtime IndyCar fan is much more excited about the races airing on NBCSN.
Let's take a look at the teams and drivers competing this season.
Roger Penske's powerhouse team is comprised of the top four finishers in points last season, including defending series champion Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman will defend his title driving the No. 1 instead of his usual No. 22.
The Chevy-powered team also includes three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. This is the Brazilian's 18th season with the team and he is looking for his first win since Detroit in 2014 and the first title of his career.
Will Power, the 2014 series champion from Australia, was runner-up to Pagenaud last season even after missing the season opener due to illness. The duo combined for nine wins over16 races.
Josef Newgarden, the first American driver for Penske since Sam Hornish Jr. left the team in 2007, is going to be the wildcard. He's taking Juan Pablo Montoya's seat, though Montoya will return to drive a fifth car for the team in the Indy 500. Newgarden had one win last season with the much smaller Ed Carpenter Racing team, so the question is can he prosper with the behemoth Penske team and make a title run? I would say it's extremely likely.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
Graham Rahal won only a single race last season, but the Ohio native's team is also the only full-time one-car operation in the series. Rahal's finish of fifth in points last season shows that even with the underpowered Honda engine, this guy can drive. Look for Rahal to improve upon his win total this season.
The team is also planning on running Spaniard Oriol Servia for a few races, including the Indy 500.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
In addition to losing Target after over 25 years as a sponsor, Ganassi's team also switched to Honda power in the offseason. Whether that move will prove prosperous or disastrous remains to be seen for the team's four drivers.
Four-time series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon may have had only two wins last season, but the New Zealand native can never be counted out. In his last eleven seasons, Dixon has finished out of the top three in points only twice.
Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner, hasn't won a race since the 2014 season finale at Fontana. However, the Brazilian still has it in him to compete at a lever higher than most, and I bet that we'll see him in victory lane in what could be his final season.
American Charlie Kimball returns for his seventh season with the team while Britain's Max Chilton is back for his second season. Kimball didn't finish higher than fifth last year and Chilton broke the top ten only twice. These two will certainly have to improve if they want to stay on with the eleven-time series champion team.
Following a disappointing 2016 season, Michael Andretti's team is hoping for much better results this season. The team has four drivers, including newcomer Takuma Sato. The Japan native, who likely had help from Honda to move from A.J. Foyt Enterprises, has one career win over seven seasons.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner, is back for his eighth season with the team. The California native is coming off his first winless season in that stretch, but I don't expect him to repeat that this season.
Marco Andretti had a miserable campaign last season that saw him crack the top ten only three times. The Pennsylvania native, who turns 30 next week, hasn't won a race since Iowa in 2011. If he can't break through this season and collect at least one win, his time may be up.
The team's joint venture with Bryan Herta brings back last year's surprise Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi. The third American driver on the team won Rookie of the Year honors last season and was the highest points finisher on the team.
SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS
The returning duo of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin brings some consistency to former driver Sam Schmidt's Honda-powered team. Canada's Hinchcliffe didn't win any races last year, but finished runner-up in last fall's edition of “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC. My bet is that he'll win at least one race, which will by no means satisfy the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hinchtown.”
Hinchcliffe once again teams with the “Mad Russian” Aleshin, who led the most laps and should have won at Pocono last season. Aleshin lost the handling of his car late in the race and came up short, but showed he can run up front and will likely be a contender this season.
ED CARPENTER RACING
With the departure of Newgarden, the team signed JR Hildebrand for his first full-time season in the series since 2012. The American finished sixth in last year's Indy 500 for the team. If he can continue the momentum Newgarden had last year, he could win a race.
Team owner and Indiana native Carpenter will once again run just the oval tracks this season for his Chevy-powered team. Taking Carpenter's place in the other races will be American Spencer Pigot, who had two top-ten finishes in seven starts last season.
DALE COYNE RACING
With the closure of the KV Racing Technology team, four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais joins Coyne's team. The Frenchman drove some races for Coyne back in 2011 and has four wins over the last three years. Can Bourdais give the Honda team it's first multiple win season in history? He's got a better chance than most anybody else.
Teaming with Bourdais is Britain's Ed Jones, who won the Indy Lights championship last season and is the only rookie in the field. It will almost certainly benefit Jones greatly to be paired with such a seasoned veteran.
A.J. FOYT ENTERPRISES
Indiana native Daly, in his sophomore outing, would like more than anything to give the team it's first win since 2013. Daly showed flashes of brilliance last year, so I think it's possible for him to win at least one race.
Colombia's Munoz completed a driver swap with Sato and enters his fourth season in the series. The former Andretti driver has three top-four finishes in four starts at the Indy 500, so he could bring four-time winner Foyt his second win as an owner in the most famous race in the world.
Coverage of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg starts at 11 a.m. Sunday on ABC.
Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto racing fan. Follow him on Twitter at @achtungvon or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.