2017 Dale Coyne Racing Review:
Wins: 1 (St. Petersburg)
Best Starting Position: 5th (Texas, Vautier)
Final Championship Positions: 14th (Ed Jones), 21st (Sébastien Bourdais), 25th (Esteban Gutiérrez), 30th (Pippa Mann), 35th (James Davison), 36th (Tristan Vautier).
Sébastien Bourdais - #18 SealMasters Honda
The phrase putting the band back together was used quite frequently prior to the start of the 2017 IndyCar season with Dale Coyne Racing. Bourdais returned to Dale Coyne Racing but not only did he return to an old team, he was reunited with engineer Craig Hampson and chief mechanic Todd Phillips from his championship winning days at Newman-Haas Racing and race engineer Olivier Boisson followed Bourdais to Coyne from the ashes of KV Racing.
Unfortunately, an off in qualifying put Bourdais 21st out of 21 cars on the grid for St. Petersburg. In the race, Bourdais was up nine positions by the end of lap seven and was 11th at the time of his first pit stop. Three laps later a caution was out and only one car ahead of Bourdais had made a pit stop. He was second at the time of the lap 30 restart and spent seven laps behind Simon Pagenaud before he took the lead on lap 37. Bourdais would lead 69 of the final 74 laps and win by over ten seconds on the track. For the first time in IndyCar history, Dale Coyne Racing led the championship.
Things improve in race two as he started 12th but he had to make a pit stop immediately under the first caution of the race on lap two, restarting in 20th position, last on the road. While other cars made pit stops, Bourdais clawed his way to fifth by the time of his second pit stop and only dropped to tenth, finding himself in a better position than when he started. Each stint he gain a few positions and the unfortunate engine failures to Andretti Autosport drivers put Bourdais in position for a podium. He would find himself in podium contention and come home in second.
Bourdais had another solid day at Barber, starting 12th and finishing eighth, retaining the championship lead. The fairy tale ended in turn one on lap one at Phoenix and the championship lead was gone. A sixth place start in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis did not last long as Bourdais lost an engine after three laps.
Everything looked good in Indianapolis 500 qualifying. Bourdais was the fastest man out there and for a split second it appear Dale Coyne Racing was going to be the team to beat in the Indianapolis 500. In the next split second, Bourdais lost the rear in turn two, overcorrected and slammed into the barrier, shattering his pelvis and crushing the feel good story like a grape.
Initially, his season was ruled as over but Bourdais fought his way back and was back in the seat for Gateway. He finished 10th on his return and had another good run going at Watkins Glen until he had nowhere to good when Josef Newgarden slid into the pit exit wall. The Frenchman closed out the season in ninth place at Sonoma.
Numbers to Remember:
2: Career victories at Portland. He is one behind Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr., for most at the track. Bourdais is the only active driver to win at Portland in IndyCar.
5: Most top five finishes in a season for Bourdais since he returned to IndyCar competition in 2011. That occurred in 2014.
10.4: Average number of top five finishes for Bourdais from 2003-07.
26.75: Points per start for Bourdais in 2017, ninth-best among drivers to make more than six starts last season.
I did not think Bourdais could have held the form of the first three races through the final 14 races and been a championship contender at Sonoma. He still put up impressive numbers and I think a top ten championship finish would not have been out of the question. It is Sébastien Bourdais, the man who finished ninth in a Lotus. He is going to challenge for a top ten championship finish. Bourdais wins races and he has been able to do it despite being in less than ideal situations in his second stint in IndyCar.
Dale Coyne Racing did well in the first portion of the DW12-era. Justin Wilson finished sixth in the championship in 2013 and I would not be surprised if Bourdais could match that championship result. Bourdais will need to pick up more podium finishes and more top five finishes to make that happen. His qualifying performances have not been close to what he did in Champ Car and his best average starting position in IndyCar since 2011 was 9.9 in 2014 and 2015. Ironically, after none of his first 33 victories came from outside the top ten his last three victories have come from 11th, 13th and 21st respectively. Better qualifying should lead to better race results.
Zachary Claman De Melo - #19 Paysafe Honda
The French-Canadian returned for a sophomore season of Indy Lights but moved from Juncos Racing to Carlin. His sophomore season started better than his rookie season, as De Melo finished eighth, seventh and fifth in the first three races of the season at St. Petersburg and Barber. Unfortunately, the first bad break of the season came in the second Barber race after contact with Patricio O'Ward forced him to retire after three laps.
The first race of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend saw De Melo challenge Nico Jamin for the victory but sudden for his first career Indy Lights podium finish with De Melo finishing second. The next race would be an 11th place finish but he would pick up fastest lap. He was mid-pack in the Freedom 100 and finished 6th. He could only manage a tenth place finish in the first race from Road America after starting 14th, dead last on the grid. The second race from Elkhart Lake had De Melo start fourth and he would take the lead on lap five and cruise to his first career Indy Lights victory.
De Melo started second at Iowa but finished second. He followed it up with a pair of podium finishes at Toronto. He picked up another pair of top five finishes at Mid-Ohio and ended the season with two consecutive sixth-place finishes at Gateway and Watkins Glen and finished fifth in the championship, five points behind his Carlin teammate Matheus Leist.
The results earned De Melo a ride with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the Sonoma season finale and he started 21st out of 22nd but finished 17th, one lap down.
Numbers to Remember:
4: De Melo would be the fourth Canadian to race for Dale Coyne Racing joining Ross Bentley, Paul Tracy and Michael Valiante.
11: Best finish for a Canadian driver for Dale Coyne Racing. Bentley finished 11th at Surfers Paradise in 1992 and Valiante finished 11th at Portland in 2005, his only start at Dale Coyne Racing and his final IndyCar start.
20: Lead lap finishes for De Melo in his last 21 Indy Lights starts including 12 consecutive to end the 2017 season.
De Melo is a good driver but in two years of Indy Lights he never entered the weekend as the man to beat. He got solid results and kept all four wheels on the car, which is very appealing to Dale Coyne Racing, which suffered a rough 2017 season in terms of crash damage. De Melo's schedule consists of St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Barber, Belle Isle, Road America, Iowa, Toronto, Pocono and Gateway. He has done well at Barber, Road America and Toronto. Long Beach, Belle Isle and Pocono will be new to him. It is tough to gauge how he is on ovals. While he wasn't impressive in 2016 he did finish sixth in all three ovals in Indy Lights last year.
With the 2018 rookie class being splintered between full-timers, significant part-timers and drivers with a handful of racers, I think De Melo would be best comparing him to Jordan King, who will run 11 races while De Melo runs 10 races. It will be interesting to see how he compares to his former Carlin teammate Leist as both move up and De Melo is arguably with the better team.
Pietro Fittipaldi - #19 Paysafe Honda
The grandson of double World Drivers' Champion, double Indianapolis 500 winner and 1989 IndyCar champion Emerson Fittipaldi has been all over the world and won everywhere he has gone. The unlikely starting point for Fittipaldi was Hickory Motor Speedway in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series and he won that champion at 15 years old.
After two years in late models, Fittipaldi headed to Europe and switched to single-seater racing. He finished eighth and 15th in the Protyre Formula Renault Championship and BRDC Formula 4 Championship respectively and he won a Formula 4 race at Brands Hatch on the grand prix circuit. The following year he won the Protyre Formula Renault Championship where he won 10 of 15 races. He moved to European Formula Three in 2015 and finished 16th in the championship with his best finish being a pair of sixths at Algarve. That winter he raced the MRF Challenge Formula 2000 Championship and finished in the top five in all 14 races with four victories, three runner-up finishes and a pair of third being enough to take the championship.
In 2016, he moved to the Formula V8 3.5 Series but he finished tenth in the championship with his best finish being third in the final race of the season at Barcelona. He returned to the series in 2017 and opened the season with a sweep of the Silverstone weekend. Fittipaldi won six races and finished on the podium ten times in 18 races and he won ten pole positions on his way to take the Formula V8 3.5 championship.
Numbers to Remember:
5,593: Days between the last time a Fittipaldi started an IndyCar race (Christian Fittipaldi at Mexico City in 2002) and the 2018 season opener at St. Petersburg.
0: IndyCar victories for Florida-born drivers. Fittipaldi was born in Miami, Florida.
6: Racetracks on the 2018 IndyCar calendar where a Fittipaldi has won (Phoenix, Indianapolis, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Portland)
This signing surprised most. I joked back when Fittipaldi won the Formula V8 3.5 title that he was apart of a championship weekend in Bahrain that included a Senna and a Lauda also taking titles with Bruno Senna winning in the FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 class and Mattias Lauda winning in GTE-Am. It is interesting seeing him come to North America. The Formula V8 3.5 Series was a fraction of what it was when it was Formula Renault 3.5 and was turning out drivers Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel, Álvaro Parente, Filipe Albuquerque, Bertrand Baguette, Mikhail Aleshin, Daniel Ricciardo, Robert Wickens, Alexander Rossi, Jean-Éric Vergne, Robin Frijns, Jules Bianchi, Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz, Jr., Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly. Fittipaldi could have a slight advantage if the Dallara chassis used in Formula V8 3.5 translates to IndyCar and is something he is comfortable with.
Fittipaldi will run seven races, Phoenix, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Sonoma. While Fittipaldi has oval experience it is a big leap to go from last running a late model at Hickory Motor Speedway to an IndyCar at Phoenix and Indianapolis in two of his first three IndyCar starts. I am more interested in seeing how De Melo and Fittipaldi compare on road courses. I think Fittipaldi might do slightly better coming from Europe. Another thing to note about Fittipaldi is he, like De Melo, does not have a tendency of tearing up equipment. In his two seasons in Formula V8 3.5, Fittipaldi had only four retirements in 36 starts.
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.