With all the turmoil surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and the optimism surrounding the start of the F1 season, you can be excused for losing track of the fact that the Indycar season is starting this weekend with a scheduled race in St. Petersburg.
There are three reasonably big changes this season: one that shouldn’t have an impact on the competition, and two that might.
The dawn of the Penske ownership era: As you may recall, Roger Penske bought the series and IMS last fall. But for reasons I explained at the time, I would not expect that to have any impact on the competition.
Addition of Aero screens to the cars: These protective screens look a little jarring, but the real effect on the cars will be weight distribution changes and the new tire formulations that Firestone is using to deal with that. This will be a major change for the engineers. Some teams will adjust to it better than others.
Return of grid penalties: Several seasons ago, Indycar got rid of F1-style grid penalties for premature engine changes. This season they are back in simplified form and they will likely have some subtle impacts. Let’s delve into this a little because no one else seems to be talking about it.
The rule itself is simple. Indycar entries (each car) are allowed to use up to four engines in a season. Previously, the only penalty for using a fifth engine was that car then became ineligible to score manufacturer points.
This year, any car that takes a fifth engine will suffer a 6-spot grid penalty on road/street courses and a 9-spot penalty for an oval race. If a car takes a sixth engine, the same penalty would apply for that race as well. So, fans won’t see grid penalties until late July or August.
Why the change? In 2018 and 2019 the leaders in the championship race took extra engines to improve their chances of winning the driver’s championship. A fresh engine is less likely to blow up than one with 1,500 miles on it, after all. In 2018, all eight of the top cars in the championship took at least a fifth engine for one of the last two races. In 2019, all but three of the top eight did. This year the grid penalty should discourage that practice. Also, there is the effect on the championship itself. If this rule would have been in place in 2019, either Scott Dixon or Simon Pagenaud would have won the championship instead of Josef Newgarden.
While you won’t see grid penalties until later this summer, I expect you will see the effects of this rule right away, from the first practice at St. Petersburg. I expect there will be more difference between the free practice times and the qualifying times than there has been in the past as Honda and Chevy turn down the power to help nurse the engines along throughout the season. I expect Honda in particular to dial back the engines a lot in practice after HPD had a bad year on the reliability front last season. So don’t flip out if all the top cars in practice 1 are Chevys.
Which drivers are the favorites?
The race for the driver’s title should be wide open. Last year’s champion, Josef Newgarden, should be joined by the usual suspects from 2018 and 2019: Chevys of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power joined by Honda’s contingent of Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi. Also joining the party should be Colton Herta, who won two races as a rookie for Honda in 2019, and Felix Rosenqvist, who was Rookie of the year in a Ganassi Honda. The internal Andretti-Autosport match-up of Herta vs. Rossi should be really interesting to watch. And it should be interesting to see how hard Rosenqvist can push his teammate, Dixon.
I don’t have a good read on where the engine battle is this season. Honda’s big issue last season was reliability. There were a lot of blown engines, especially early in the season. I expect Honda, in particular, not to show its hand until qualifying at St. Pete. Honda’s big concern has been lack of power at Indy, and I expect all the effort over the winter went into improving that. Another reason it’s hard to say where the engines stand is that the BIG change in the cars is the aero screens and the tires. It’s likely that how teams adjust to that will be a bigger differentiator than engine power and fuel mileage.
If Honda’s engines hold together better than last season, Honda has a slight advantage in driver skill, and in numbers of strong drivers and teams; however, Arrow switching from Honda to Chevy evens that out a bit.
New team alignment
The big team change between Honda and Chevy involved Honda-powered Arrow Schmidt-Peterson partnering with McLaren to form Chevy-powered Arrow-McLaren SP, popularly called SPAM . Both drivers left in the shakeup.
In other Honda team news, Andretti absorbed what had been Harding/Steinbrenner and driver Colton Herta, Meyer-Shank Racing became a full-season team, and Chip Ganassi Racing expanded to three cars from two.
Driver musical chairs
There was more than the usual amount of changes amount drivers, mostly stemming from the McLaren activity in one form or another. Changes among the veteran drivers:
- James Hinchcliffe is running a partial season with Andretti (Honda)
- Marcus Ericsson is running a full season with Ganassi (Honda)
- Sebastien Bourdais is running a partial season with Foyt (Chevy)
- Charlie Kimball is running a full season with Foyt (Chevy)
- Conor Daly is running the road and street courses for Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevy) and the ovals for Carlin (Chevy)
- Spencer Pigot, who drove full time for Ed Carpenter last season, is running a partial program with Rahal Letterman Lanigan (Honda)
- Pato O’Ward is driving one of the entries for SPAM .
- Tony Kanaän is driving the ovals for Foyt.
Among the rookies:
- Alex Palou is moving from Super Formula and running the full season with Dale Coyne (Honda)
- Rinus Veekay is running a full season with ECR (Chevy)
- Oliver Askew is running the full season for SPAM .
1) I expect the manufacturer’s race to be very close. Assuming Honda gets its act together on reliability, I go with
to win its third straight title.
2) Judging on experience and word of mouth, I expect Alex Palou to be the Rookie of the Year.
3) For the driver’s title, I expect that Rossi now knows what he needs to do to win. He has come close twice, and if he can out drive his teammate Colton Herta, he’ll win.