Wednesday, October 11, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Dale Coyne Racing's 2017 Season

We have reached the halfway point of the IndyCar team reviews and we have reached the slightly surprising team of the season, Dale Coyne Racing. The team retooled and it started off leading the championship for the first time in the team's three-decade history. It wasn't able to stay in the championship conversation for the entire season but it had a respectable showing.

Ed Jones won rookie of the year but the season ended on a downer
Ed Jones
The 2016 Indy Lights champion entered IndyCar as the only rookie on the 2017 grid and with a four-time champion as his teammate. That did not spook the Emirati driver. If it wasn't for Sébastien Bourdais winning the season opener from St. Petersburg Jones might have gotten a few more headlines, as he ran a fair amount of the race in the top ten and held on for a tenth place finish on debut. He made a big stride forward at Long Beach, missing out on the second round of qualifying by a position but finishing sixth and once again he was overshadowed with Bourdais finishing second. He made the second round of qualifying at Barber and started 11th, a position ahead of his teammate but fell back to a 16th-place finish. His oval debut at Phoenix saw Jones keep it out of the wall and despite finishing three laps down he came home in 11th.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis did not go as planned as he had to cut through the grass to avoid a spinning Tony Kanaan. An extra pit stop put him down to 19th position. Indianapolis 500 qualifying is where many sat up and started to take notice of Jones. He was one of the first qualifiers on Saturday and his time held up and appeared it might be able to make the Fast Nine session. Unfortunately, Jones got bumped down to tenth but he qualified 11th on the second day. In the race, Jones ran solidly all race but just outside the top ten for most the first two-thirds of the race. A timely pit stop before a caution put Jones into the top ten and at the front. Unfortunately, a hole in his nose made it difficult to get up with the leaders but he held off Max Chilton for a third-place finish, and Jones was the top finishing rookie in the 101st Indianapolis 500. He kept up the good form with a ninth-place finish the following Saturday in the first Belle Isle race and he was seventh in the championship at that point. Contact with J.R. Hildebrand ended his day early in race two.

Ed Jones' season went downhill from there. He was involved in the lap 152 accident at Texas when he was in contention for a top ten finish and possibly even a top five. He finished seventh at Road America in what was a very good race but that would be his final top ten finish of the season. Despite starting eighth at Iowa he finished 18th, three laps down. An oil pressure issue ended his race ten laps early at Toronto. He caused the only caution at Mid-Ohio and finished dead last. Pocono was a good day as he finished all 200 laps but he was the final car on the lead lap in 17th. He had another good day at Gateway, completing every lap and finishing 13th. He had another uneventful 13th-place finish at Watkins Glen and he ended his season with a suspension failure at Sonoma.

Ed Jones' 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 15th (354 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 14.352
Average Finish: 14.176

Sébastien Bourdais led the championship and broke his hip in the same season
Sébastien Bourdais
This offseason saw the Frenchman reunited with his championship winning engineer Craig Hampson but they could not have had a worse start to the season as a brake failure in qualifying caused Bourdais to go off course and cause a red flag, deleting his best two times and forcing him to start dead last for the season opener at St. Petersburg. He got up to 11th by the time he made his first pit stop and three laps later a caution came and Bourdais was second on the road of the cars that had already stopped. He restarted second and eight laps after going green Bourdais took the lead. He led all but five of the final 74 laps and took the victory.

The next race saw Bourdais start 12th and have to stop on lap two to replace a broken rear wing. By the end of the first fuel cycle Bourdais had cycled into the top ten and he caught a break when the second caution came out and he was ahead of Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden. He would move up to second when Ryan Hunter-Reay broke down and he made it two podium finishes from the first two races. He finished eighth at Barber but he lost the championship lead after being caught in the turn one lap one accident at Phoenix. He started sixth for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he had an engine failure after three laps.

Bourdais was one of the fastest cars heading into Indianapolis 500 qualifying. His average through the first two laps of his qualifying run was 231.534 MPH. Unfortunately Bourdais suffered a massive accident exiting turn two. The Frenchman suffered multiple pelvic fractures and a hip fracture and he would be sidelined until early May when he returned to the car for a test at Mid-Ohio in August.

He was back in competition at Gateway and he qualified 19th but worked his way to the middle of the field and led a few laps during a pit cycle. He fell to 15th, the final car on the lead lap, when he did not pit on the first lap of a caution period but found himself challenging for a top ten late and took advantage of the final restart and moved up to tenth and held on. At Watkins Glen, he had a respectable day going until he had nowhere to go after Josef Newgarden slid into the pit wall exiting the pit lane. At Sonoma, he started tenth, ran in the top ten most of the race and he finished ninth.

Sébastien Bourdais' 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 21st (214 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 74
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 12.375
Average Finish: 11.0

Former Sauber and Haas F1 driver Esteban Gutiérrez made a surprise IndyCar debut
Esteban Gutiérrez
One of the midseason surprises was the introduction of Esteban Gutiérrez to the IndyCar grid in place of Bourdais. The Mexican could not have made his debut at a more physically demanding racetrack in Belle Isle. He started and finished 19th in the first race and he started 19th in race two but worked his way up to 14th. He was not cleared to race at Texas and he returned at Road America. He started 17th and was running well until front wing damaged dropped him to a 17th-place finish.

He made his oval debut at Iowa and he started 18th. Gutiérrez ran on the lead lap for most of the race and briefly led during a pit cycle but didn't cross the line to be credited with a lap led. He finished a lap down in 13th. At Toronto, Gutiérrez had a hard shunt exiting the final corner in qualifying and had to start last but finished 14th. He qualified 12th at Mid-Ohio but fell back and was a lapped car and kind of got in the way. At Pocono, Gutiérrez had a good start but brushed the wall exited turn three and his race and season was over after 23 laps.

Esteban Gutiérrez's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 25th (91 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 17.0
Average Finish: 17.0

What could have been is the overarching narrative for Dale Coyne Racing's 2017 season. I don't think Bourdais would have been a championship contender into the season finale had he been able to contest a full season but when you look at Bourdais' average points score per race, he averaged 26.75 points, more than Takuma Sato, who finished eighth in the championship. Sato averaged 25.94 points per race. He might not have contended for the championship but Bourdais could have won another race or two.

I don't think it should be a surprised that Jones fell off in the second half of the season considering he was the lead driver in the team as a rookie. He likely wouldn't have finished in the top ten in the championship but had Bourdais been there the entire way I think Jones would have done better in qualifying and would not have ended the season with seven consecutive finishes outside the top ten. The one positive thing for Jones is he didn't tear up much equipment this season and the one notable accident he was in, at Texas, was not his fault.

I thought Gutiérrez did a good job considering he dove right into the deep end with no testing. He held his own on ovals. I am not sure if he will be back in IndyCar but I think IndyCar wants him back considering the series is trying to get a race in Mexico City. Where he lands remains to be seen.

Before we finish, I think we have to mention Tristan Vautier's run at Texas. He qualified fifth, led 15 laps and was running well before being caught up in the lap 152 accident. It seems likely Bourdais and Jones will be back for 2018. With Chip Ganassi Racing downsizing to two cars it makes an engine lease available if Coyne wants to expand to three cars so it is possible Gutiérrez could be back but I am not sure Coyne can take on the expense of expanding to three full-time cars.

This was a promising season for Dale Coyne Racing and I think things can only get better for the team in 2018.