Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wednesday Wrap-Up: 2015 IndyCar Predictions Revisited

At the end of 2014, I made five sets of predictions and one of the sets was for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Now that the 2015 season is in the books and Scott Dixon has been crowned champion, it is time to look back at what I got right and what I got wrong. Last time, I got debatably 8-10 predictions right. How many of a dozen did I get right this year?

1. Penske Drivers Combine to Win Six Races or Fewer Amongst Three Drivers
Correct! Who would have thought after Penske went 1-2-4-5 at St. Petersburg after starting 1-2-3-4 that the team would win only three races in 2015 between two drivers? The team dominated qualifying as Will Power won six poles, Hélio Castroneves won four poles and Simon Pagenaud won one and the team swept the front row eight times but they weren't nearly as dominate as they were at St. Petersburg. They went 1-2 in the Indianapolis 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya leading Will Power across the line but since then, Montoya has only stepped on the podium once and Power hasn't returned.

In the final ten races, Penske scored six of a possible thirty podium positions with no victories. Compare that to Andretti Autosport, who everyone believed had a down year, who won three races and scored seven podium positions in the final ten races. And even worse, they lost the title on the last day of the season despite leading from day one. What a difference five months can make.

2. No More Than Three Honda Drivers Win a Race
Two of Honda's four race winners in 2015
Wrong! Four Honda drivers won a race this year and the first two Honda winners were somewhat surprises. James Hinchcliffe won the second race of the season at NOLA in what was the worst IndyCar race ever as puddles wouldn't go away and the teams switched to dry tires way too early. Then Carlos Muñoz won at Belle Isle after he and Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti made the right decision to stay out on dry tires longer than everyone else and pit at the last possible moment as the rain started to fall. They opened up a lead of over a half-minute on the rest of the field as they had all switched to wet tires well in advance of the rain. Muñoz was able to keep the lead and when lightning caused a red flag, Muñoz scored his first career IndyCar victory. Graham Rahal controversially won at Fontana and he would go on to win at Mid-Ohio but between those victories Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Iowa making it four Honda winners.

I am a little surprised this happened. Considering Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had an awful 2014 season and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports lost the only driver who won for the team in Simon Pagenaud and the lack of winners at Honda, it seemed the manufacture was in trouble but they had the little guys step up this year and Andretti Autosport turned it around significantly in the second half of the season. Honda only won six of 16 but look out for them in 2016 after the hot streak they ended on.

3. Josef Newgarden Wins a Race
And He Did! TWICE!
Correct! And he not only won one race but he won two. Newgarden had to win this year. Entering this season, only 26 drivers won their first career after 50 career starts and Newgarden entered 2015 with 51 starts under his belt. If he didn't win this season, he would have gone 67 races without a victory and only fourteen drivers took more than 67 starts to get their first career victory. It took him four races this season to get to the top step of the podium in what was a very impressive drive at Barber. Six races later, Newgarden got his second career victory as he had the right pit strategy at Toronto and he and Luca Filippi scored CFH Racing their first 1-2 finish. Newgarden was championship eligible entering the final race driving for CFH. While he has been linked to the big teams in IndyCar, why would he want to leave a good thing at CFH?

4. A Rookie Scores a Top Five Finish Prior to the Indianapolis 500
Wrong! This was not a great year for rookies. There was just one top ten finish for a rookie before the Indianapolis 500 and that was Stefano Coletti's eighth-place finish at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Things did get better as the year went on for rookies. Conor Daly finished sixth at Belle Isle 2 driving in place of James Hinchcliffe. Gabby Chaves scored back-to-back top tens at Belle Isle 2 and Texas and led 31 laps at Pocono before his engine expired while he was in the top five. Sage Karam scored the first top five of the rookies when he finished fifth at Fontana and he then scored a podium with a third at Iowa and he had decent runs at Milwaukee and Pocono. Outside of Coletti's eight on the IMS road course, he didn't have a good season at all. He had a great run going at Sonoma but had a radio failure cause him to be black flagged to get a replacement and took him out of contention for a top five finish.

I am not sure what the future holds for any of these rookies. Chaves and Karam both have a lot of potential and improved over the course of the season. Daly needs a legitimate opportunity to prove himself, not just Indianapolis and maybe one other race. Coletti really struggled but I think he could improve if he gets a second year in IndyCar. I don't think one season is enough to show if a driver has what it takes. With the limited testing, it takes a while for a driver to learn the cars. I think a driver really needs two or three years to show what they have. That gives them anywhere from 30-50 starts under their belt and if they haven't turned some heads by then, then they just might not be cut out for IndyCar.

5. There Will Be at Least Three Frenchmen on the Grid
Correct! Kind of. This was a vague prediction. This could have been three Frenchmen will be on the grid for any race or for majority of the season or for every single race. This prediction was made when Jean-Éric Vergne and Charlie Pic were linked to IndyCar moves. Neither raced in IndyCar this season but out of almost nowhere, Tristan Vautier came back to IndyCar, qualified the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda for James Davison at Indianapolis because Davison had Pirelli World Challenge duty at Mosport and was then put in the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda after Carlos Huertas was removed from the car due to a inner-ear condition. Vautier ran every single race from Indianapolis to Sonoma and he had some good results. Eleven of 16 races had three Frenchmen on the grid. I am giving myself that one.

6. At Least One Driver Attempts "The Double"
Wrong! Not even close. No one attempted "The Double." A.J. Allmendinger said he is still interested and with the 100th Indianapolis 500 occurring next year, perhaps he or Sam Hornish, Jr. or Kurt Busch will be back at the Speedway. The 100th Indianapolis 500. Say it and try not to get goose bumps. It is going to be special and if half as many people who say they are interested in participating in it are there; it will be a truly special event.

7. Average Grid Size is Up... Sightly
Correct! The average grid size in 2014 was 23.111. In 2015, the average grid size was 24.25, up over one car per race from 2014. This is good. After a few years of minor shrinkage to the grid, IndyCar made a net gain. Two dozen is a good grid size and I hope next year sees at least 24 full-time cars with more one-offs during the season. There are a lot of drivers interested in IndyCar, the only problem is there isn't room for all of them. J.R. Hildebrand, Simona de Silvestro, Conor Daly and James Davison all started multiple races in 2015 but all are talented enough to be full-time drivers. Hopefully a little more growth will get these drivers more appearances in IndyCar. The real issue isn't having more cars the grid but it is getting the amount of teams participating to increase. The grid size went up but IndyCar technically lost a team as Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing merged. What IndyCar needs to strive for is the grid size increasing because the amount of teams competing full-time are increasing. That's a little harder to do but it must be done.

8. There is At Least One Bump During the Month of May
And It Was This Guy!
Correct! Buddy Lazier did not qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in what was a valiant effort but just not enough for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner. IndyCar needs a few teams that are Indianapolis one-offs but Lazier showed how tough it is when all you do is one race.

9. At Least Nine Drivers Win a Race
Correct! Juan Pablo Montoya, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Carlos Muñoz, Sébastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay all won this year. The record for most different winners in an IndyCar season is 11 and it has happened three times (2000, 2001 and 2014). Last year, there were 11 winners from 18 races. If IndyCar had run 18 races this year instead of 16, I wouldn't have ruled out the record being matching again or surpassed.

10. A Track on the 2015 Schedule Will Not Be on the 2016 Schedule
And it sucks Fontana won't be back
Correct, unfortunately. Fontana won't return and that sucks because it was one of the best races since it returned in 2012 and the track wanted to host IndyCar. Unfortunately, once Randy Bernard was fired, IndyCar management and Mark Miles made it difficult for the track and now it's gone. NOLA also appears to be out after one year and we still don't know about the futures of Milwaukee and Pocono. I hope both Milwaukee and Pocono return for 2016. Both were good races and both appeared to have increases in attendance. It takes a few years for an event to build a following and if IndyCar keeps going to Milwaukee and Pocono and if IndyCar can just keep races at consistent weekends every year, than the races will continue to grow as they will slowly grow onto the fabric of these local communities and these weekends will become associated with the IndyCar race.

On the bright side, Road America is returning and Phoenix is in works but IndyCar can't afford to have two tracks fall off the schedule while another two rejoin. IndyCar needs positive gain and consistency with their calendar.

11. An ESPN/ABC Announcer Says Something That Makes Us Put Our Heads In Our Hands
Correct, and there are a few options. There was when Scott Goodyear completely neglected Simona de Silvestro's second-place finish at Houston to Scott Dixon in 2013 and harked on her fourth-place finish at St. Petersburg in 2011.

Or when Eddie Cheever using the tired cliché of "catching him is one thing, getting by him is another," when Will Power was the leading at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

I am sure there are more out there but one from each Cheever and Goodyear is bad enough.

12. A Third Manufacture Is Announced
Wrong! And I am not sure if a third manufacture will ever join. Honda has yet to re-sign with IndyCar. If they leave, I can't see the series being 24 Chevrolets. I think Honda will re-sign but for how long? With Derrick Walker leaving IndyCar and the president of competition position vacant, there is no one pursuing a third and/or fourth manufacture or independent aero kit manufactures and, depending on who is chosen to be Walker's successor, the likelihood of more manufactures entering IndyCar is slim to none.

Eight for twelve is respectable. The Wednesday Wrap-Ups are back and next week we will start digging into the ten Verizon IndyCar Series teams, reviewing the highs and lows of their 2015 seasons.