Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: The Part-Timers

We are nearing the halfway point of the IndyCar team previews but this one will be a bit different. IndyCar's offseason has been promising. Not only will two new full-time teams participate but also two teams are expanding operations, though still remaining part-time entries. This preview looks at both those teams and drivers.

2017 Michael Shank Racing Review:
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 30th (Indianapolis 500)
Poles: 0
Best Starting Position: 27th (Indianapolis 500)

2018 Drivers:

Jack Harvey - #60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda
Harvey made his IndyCar debut in 2017 with Michael Shank Racing. The Ohio-based team made the step up in partnership with Andretti Autosport to run the #50 Honda. Harvey's season started with a rough rookie orientation that saw a steering column fail while on the warm-up lane in turn two, sending him across the racetrack into the turn two wall. The car was repaired but while Andretti Autosport put five cars in the top ten Harvey started 27th. In the race, Harvey's day ended prematurely when he spun to miss debris from the Conor Daly accident and he was classified 30th completing 65 laps.

His season didn't end there. Harvey ran the final two races of the season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the #7 Honda. Harvey was the top Schmidt Peterson Motorsports finisher in both races with a 14th at Watkins Glen and 18th at Sonoma. Hinchcliffe finished 21st and 22nd in those races respectively.

Michael Shank Racing will run this 2018 effort in partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Harvey's schedule will be St. Petersburg, Long Beach, the Indianapolis 500, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
1: Track on Harvey's schedule he has yet to race at. That would be Portland.

4: Harvey's average championship finish in seven full seasons of competition across Formula BMW Europe, British Formula Three, GP3 Series and Indy Lights.

6: Top five finishes in six Indy Lights oval starts.

Shank is interested in IndyCar and a full-time effort might not be far off. It seems 2018 will be a trial year and it seems Shank has his driver if he decides to go full-time. Harvey is an under-appreciated talent in IndyCar. He was unfortunate to finish runner-up in consecutive Indy Lights seasons, including losing one on tiebreaker. He will have testing time in the car, which will be beneficial.

It is a new team in terms of IndyCar but this team has won the big races in sports cars. The procedures will be different and take time to adjust to but I don't think the team will languish behind. There may be a few races where Harvey tops the two SPM cars and I would not rule Harvey out of advancing to the second round of qualifying on one or two occasions.

2017 Juncos Racing Review:
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 15th (Indianapolis 500, Sebastián Saavedra)
Poles: 0
Best Starting Position: 29th (Indianapolis 500, Spencer Pigot)

2018 Drivers:

Kyle Kaiser - #32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet
Kaiser entered his third Indy Lights season in 2017 coming off a third-place finish in the championship where he won twice. The season started with a solid weekend at St. Petersburg with finishes of sixth and fourth. He followed it up with a pair of runner-up finishes at Barber Motorsports Park. He finished third in race one on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and followed it up with a victory in race two. He would finish a disappointing ninth in the Freedom 100.

He would pick up two more podium finishes at Road America by coming home in third and second before taking a fifth place finish at Iowa. Kaiser dominated race one from Toronto, leading all 35 laps from pole position. He caught a break in race two when Colton Herta suffered a suspension failure while leading and Kaiser went on to sweep the weekend. A disastrous weekend followed at Mid-Ohio where all Kaiser could manage was a pair of 12th-place finishes but he lost only nine points in his championship lead. A fourth-place finish at Gateway all but clinched the championship for Kaiser and the title was his once he started the race at Watkins Glen. His season closed with a seventh-place finish in the wet at the famed road course.

Kaiser is scheduled to make his IndyCar debut at Phoenix before heading to Long Beach. The final two races on his schedule are the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500.

Numbers to Remember:
13: Starts across Mazda Road to Indy series on the four tracks on Kaiser's tentative schedule.

7.076: Average finish in those 13 starts including two victories, four podium finishes, six top five finishes and four finishes outside the top ten.

14: Kaiser will be the first reigning Indy Lights champion to make an IndyCar debut at an oval other than Indianapolis in 14 seasons. Mark Taylor won the 2003 then-Infiniti Pro Series championship and made his debut in 2004 at Homestead.

It took Kaiser three years to win the Indy Lights championship but he only turns 22 years old on March 5th. I think it was smart of Juncos Racing to condense Kaiser's races into one part of the schedule. It will get him consistent seat team heading into the Indianapolis 500 and he will get one oval race under his belt at a track he won at in Phoenix.

I don't want to rule out a full season but the goal for Kaiser is to expand his schedule beyond the four races already scheduled. The good news for Kaiser, like Shank, it appears Juncos Racing has found its driver should the team expand to a full-time operation in 2019. He has spent four years with the team. He has climbed the ladder with Juncos and I don't see him being kicked to the curb.

Because the team will be getting its legs in 2018, I think Kaiser could suffer from growing pains. Each race could be a baby step forward and not provide the most reassuring results. The hope is each race gets him prepared for Indianapolis, a place where he struggled in Indy Lights.

René Binder - #32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet
The Austrian is a name that is familiar to those who have followed the Formula One support series. Binder made his GP2 Series debut at Spa-Francorchamps in 2012 with Venezuela GP Lazarus and he ran the following two rounds at Monza and Singapore. In 2013, he remained with the team and he scored points in the first sprint race of the season with an eighth place finish at Sepang, one spot behind Conor Daly. His only other points finishes that season came at Monaco where he finished seventh in the feature race and sixth in the sprint race.

For 2014, Binder moved to Arden International and finished ninth and eighth in the season opening weekend at Bahrain. However, he would not score points the rest of the season. He moved to Trident Racing for the 2015 season but did not score a point in the first six rounds. He missed Spa-Francorchamps and returned for the Monza round with MP Motorsport. He finished 10th and eighth in the first two races with the team but would not score in the final five races.

Binder made a move to the Formula V8 3.5 Series in 2016 and he drove for the Lotus team. He had two runner-up finishes, five total podium finishes and scored points in 14 of 18 races but he finished seventh in the championship, three spots and 28 points behind teammate Roy Nissany. During 2016 he made four GP2 starts, two with ART Grand Prix at Austria and two for Carlin at Hockenheim, scoring points in none of the races. He returned to the Formula V8 3.5 Series with Lotus in 2017 and picked up four victories, including at Circuit of the Americas, and finished fourth in the championship but his teammate Pietro Fittipaldi won the title. He also made two Formula Two starts with Rapax at Jerez and scored zero points.

Binder will run the season opener at St. Petersburg and Barber before sitting out of the car for three months and returning for Toronto and Mid-Ohio in July.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Finishes in the points in 74 GP2/Formula Two starts.

12: Retirements in 74 GP2/Formula Two starts.

16: Points scored in his GP2/Formula Two career with his best finish being sixth.

The first goal should be not to hit any walls. Binder is already under scrutiny from outsiders because he doesn't have the most glamorous résumé. If he does that, he will at least have one thing he can hold over critics. It is easy to say Binder will bring up the rear but I think there is middle ground between winning races and being an undeserving driver who is only there for money. He won races against small grids in the Formula V8 3.5 Series but those grid sizes weren't much different from the grid sizes during the 2011 Indy Lights season where Josef Newgarden took the championship. I don't expect Binder to turn heads but I think he will do better than many think he will.

The addition of Binder was a surprise and with the announcement that he and Kaiser will split the car it makes you wonder if Juncos Racing is opened to having additional drivers in the #32 Chevrolet for the other nine races on the schedule and if a full season is possible but only with four or five drivers bringing funding. Last year, Juncos Racing ran two cars at the Indianapolis 500 and I expect the same this year. The driver likely won't be Binder but I think the team could bring in a competent veteran to help groom Kaiser and help the team. J.R. Hildebrand is a veteran who runs at the front at Indianapolis. Conor Daly, who won the 2010 Star Mazda championship with Juncos Racing, is an available free agent. After what he did last year as an 11th-hour substitute it would be a mistake if James Davison weren't given a call.

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.