Friday, December 29, 2017

2018 IndyCar Predictions

This is it! The final post of the year 2017 and the final set of predictions for the coming new year. We end with IndyCar and another new era for the series, the third new era in the last seven years. The Chevrolet and Honda aero kits are heading to museums (or will be used for show cars). We have a new oval qualifying format. Indianapolis 500 qualifying pays fewer points than recent seasons. There will be two new full-time teams and two teams expanding their efforts and running more in IndyCar after being one-offs. It is understandable if you are a bit excited for the start of the IndyCar season.

1. Andretti Autosport has at least one driver finish in the top five of the championship
Andretti Autosport has had nine drivers finish in the top ten in the championship the last four seasons. However, none of those drivers have finished in the top five of the championship. The last time an Andretti Autosport driver cracked the top five was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013 coming home in fifth. Hunter-Reay missed out on a top five by one position in 2014 and 2015.

The team went through a rough patch during the aero kit-era and two Indianapolis 500 victories can't erase the disappointing championship results. The team ended 2017 on a high note. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi each won a race for the team. Ryan Hunter-Reay came close but is still looking for his first victory since the 2015 Pocono race. Marco Andretti improved from his 2016 season. Rossi is the dark horse everyone is picking. Hunter-Reay has put together solid results despite not winning a race. Andretti finished fifth in the championship in 2013 prior to the aero kit-era and the universal aero kit will be more like the original aero kit, which could benefit Andretti.

No one would be surprised if Rossi or Hunter-Reay found a way into the top five in the championship.

2. Ed Jones wins a race
Go listen to The Marshall Pruett Podcast episode with Mike Hull. In the episode, Hull said Chip Ganassi Racing wants drivers that don't need to be taught to win. If that is the case, then Ed Jones better win a race in 2018. The 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year was impressive at the start of the season but tailed off.

Chip Ganassi Racing will benefit from the introduction of the universal aero kit but the team has been a one-horse stable despite fielding as many as four cars since the start of 2012. In the DW12-era, Chip Ganassi Racing has won 17 races. Scott Dixon has won 14 of those races. Dario Franchitti won the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Charlie Kimball won at Mid-Ohio in 2013 and Tony Kanaan won the 2014 season finale at Fontana. Dixon has won six consecutive races for Chip Ganassi Racing despite the talent he has had around him.

Jones will have a monumental task ahead of him and I think he will breakthrough. I don't think he will beat Dixon in the championship nor do I think he will be a title contender but he can have his day.

3. Takuma Sato has more top ten finishes than he did in his first season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
The 40-year-old Japanese driver turns 41 on January 28th and he is coming off his best season in any discipline since he finished eighth in the World Drivers' Championship in 2004. Sato finished eighth with a victory in the Indianapolis 500 as well as three other top five finishes at St. Petersburg, Belle Isle and Mid-Ohio and he had seven top ten finishes.

When Sato was at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, he had a handful of promising results. He had a solid run from 25th to third at São Paulo. We all remember how close he came to winning the Indianapolis 500 that year. He gave Hélio Castroneves a run for his money at Edmonton. Sato led 12 laps in the wet at Baltimore before his race ended due to a mechanical issue and he had accident on the final lap at Fontana while in the top five and was still classified with a seventh place finish.

Despite all the good runs, Sato had only five top ten finishes that season and finished 14th in the championship. I don't think he will match his 2017 results and I don't think he will top Graham Rahal in the championship but I think Sato will be competitive and six top ten finishes isn't asking a lot.

4. No rookie finishes in the top 13 of the championship
It is tough being a rookie in IndyCar. Track time is limited. There is next to no testing. A driver really needs at least two seasons if not three seasons before he or she has a handle on IndyCar. While Simon Pagenaud was classified as a rookie for the 2012 season, he had run a season in Champ Car in 2007. Of true rookies, only one has finished in the top ten as a rookie and that was Carlos Muñoz in 2014. The only other drivers to finish in the top 13 were Rubens Barrichello in 2012 (he wasn't classified as a rookie but he was a rookie), who finished 12th and Alexander Rossi, who finished 11th in 2016.

At time of writing, there are three rookies confirmed for full-time competition with Matheus Leist at A.J. Foyt Racing, Zach Veach at Andretti Autosport and Robert Wickens at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and each have a hurdle. Leist will only be 19 years old and teenagers haven't been consistent. Veach did well in Indy Lights and seemed to improve each year but he is tiny and physically could be at a disadvantage. Wickens moves over from DTM and this could be a shock for his system as he has not regularly been in a single-seater car since 2011.

5. There is at least one driver who wins his or her first 500-mile race
The following drivers have yet to win a 500-mile race in their IndyCar careers: Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Sébastien Bourdais, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Danica Patrick. And that isn't the entire list. You wouldn't rule out either Newgarden or Pagenaud being responsible for another Team Penske Indianapolis 500 victory. At the same time, Andretti has always been competitive at Indianapolis. Bourdais was the fastest man at Indianapolis before his accident. And there is also Pocono and Will Power can't win every race at that track.

6. At least two part-time drivers (except Ed Carpenter) finish in the top ten in the Indianapolis 500
One-offs have success in the Indianapolis 500. Last year, Juan Pablo Montoya and Gabby Chaves each finished in the top ten and Fernando Alonso spent most of the day in the top ten. J.R. Hildebrand finished in the top ten the last three years he was an Indianapolis 500 one-off. Kurt Busch and Sage Karam each got top ten finishes as one-offs in 2014. Carlos Muñoz finished second as an Indianapolis 500 one-off and A.J. Allmendinger also finished in the top ten in 2013.

Patrick, Hélio Castroneves, Jack Harvey, Kyle Kaiser and Stefan Wilson are just a few of the early part-time drivers slated to participate in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 and the likes of Sage Karam, James Davison and Oriol Servià are three drivers you wouldn't be surprised to be at Indianapolis, nor be surprised if any of them finished in the top ten.

7. Honda wins at two tracks that it has won at once or fewer in the DW12-era (excluding Portland and Gateway)
Honda has had a rough six seasons in the DW12-era. While it has won four Indianapolis 500s, Honda has won only one drivers' championship and zero manufactures' championships since 2012. A few tracks have seen complete Chevrolet domination. Chevrolet is unbeaten at Sonoma. Before last year, Chevrolet was unbeaten at St. Petersburg. Chevrolet is two-for-two at Phoenix. Chevrolet has won five of six Barber races. Chevrolet has won three consecutive editions of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

I think Honda will win at a few of the places listed above. Honda teams will now have a shot at Phoenix and be on more level footing at the natural-terrain road courses. We are going to see a few breakthroughs in 2018.

8. The total number of caution laps is up by at least 4.5%
The 2017 season had 13.34% of laps run under caution, the lowest percentage in the DW12-era. Ten races featured single-digit totals of caution laps and there were two caution-free races. However, we are getting a new aero kit and in the first season of the aero kit-era, the percentage of laps under caution was 19.08%, the highest percentage during the DW12-era. I think drivers will be getting used to the new feel and drivers will make mistakes because they will be finding where the limits will be.

We don't know the length of the Portland race yet but if all other race distances remain unchanged and let's say Portland will be 105 laps, the total laps for the 2018 season will be 2,376 laps. An increase of 4.5% would mean 17.84% of laps will be under caution. That means around 424 laps would need to occur under caution.

9. No more than three new track records are set
We have gotten used to re-writing the record book the last couple years during the aero kit-era. Ten tracks saw the current track record set within the three seasons of the aero kit-era and it wasn't just road and street circuits. That won't continue with the new lower downforce universal aero kit. The speeds might be quicker entering corners at some road and street circuits but the cars will be on the brakes more and slower corner speeds will slow down lap times. I will leave the door open that the track record at Portland will be broken because IndyCar hasn't been there in 11 years and the track record was set in 2005 and maybe the track record is broken at Iowa but I don't think we will need a pen as much as we have the last few years.

10. At least three teams have multiple race winners
While IndyCar has had many race winners, most of those race winners have come from the same place: Team Penske. The team had three of four drivers win a race in 2016 while all four drivers won in 2017. Team Penske was the only team to have multiple race winners in 2016 and one of two teams to have multiple race winners in 2017 with Andretti Autosport having Takuma Sato win at Indianapolis and Alexander Rossi win at Watkins Glen.

Team Penske will likely have all three drivers win a race in 2018. I already have Ed Jones winning a race and if I have Jones winning a race then I definitely think Scott Dixon will win at least one race, and Andretti Autosport I have placing a driver in the top five of the championship and I think Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Andretti could all win a race. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has two stout drivers. Ed Carpenter Racing could have three contenders. Once again, the IndyCar grid is deep and there are more drivers you think can win than you think can't.

11. At least three races are won by drivers starting outside the top ten
Last year, the only race won from outside the top ten was St. Petersburg and that was when Sébastien Bourdais won from 21st, dead last on the grid. The DW12-era has been known for winners coming from anywhere. Twenty-three of 101 races in the DW12-era have been won from outside the top ten and 11 of those have come on an oval (there have been 34 oval races in the DW12-era). Prior to last season the fewest victories for drivers starting outside the top ten was two in 2013. The 2014 and 2015 seasons each had seven races won by drivers outside the top ten.

With the new aero kit I think we will still see unpredictable races and perhaps a better chance for a car to win from the back on a road/street course. The oval races should be as chaotic as ever and you can win from anywhere at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono.

12. A new title sponsor is not announced prior to the Sonoma finale
This is a negative prediction and I hope it turns out to be wrong but we are in uncertain times for IndyCar and motorsports as a whole. Money is tougher to find. While IndyCar ratings may be improving the numbers still aren't attractive and that will keep companies away. The series may have to wait on how the numbers turn out for the 2018 season and a title sponsor may depend on how the television deal for 2019 and beyond plays out. Perhaps a title sponsor is announced prior to the end of the calendar year but I think it is a stretch to expect it by Sonoma.

We are done. Two days remain in the year and how wonderful is it we end with a weekend? But that is all the break we will get. The first post of 2018 will come on the first day of the year. Don't worry; you will get to start the New Year with something to ponder to get pissed at.

Happy New Year, folks!