Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2015 Verizon IndyCar Series First Half Review

What is up next in IndyCar's second half?
Eight races down, eight to go. It's not even summer but the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series has reached the cross flags. It feels too soon but here we are. This review will start as a stream of conscious of what has happened in the first eight races before looking into more specific aspects of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. We will also look back on the first half of the Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and U.S. F2000 seasons.

As much as it seems as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have dominated this season, they haven't. Penske has won the most races (three) and combined Penske and Ganassi have won half the races but that is misleading. While Penske and Ganassi has won half the races, Penske and CFH Racing have combined to win half the races and Penske and Andretti Autosport have combined to win half the races and Penske and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have combined to win half the races.

From eight races we have had seven different winners from six different teams. There have been two first time winners. Yes, Penske has swept the front row in six of eight races (two of those because qualifying was canceled) and in the races they didn't sweep the front row (the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500) they put four cars in the top five spots and put two cars on the front row. Penske has been the best team but considering how well they have done in qualifying with their driver line-up, they have underachieved.

While Penske hasn't been as dominant as they could have been through the first half of 2015, they still have the top two in the championship (Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power) with three cars in the top five (Hélio Castroneves is fifth) and all four cars in the top ten (Simon Pagenaud is ninth). Penske is the team to beat and halfway through 2015 Penske is on their way to consecutive titles and their 14th title.

While Penske has been the best team, who has been the second best team this season?

Is it Ganassi? Scott Dixon is third in the championship and as won a race but the other three Ganassi cars have languished. Charlie Kimball is tenth in the championship but outside a fifth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and third in the Indianapolis 500, Kimball's best finish is 11th. Tony Kanaan is 12th in the championship. He started well with a third at St. Petersburg and four top tens in the first five races but has hit a rough patch. He was running well in the "500" but an accident provided a huge punch in the gut to his championship hopes and Belle Isle did not go any better. Then there has been Sage Karam. Just when it appeared he would catch a break for race two for Belle Isle and be guaranteed a front row starting position, qualifying was rained out and he was forced to start at the rear of the field. He is only 20 but I bet he thought he'd be better than 21st in the championship and would have at least one top ten.

Is it Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing? It's hard to believe that the worst team from 2014 could be the second best through 2015. Graham Rahal hasn't won a race yet this season but he has three podiums and four top fives. The most podiums Rahal has had in a season is four back in his rookie season driving for Newman-Haas Racing in 2007. And he is fourth in the championship. If I had told you the Thursday prior to St. Petersburg that their would be an American in the top five of the championship at the halfway point, how many guesses would it take for you to get to Rahal? Ryan Hunter-Reay would've been the first guess for the majority. Perhaps Marco Andretti would get a few with people as they might think he would have broken through and won the Indianapolis 500. Would people have guessed Josef Newgarden before Rahal? This has been an impressive season for RLLR and while it seemed like a long shot in March, a victory could come for them in the next three months.

Sébastien Bourdais is sixth in the championship after winning Belle Isle 2 but KV Racing Technology hasn't been as good top to bottom as Ganassi and RLLR. Stefano Coletti has struggled but all the rookies have struggled (more on that later). Bourdais might be the third or fourth most consistent driver this season. He is one of four drivers to have made the second round of road course qualifying on all five occasions. He has five top ten finishes. Bourdais has been just behind Penske and Ganassi all season.

Josef Newgarden broke through for his first career victory at Barber and sits eighth in the championship but CFH Racing hasn't been as consistent as the other top teams. Luca Filippi has three top tens in seven starts but has never been in contention for a victory. Ed Carpenter has only had one start and his Indianapolis 500 ended with an accident. Carpenter will run five of the final eight races and perhaps that will turn around CFH's total record. Overall, it has been a good first season for the merged team and they really have nothing to hang their heads about.

Penske was the Chevrolet aero kit test team and they have been great. Andretti Auotsport was the Honda aero kit test team and they have struggled compared to their last three seasons. It hasn't been the worst season ever for Andretti Autosport. Marco Andretti is seventh in the championship and has six top ten finishes, as many as Will Power and Hélio Castroneves and behind only Juan Pablo Montoya's seven top tens. Carlos Muñoz won Belle Isle 1, leading an 1-2 finish with Marco Andretti in tow and is 11th in the championship. Muñoz could have been in the top ten if it weren't for his engine failure in Belle Isle 2. Meanwhile, Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn't been great compared to the last three seasons. He has three top tens but hasn't been in contention for a victory.

All three Andretti drivers have struggled in qualifying with average starts of 12.667 (Andretti), 13.5 (Hunter-Reay) and 16.667 (Muñoz). Andretti Autosport didn't lead a lap until the Indianapolis 500 and that was only after Muñoz and Justin Wilson stayed out while everyone else pitted. They aren't running a fourth car full-time but Simona de Silvestro showed she hasn't lost it and Wilson qualified sixth for the Indianapolis 500. This season reminds me of 2011 for Andretti Autosport. The first half was awful. Despite Mike Conway winning at Long Beach, they had two cars fail to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and appeared lost. In the second part of the season, Marco Andretti won a race, Ryan Hunter-Reay won a race and their second half turn around may have led to stronger 2012 season that saw Hunter-Reeay win the championship. I am not sure if Andretti Autosport will score another victory this season but five of the final eight races are ovals. Two of those are Milwaukee and Iowa and Andretti Autosport has been the best team on short tracks in the last decade.

Rest of the field at a glance:
A.J. Foyt Racing had a good weekend at Belle Isle with Takuma Sato finishing second in race two and Jack Hawksworth scoring consecutive seventh-place finishes. Outside of that, both Foyt drivers have struggled but Sato has shown pace in qualifying. The last few seasons say that Sato might get one or two more top tens but will have at least two or three retirements as well.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports won at NOLA with James Hinchcliffe but the Canadian is out until further notice but might be back at the end of the season. Ryan Briscoe had a good run at the Indianapolis 500 and Conor Daly had a good run at Belle Isle substituting for the Canadian. Briscoe will be back in the car at Texas. James Jakes finished third at NOLA but has only two other finishes in the top fifteen and they both came at Belle Isle. It could be a long second half for SPM.

Dale Coyne Racing. What is there to say? When they had Carlos Huertas, Francesco Dracone and Rodolfo González in their cars, they were rounding out the field and damaging equipment. When they got once Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier and once Indy Lights vice-champion James Davison in their cars they were much faster and they may have damaged more equipment but they were much more competitive and Vautier finished fourth in Belle Isle 2. Coyne has the capability to run with the big boys and if they hire respectable drivers they can find themselves in contention for top tens. If they "hire" less experienced and talented drivers than they will continue to start on the last row.

Who has been the top rookie?
Gabby Chaves and Stefano Coletti may have run all the races but Conor Daly has been the most impressive rookie. He stepped into the #18 Coyne Honda at Long Beach on short notice after Rocky Moran, Jr. broke his thumb, had a faster qualifying time than Will Power and Takuma Sato and was the first Coyne driver to finish on the lead lap this season. At Indianapolis, he had a decent month but did suffer a little set back in qualifying when IndyCar made the teams qualify in their race aero kits but he did out qualify famed Indianapolis one-off Townsend Bell, both Foyt cars and both Chaves and Coletti. If only he didn't have a fuel leak keep him from taking the green flag. At Belle Isle, he was up front during race one, hanging with the big boys before suffering damage coming to a restart. In race two, he found himself at the front again and he led the first laps of his IndyCar career. He overcame a pit penalty to finish sixth, his first top ten.

Both Coletti and Chaves have shown pace but each time they seem to be on to something good, they suffer a set back. Chaves got stuck in the mud at NOLA. Coletti hit the barriers in Long Beach qualifying. Coletti did have a great run on the IMS road course and had a great battle with Tony Kanaan. In Belle Isle 2, Chaves used the right strategy and came home ninth. However, outside of each of their lone top tens, Coletti's and Chaves' next best finish is 15th. Both have a lot of room for improvement in the second half, as does Sage Karam who was touched upon above.

Indy Lights
Indy Lights reached the midway point at the Freedom 100 and won't be on track again until Toronto, where they will run a doubleheader. After Carlin and Juncos Racing dominated the preseason and first few rounds, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has come on strong and last year's vice-champion Jack Harvey finds himself leading the championship after winning on the IMS road course and on the Freedom 100. Harvey leads Carlin driver Ed Jones by 13 points (192-179). The Emirati Jones won the first three races but finished 11th at Barber and retired in the Freedom 100. Juncos' and defending Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot swept the Barber weekend but had a horrendous month of May failing to score a top five finish in three races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Last year's U.S. F2000 vice-champion RC Enerson is fourth in the championship with two podiums for SPM. Max Chilton rounds out the top five but had a mechanical failure, like Conor Daly in the Indianapolis 500; keep him from starting the Freedom 100.

Chilton's Lights future is up in the air. The former Marussia F1 driver has signed to drive for Nissan's LMP1 program this season and he will miss Toronto to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While there are no head-to-head conflicts between any Indy Lights and FIA World Endurance Championship after Toronto-Le Mans, Chilton may choose to step aside from the Indy Lights ride to focus on the LMP1 program. If he does, it opens a prime seat at Carlin for someone of the likes of Matthew Brabham, Scott Hargrove and Zach Veach, three drivers all without full-time rides.

Hargrove tested for 8Star Motorsports during the preseason and was fast. He finished fourth and sixth at St. Petersburg for 8Star but was replaced by Georgian Sean Rayhall at Barber. Rayhall finished second and first in the top IMS road course races before finishing sixth in the Freedom 100.

The other two SPM drivers, Scott Anderson and Ethan Ringel finished on the podium for the Freedom 100. Anderson is sixth in the championship. Ringel's second and Freedom 100 pole position were a surprise as his best finish prior was seventh and he had never raced on a oval prior to the Freedom 100. Juncos' second driver Kyle Kaiser has shown pace and has three top five but he has also early accidents take him out of contention in a few races.

Defending champions Belardi Auto Racing have yet to win this season. Félix Serrallés finished third at Belle Isle but he has four retirements in eight starts. His teammate Juan Piedrahita has yet to score a top five this season. Rounding out the Indy Lights championship is a former powerhouse, Andretti Autosport. Only running one full-time car this year, Andretti's driver Shelby Blackstock's best finish in eight races is eighth. Sean Rayhall, who did not compete in the first three races, has score 96 points while Blackstock has scored 95 from eight races.

Here is more on the 2015 Indy Lights Season through eight races.

The remaining Indy Lights rounds include doubleheaders at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca with Milwaukee and Iowa the remaining ovals.

Pro Mazda
Pro Mazda is technically one race past their halfway point as they have seven rounds to go. Everyone in Pro Mazda has had at least one bad finish this season. Team Pelfrey's Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia has 201 points and two victories but is coming off his worst finish of 15th at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Eight points behind him is Cape Motorsports' Neil Alberico, who has three victories but finished 17th on the IMS road course. Frenchman Timothé Buret has a victory but has had three finishes outside the top ten and is 39 points back of Urrutia. Andretti driver, Malaysian Weiron Tan has three victories but three finishes of 15th or worse and was penalized five points for unavoidable contact after Barber and 43 points behind Urrutia.

Juncos' Will Owen has finished runner-up in the last two races and rounds out the top five in the championship but 59 points behind Urrutia. Owen's teammate, Canadian Garret Grist is seven points behind him with only one podium. Team Pelfrey's Pato O'Ward is a point behind Grist with defending U.S. F2000 champion Florian Latorre two points behind O'Ward with two podiums driving for Cape Motorsports. Juncos' Jose Gutierrez is ninth with one podium while Canadian Daniel Burkett rounds out the top ten with his fellow countryman Dalton Kellett ten points behind him.

Pro Mazda also return at Toronto with a doubleheader. After Toronto will be Iowa, a doubleheader a Iowa and a doubleheader a Laguna Seca.

U.S. F2000
Frenchman Nico Jamin leads the U.S. F2000 Championship after nine rounds. He has four victories and eight podiums and 233 points. Pabst Racing's Jake Eidson is 15 points behind Jamin with three victories and eight podiums. Aaron Telitz is 30 points behind his Cape teammate Jamin. Telitz won at Barber and has seven podiums. Australian Anthony Martin has 164 points for John Cummiskey Racing with two podiums. JDC Motorsports' Canadian Parker Thompson rounds out the top five, 108 points behind Jamin.

Pabst Racing's Yufeng Luo of China is sixth in the championship with 108 points. German Kevyan Andres Soori of ArmsUp Motorsports is a point behind him. Team Pelfrey's Nikita Lastochkin and Ayla Årgen are eighth and ninth with 104 and 100 points respectively. Victor Franzoni, Luke Gabin and Garth Rickards round out the top ten with 98 points each. Franzoni won at NOLA but has since moved up to Pro Mazda. Gabin and Rickards each drive for Team Pelfrey.

U.S. F2000 will also return at Toronto with a doubleheader. They will run a triple-header at Mid-Ohio and a doubleheader at Laguna Seca.

Questions For the Future
There are still a lot of questions remaining at the halfway point of the IndyCar season. Here are just a few.

1. Now that Eddie Gossage got his wish and Houston fell off the IndyCar schedule, will the flamboyant track owner take advantage of being the exclusive IndyCar race in Texas and draw more people through the gates for his race?

After all, Eddie Gossage needs all of Texas, all 27 million plus Texans, to himself to have a successful race.

2. Will Toronto move back to July after being run in June this year due to the 2015 Pan American Games being held in Toronto?

3. If Toronto does move back to July, does either Milwaukee or Iowa move up to June?

4. With four Americans in the top ten of the IndyCar championship at the halfway point, can any of them take the fight to the four-headed monster of Team Penske and take the title?

5. Does James Hinchcliffe return in August?

6. Does Andretti Autosport make a turn around?

7. Last year, IndyCar had a record-tying 11 different winners. With seven from eight races, will four new drivers win in the second half?

8. How many more drivers will rotate through the two cars at Dale Coyne Racing?

9. Do both Honda and Chevrolet renew their IndyCar contracts pass 2015?

10. Can IndyCar keep all 15 circuits currently on the schedule for 2016, especially with Texas, Pocono and Fontana expressing displeasure recently with their places on the schedule?

11. Will Mark Miles stick to the schedule ending on Labor Day despite team owners (most notably Chip Ganassi) expressing displeasure in the six-month season and failing to get fly-away races on the 2015 schedule?

And In The End...
IndyCar has had some bright spots through the first half of this season (Indianapolis 500, Barber) and some dark spots (NOLA, Indianapolis 500 qualifying). No season can be all positives just like life. There are going to be things that happen that are great and things that leave you scratching your head and that is as true for IndyCar as it is Formula One, NASCAR, FIA WEC and any professional motorsports series on God's green earth. All series have their issues that they have to deal with and IndyCar is no different. It's just part of any series and we just have to roll with it.

Going into the second half of the season IndyCar has had seven different winners and none of them are named Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud, Hélio Castroneves, Mike Conway and Carlos Huertas, all race winners last year. There are four Americans in the top ten of the championship. Only one driver has won multiple races this year. Aero kits have not made IndyCar less competitive. IndyCar is as competitive as it has been since the introduction of the DW12 and the DW12-era has been one of the most competitive eras in IndyCar history.

Halfway home and there is still no clear picture on who will win the Astor Cup at Sonoma. Will another IndyCar title come down to the wire and could we see a surprise champions? You will have to tune in to find out.