Wednesday, November 9, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2016 Season

The penultimate IndyCar Wrap-Up takes a look at Chip Ganassi Racing. While the team wasn't able to defend its title, it was one of two teams to win multiple races in the 2016 season and one of two teams to put multiple drivers in the top ten of the championship.

Scott Dixon had one of his worst seasons in his IndyCar career... Sixth in the championship
Scott Dixon
He entered as the defending IndyCar champion and his title defense started pretty well other than overheating issues at St. Petersburg. A 27-second pit stop to clear the radiators dropped him from contention for a podium but he still managed to finish seventh. Phoenix marked the 39th victory of Dixon's career after he led the final 155 laps of the 250-lap race. At Long Beach, Dixon gave Simon Pagenaud a run for it despite potentially being at the wrong end of a no-call on a blend line violation by the Frenchman. Dixon finished 0.3032 seconds behind Pagenaud in the closest finish in Long Beach history. His effort to get his first career victory at Barber after finishing on the podium in six of six races there were dashed when he was spun by Sébastien Bourdais but he rallied to finish tenth.

At the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he started and finished seventh. He started 13th in the Indianapolis 500 but couldn't get up to challenge for the top five and settled with an eighth-place finish. Dixon suffered a gearbox issue in the first Belle Isle race and that dropped him a potential place on the podium to 19th. In the second race, Dixon ran up toward the front all race and settled for fifth.

The second half of the season started poorly for Dixon. An engine failure after six laps at Road America ended his race before he could really see if he could fight at the front. He appeared to be the only driver to give Josef Newgarden a run for it at Iowa but slipped back on the final restart and was dropped to third by Will Power. Dixon controlled Toronto from pole position but an untimely caution dropped him for race winner to a guy fighting in the back half of the top ten and all he could manage was an eighth-place finish. He ended the third quarter of the season with a suspension failure at Mid-Ohio after contact with Hélio Castroneves in the keyhole, leaving him with another 22nd-place finish.

At Pocono, Dixon started 19th and made his way through the final but never found himself contesting for the victory and he finished sixth. He was running in the top ten but was a lap down at Texas when he got into Ed Carpenter and ended his race. He rebounded at Watkins Glen where he led 50 of 60 laps from pole position and won by over 16 seconds to Josef Newgarden. In the finale at Sonoma, Dixon started seventh but radio and other electrical issues hampered his day and his 17th-place finish dropped him to sixth in the championship, the first time he was not in the top four since the 2005 season. 

Scott Dixon's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 6th (477 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 268
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 7
Fast Twelves: 10
Average Start: 6.25
Average Finish: 9.8125

Tony Kanaan still has at
Tony Kanaan
The Brazilian entered his 19th season in IndyCar in 2016 and he started his 19th season in 19th position at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The team's call to go off strategy early in the race put him toward the front but overheating issues dropped him as the race went on and he settled for ninth. He ran well at Phoenix but lost track position due to a late caution and he had to fight for a fourth-place finish. He hung around the top ten all day at Long Beach and finished sixth. More of the same followed at Barber, where he finished eighth.

He didn't even make it through turn one at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after contact with Sébastien Bourdais put him in the barrier. Kanaan started 18th in the Indianapolis 500 and charged to the front. He was a contender for the victory late in the race with Josef Newgarden but had to get a splash and his dash barely got him fourth ahead of teammate Charlie Kimball. At Belle Isle, he finished ninth after hoping a strategy change would help him in race one. In race two, he stopped before a caution came up and it led to him finishing sixth.

At Road America, Kanaan had a great battle with Graham Rahal and he found himself charging down Will Power in the closing laps only to come up short in second position. A mechanical issue and bad timing of a caution dropped Kanaan from a top five finish at Iowa but he managed to come home in seventh. A call to stretch his fuel for 35 laps at Toronto led to him finishing fourth despite needing a splash-and-go with ten laps to go. Mid-Ohio was the one race all season where Kanaan never appeared to have it after starting 14th and finishing 12th. 

Kanaan overcame his past misfortunes at Pocono and finished a career-best ninth at the track. He benefitted from a batch of cautions late at Texas and it put him in position to duke it out with James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud and Hélio Castroneves. Fresh tires late were enough though and he settled for a spectacular third-place finish. A rear suspension issue cost Kanaan a possible podium at Watkins Glen. Contact with Mikhail Aleshin left Kanaan stalled in turn seven and all he could do was get back to where he started the race in 13th. 

Tony Kanaan's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 7th (461 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 37
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 8.8125
Average Finish: 8.8125

Charlie Kimball matched his career best championship finish in 2016
Charlie Kimball
Not many season start with a top ten finish despite ending in the barriers but that was the case for Kimball as he was in the top ten all day but locked up the rear breaks in turn one but still was classified in tenth position. He qualified fourth at Phoenix but his race took a turn for the worst after chopping on Josef Newgarden left him spinning in turn one, earned him a penalty and dropped him down the order. All he could manage was 12th. Kimball had to fight from 15th position on the grid at Long Beach and despite all his work, three pit stops, fastest lap and all, he could only manage 11th. Barber saw him have a really good start but he settled in as the race wore on and finished ninth.

Kimball qualified second for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the first front row start of his career. He was in the top five for most of the race and he finished fifth for the third time in three editions of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Like Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, Kimball went 36 laps on the final stint but he was more conservative at the start of that stint than most as he was running laps in the 200-201 MPH range while the leaders were still going at 215-217 MPH. It paid off though as he matched his career best Indianapolis 500 finish in fifth, with Kanaan stealing fourth from him by 0.0255 seconds. Like Kanaan, Kimball went off strategy in the first Belle Isle race but only finished eighth. The decision to go off strategy in race two backfired and left him in 16th.

Road America saw Kimball quietly go from 11th on the grid to a sixth-place finish. He started eighth at Iowa but didn't have the pace of the leaders and fell back to a respectable tenth-place finish. Toronto saw Kimball start 17th, his worst starting position on the season but he was still able to make up some ground and finish 11th. Despite starting fifth at Mid-Ohio, Kimball lost some ground and all he could manage was eighth. 

Kimball saw Alexander Rossi go over his car on the pit lane at Pocono and contact with Hélio Castroneves in the same incident. Despite all that, he kept the car running and lost a lap but managed to complete 199 laps, only good enough for 15th. He was never a factor at Texas but he kept running and while other hit bumps, Kimball kept going and finished sixth. While others tried to save fuel at Watkins Glen, he went all out and made a late pit stop and charged again making his way up to sixth by the checkered flag. Watkins Glen was also marred by incidents with Graham Rahal and Will Power and a few drivers questioning Kimball aggressiveness. He cruised home to a ninth-place finish at Sonoma, which left him tied on 433 points with Juan Pablo Montoya but Montoya got the tiebreaker for eighth in the championship based on his victory at St. Petersburg.

Charlie Kimball's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 9th (433 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 5
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 6
Average Start: 10.9375
Average Finish: 9.1875

Max Chilton's rookie season was a learning experience
Max Chilton
The British driver made his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg and just like the rest of his teammates; he too suffered overheating issues and had to make a late pit stop that dropped him to 17th. His first career oval race was a surprise as he started eighth at Phoenix and ran in the top ten the entire race and finished seventh. At Long Beach, he was cutting corners, literally and had to be warned for doing it but despite his occasional shortcuts he could only manage 14th. At Barber, Chilton had front wing damage and rear wing pod damage that slowed him up and led to a 21st-place finish.

He started 11th for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but was stuck in the middle of the pack and dropped to 14th. In his Indianapolis 500 debut, he started 22nd and ran a clean race and finished on the lead lap in 15th, the second best rookie behind the race winner Alexander Rossi. Belle Isle proved to be a horrible weekend for Chilton as race one ended after eight laps after a suspension failure and race two ended in turn one after being caught up in an incident with Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe.

His luck didn't get any better when the second half of the season began. At Road America, he started seventh but slipped back a few positions and then ran out of fuel that required his team to push him up the pit lane. He started fourth at Iowa, the sight of his first career Indy Lights victory the year before but once again he fell back and then spun late in the race exiting turn two. At Toronto, he wasn't much of a factor after starting 14th and falling to 18th. Mid-Ohio was another mediocre run as he dropped from 13th to 16th.

Like Indianapolis, Chilton kept his nose out of harms way at Pocono and he completed all 500 miles but only managed a 13th-place finish. At Texas, he was collateral damage after Hélio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter got together but he was able to finish the race albeit five laps down in 15th. He qualified sixth at Watkins Glen and was able to finish tenth. The season ended with Chilton qualifying 18th and finishing 16th at Sonoma.

Max Chilton's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 19th (267 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 2
Laps Led: 2
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 13.9375
Average Finish: 16.125

It is hard to say this was a good year for Chip Ganassi Racing when they didn't have a driver finish in the top five of the championship but with three drivers in the top ten of the championship, it is hard to say it was a bad year. This was the hardest year in terms of luck for Dixon in a long time. It's not that he has lost something. It is just he car let him down at Road America, which could have been a top five and he was driven to the curbs by Castroneves at Mid-Ohio. If it weren't for double points he would have finished fifth in the championship and would have been a point behind Rahal for fourth. It wasn't a bad year.

Kanaan and Kimball looked fine. The problem for each of them is they can't consistently control a race. Kanaan can go out and boss an oval or two and lead around two-thirds of the laps but he can't do that a half-dozen times a year and he can't do that on a road or street course. Kimball has never really had that ability and to be champion you need to be more than someone who can keep the nose clean and settle for seventh.

With Ganassi returning the Honda, we all wonder can the team be as dominant as they were in their three seasons with Chevrolet? Honda trails Chevrolet in terms of speed, most notably on road and street circuits. While Dixon won the 2013 title with Honda, that was a season where Honda had been picking up ground on Chevrolet as it was prior to aero kits and year two of their single-turbo development. Honda won nine of 19 races that season. In 2016, Honda won two of 16 races. It is hard to imagine Ganassi and by Ganassi I mean Scott Dixon being shut out in the win column even if he is in inferior equipment. The man won in a Panoz-Toyota in 2005 and 2006 for crying out loud.

I think it would be a good move for this team to retain all four of its drivers from the previous season. We know Dixon, Kanaan and Kimball are confirmed and we wait on Chilton, whose only options appear to be Ganassi or going with whatever KV/Carlin agrees to be. I think Chilton might stay for a second season with Ganassi because he knows the crew and he can build off of his rookie year instead of starting over at a team trying to find its identity. We can debate whether Chilton was an upgrade over Sage Karam (he wasn't) but he is a competent driver who can bring the car home.

If Chilton doesn't return, Ganassi will probably only run three cars unless someone with a couple million dollars comes walking by. Should Ganassi subtract to three entries, it could open the door for a potential third car at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports or second entry at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing but neither are guaranteed to happen just because an engine lease is available. 

Despite the switch to Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing will be fine. Three in the top ten of the championship might not be likely but Scott Dixon will find a way to be in the championship discussion.