Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2016 IndyCar Predictions

On the penultimate day of 2015, we have the final set of predictions for 2016 and those predictions focus on the Verizon IndyCar Series. While it has been 123 days since the 2015 season came to a close in Sonoma and Scott Dixon came from behind to win the race and the championship, the 2016 season will be here soon enough. Only 74 days to go until the green flag in St. Petersburg. With that said, here are the predictions.

1. Hélio Castroneves Wins the 100th Indianapolis 500
The stars are aligning. The 100th Indianapolis 500 is upon us. Hélio Castroneves has been stuck on three Indianapolis 500 victories since 2009. It is the silver anniversary of Rick Mears winning his fourth in 1991. Penske is sitting on 16 victories. Chevrolet is on nine and is one behind Honda and Cosworth for third all-time among engine manufactures. Castroneves will turn 41 years old just over two and a half weeks prior to the race. His career is on the back the nine and this could be the last great opportunity for him to get it. It just feels like if it is going to happen, it would happen in the 100th running.

Fun fact: Of the previous nine round number Indianapolis 500s, eight have been won by Americans (Jimmy Murphy, Fred Frame, George Robson, Pat Flaherty, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal, Buddy Lazier, Sam Hornish, Jr.). The 50th Indianapolis 500 was won by Graham Hill.

2. Honda Wins At Least Two Pole Positions
Honda has not won a pole position since Houston 1 in 2014. Chevrolet has won 22 pole positions and three others were set by points since then. That streak is bound to end. If Sebastián Saavedra can win a pole in the wet at Indianapolis, then why couldn't Ryan Hunter-Reay or James Hinchcliffe or Takuma Sato do the same or why couldn't one of those three have a red flag fall their way in the Fast Six or why couldn't Honda make up ground this offseason and Marco Andretti win pole position for the Indianapolis 500? It's bound to end. It's going to end.

3. James Hinchcliffe Finishes in the Top Ten in the Championship
The Canadian's 2015 campaign ended prematurely and when Hinchcliffe was sidelined he was tied for seventh in the championship with a victory, two top tens and a fastest lap from five races. I don't know if Hinchcliffe would have finished in the top ten had he completed the entire 2015 season but after seeing what Ryan Briscoe and Conor Daly did in the #5 Honda in his place, I think he would have been in the conversation. Hinchcliffe's career has been mired by inconsistent results. In his first year with Andretti Autosport, he started great with seven top tens in the first eight races. In the final seven races, he had one top ten. In 2013, he won the season opener at St. Petersburg but had a pair of 26th place finishes before winning at São Paulo only to finish 21st at Indianapolis in the next race. He won Iowa later that season and in the next race at Pocono retired after spinning in the first corner on the first lap. Even his abbreviated 2015 season was inconsistent: 16th, first, 12th, seven, 12th.

I think Hinchcliffe will hone in his consistency and I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will have a better 2016 season with Mikhail Aleshin returning in place of James Jakes. If Honda can solve the aero kit issues, I think SPM could win a race or two and potentially both drivers could be vying for top ten finishes in the championship.

4. There Will Be Four Indianapolis 500 Rookies
We already know there will be two attempting to qualify for the 100th Indianapolis 500. Spencer Pigot has a three race deal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (St. Petersburg and both Indianapolis races). Matthew Brabham has a deal for both Indianapolis for PIRTEK Team Murray in partnership with KVSH Racing. We known Stefan Wilson is working on a deal. We know Jack Harvey is trying to graduate to IndyCar. Max Chilton is exploring options in IndyCar. Who knows who else is working on deals for IndyCar? Could Alexander Rossi end up in IndyCar if he is passed over by Manor? What other drivers that are stuck in the European pipeline will jump across the pond?  I think any fewer than four rookies will be a surprise.

5. Conor Daly Finishes Worse Than 14th in the Championship
Conor Daly has his full-time seat. Now the pressure is on. For all the highs he had in the limited opportunities he had in 2015 (11th-hour substitute performance at Long Beach, sixth at Belle Isle), he had plenty of blunders (spinning from the lead of PC class on the final lap at Road America, totaling a car in Petit Le Mans practice) leaving you to question Daly's ability. Daly has been around for a while and he has had success in GP3 and scored on his debut GP2 weekend but now he is in a big time series I think people will get a heavy dose of reality when they see Daly not competing at the front from the crack of the bat. I think Daly will have a few good runs but historically, IndyCar rookies do not finish well in the championship standings. Since reunification, the average championship finish for rookie of the years is 12.375 but if you take out Simon Pagenaud, who won rookie of the year in 2012 but had run a full season of Champ Car in 2007 and replaced him with the next best rookie from that season (Josef Newgarden), the average finish drops to 14.625. I think if Daly doesn't have an experience teammate or a teammate of equal caliber, he will struggle. Knowing Dale Coyne Racing, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none.

6. Three Drivers That Didn't Win in 2015 Win in 2016
Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, Charlie Kimball and Ed Carpenter all went winless in 2015. You almost feel like you can pencil one victory in for each Castroneves and Pagenaud. Kanaan, Andretti and Carpenter are all threats on ovals. Kimball had a pretty good 2015 season with a third in the Indianapolis 500 and Sonoma. They all won't be shutout again. Then you have the potential of a rookie winner, although rookie winners have been few and far in-between since reunification. The only rookie (not including those who were classified as rookies in 2008 but had run full seasons of Champ Car) to win since reunification is Carlos Huertas.

7. At Least Three Races Will Be in the News For Not Returning in 2017
The favorite is Pocono followed by Phoenix and Boston. And just to raise IndyCar fan's blood pressure, let's just throw in Iowa, Texas, Road America, Toronto and St. Petersburg for shits and giggles.

8. There Will Be At Least Three Moments Where Race Control Leaves Us Scratching Our Heads
Brian Barnhart is in charge. Three is lowballing it.

9. There Will Be a Delayed Session at Boston
There will be something that goes wrong. Something always goes wrong. A manhole cover will come loose. The surface will be two bumpy. There will be railroad tracks. A protest will breakout and invade the circuit. A hurricane will hit Boston that weekend. You name it; it is bound to happen at the inaugural race in Boston.

10. Scott Dixon Breaks the Record for Most Consecutive Seasons With a Victory Before Texas
The New Zealander is on the verge of making history in 2016. Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Hélio Castroneves and Dixon have each won a race in 11 consecutive seasons. Dixon is attempting to become the first driver to win a race in a dozen consecutive seasons. It's inevitable. It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when. Predicting Dixon will win the first half of the 2016 season doesn't sound like a stretch of a prediction but takes this into consideration: Of his 38 victories, only 14 have come with in the first eight races of a season and in the DW12-era only twice has he won in the first eight races of a season. He struggles at St. Petersburg. He doesn't have much a history with Phoenix and what history he does have isn't great. He just won Long Beach. He lives on the podium at Barber. He is always a favorite at Indianapolis and he has run well at Belle Isle. I bet he gets off the schneid at Barber.

11. At Least Two 2015 Championship Contenders at Sonoma Will Finish Outside the Top Eight
IndyCar is really competitive. Simon Pagenaud went from championship contender in 2014 to outside the top ten in 2015. If it wasn't for two victories and a second in the final four races of 2015 Ryan Hunter-Reay very well could have finished outside the top ten in the championship. Of the half-dozen drivers that were championship eligible at Sonoma in 2015, a third struggling to finish in the top ten in 2016 would not be surprising. The obvious names I am thinking of are Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden because 2015 was an anomaly for both of them. Rahal finally had a great season but can he duplicate that? The same question can be asked of Newgarden.

While I think Castroneves will win at Indianapolis, that doesn't mean he will be a championship contender. The Brazilian has consistently finished in the top ten in the DW12-era but he failed to win in 2015 and he could win Indianapolis and then have a slew of poor results drop him in the championship. I think Juan Pablo Montoya could regress. He isn't getting any younger and if Pagenaud rebounds in 2016, it will have to come at the expense of one of the other Penske drivers. They aren't putting all four in the top six of the championship. The only 2015 championship contenders that I feel comfortable will be there again in 2016 are Dixon and Will Power. Dixon has finished in the top four of the championship every season since 2006. Power has finished in the top four since returning to full-time competition in 2010.

12. There Will Be No Serious Injuries or Fatalities
IndyCar needs this to happen. Last year, there was Justin Wilson's death and James Hinchcliffe's severe injury. The year before that Mikhail Aleshin was seriously injured in practice at Fontana. In 2013, Dario Franchitti has his career ended at Houston and Justin Wilson's season ended with a trip to hospital after suffering pelvic injury in an accident in the Fontana finale. IndyCar needs to get through a season without someone being laid up in a hospital for weeks or worse due to something that happened in the car. A broken wrist here and there is fine. We can't expect drivers not to be banged up a little bit. It's unrealistic. All sports have injuries and motorsports is no different. It's the serious and devastating ones that IndyCar can do without for few seasons.

Don't forget to check out the other four sets of predictions: NASCAR, Et Cetera, Sports Cars, Formula One.