Texas roughly marks the halfway point for the season. Over the course of the first eight races of the season, we’ve seen the drivers tackle street courses, road courses, short ovals, and super speedways. So, in essence, we’ve seen everything. But what have we learned?
1. This is Anybody’s Season
As fantastic (or as disappointing to some) as it may appear, last year’s utter dominance by the Ganassi/Penske duo is a thing of the past. Yes, both teams have looked strong and done well, winning here and there, but it nowhere near that all out domination they showed us last year. To date we have seen driver’s from Coyne, SPM, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, and Rahal Letterman take to the top step of the podium.
This, to me, is the biggest and best story from a series that prides itself on trying to create a semi equal playing field for its drivers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard for fledgling teams to make a difference in the series, but RLL has proven that is possible to win with one good driver and one good car. Coyne, likewise, by assembling a sort of behind the scenes dream team, has done what no one thought they could and not only win races, but constantly put forward good, solid results. And as last week’s race in Texas (as well as their run at Indianapolis) proved that it is not just Bourdais that is making the car come alive, but the car itself, having been perfectly prepared by the team’s mechanics.
2. Foyt’s Total Lack of Pace
On the other side of the spectrum from Coyne is AJ Foyt Enterprises. This is a team that has been around since the days AJ could actually fit into one of his own cars, but this season they have looked less like a fabled team of IndyCar seasons gone by and more like a new team still trying to get their feet wet.
As I’ve previously stated in this blog, I had very high hopes for Foyt going into the season. A switch to Chevy engines coupled with the additions of Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, both of whom are very talented young drivers, seemed to spell success for Foyt and his team. But that has not been the case.
Daly has been anything but exciting following his flashy first season at Coyne. Wrecking out of several races including a seemingly unforced error in the Indianapolis 500 have left him down in the standings and out of the points. It’s a real shame from a young driver who has shown a good racer’s spirit despite having, what could quite possibly be, the worst luck in the IndyCar paddock.
Munoz too is a driver that has failed to impress. He was reliable with Andretti, if not spectacular and the thought of him moving over to a Chevy based team certainly had people thinking he may be able to shine. But that hasn’t been the case.
But for whatever reason, Foyt have simply not been able to get their cars set up right. They are down on pace across the board. My mind goes back to Phoenix where, at the end of qualifying, the order was roughly P1-10 Chevy,s P11-20 Hondas, P21-22 Foyt. Perhaps the switch to Chevy has thrown AJ’s mechanics for a loop and they have simply not figured out how to get the best out of their new engines. Or, and I hate to say this, the two young drivers Foyt recruited may not be as stellar as we thought they were. I, for one, hope that it is the former, as I’d like to see both Daly and Munoz do well.
3. Andretti Running on One Bright Spot
Their season hasn’t been great, let’s face it. Yes, they one the big one. The only one that really matter, if we’re honest. They won Indy. But what else have they done this season? They looked decent at St. Pete and Barber. They suffered a quadruple engine failure at Long Beach. And they looked lost at Phoenix and the IndyGP.
The only real shining star of the team thus far (besides Sato’s win at Indy) has been Alexander Rossi. He has put in good, solid drive at Barber which saw him rise up the field from a bad qualifying spot to finish in the top spots. He looked incredibly strong at Texas, qualifying 3rd and looking like he had a car to win the race before crashing out due to contact with the Ganassi boys. And, save for a few problems in the pits, he looked on course to become the first back to back winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Al Unser in the early 70s*. Rossi has really come alive this season and has proven to many, if not all, that he is more than a one hit wonder. Remember, this is a guy who was the first American to race in Formula One since Scott Speed was replaced in 2007. Rossi’s proven not only that he can carry over his F1 pedigree to road courses, but he’s also now shown a good talent for ovals.
So what’s happening with the rest of the team? Marco has suffered several engine failures, but even on races where he has had a functioning car, he hasn’t displayed the racers edge that won him the Indy Lights championship back in the day. This was most noticeable at Indy and at Texas, two tracks where he traditionally does well. He was competitive at Indianapolis, but never seemed to have the car or the drive to take it to the next level and challenge for the lead. And in Texas, he was able to net a 6th place by sheer luck in staying out of the fracas in front of him, but during the race he was consistently slow and down on power.
Likewise, Hunter-Reay has not seemed his racing self either. The veteran ran well at Indy and looked on course for a possible 2nd taste of milk until his engine gave up on him, but outside of that performance, there has been nothing to write home about.
So what’s going on with Andretti? Will we see a resurgence from them in the 2nd half of the season? I, for one, certainly hope so as the more drivers that are able to challenge for wins will double the excitement going into every race.
4. Honda’s Double Edged Sword
Honda declared at the start of the season that they refused to have another dismal year like 2016. Despite propelling Alexander Rossi to victory at Indianapolis, Honda looked lost in a sea of gold bow ties for most of the 2016 season. But this year, they’ve come back with a fury. They took victories in St. Pete and Long Beach. They pulled the triple, taking Takuma Sato to victory circle and granting Graham Rahal back to back wins in Detroit. As predicted, they’ve struggled a little bit more on aero-heavy circuits such as Barber and Phoenix, but they’ve looked a fair match for Chevy.
That said, their success has also come with a string of failures: the aforementioned quadruple failure of all Andretti cars in Long Beach, a grand total of 8 engines exploding before Indianapolis had so much as even started, and perhaps most embarrassingly a blown engine for Indy 500 darling Fernando Alonso.
So yes, Honda has come back with a vengeance, but their reliability still seems to be holding them back to a degree. I would say that a massive enterprise like Honda should be able to get their ducks in a row by the end of the season and figure out what is causing these failures, but as we’ve seen on the other side of the pond (in F1), sometimes even a massive company like Honda can’t seem to get it together.
5. Where Are the Sponsors
Since was forced to leave the sport of racing, finding sponsors to slap on the side of a race car has become more and more of a challenge. Most teams have done well, locking down big name sponsors like Dr. Pepper-Snapple, Verizon, or DHL. But those coffers seems to be running dry. Target did the unthinkable at the start of the season and back away from its long standing partnership with Chip Ganassi and Dr. Pepper-Snapple left Marco Andretti.
Most, including myself, figured it would be a matter of days until Scott Dixon was able to lock down a big name sponsor to put on his car. Dixon is, after all, one of the very best drivers in IndyCar (one who Graham Rahal would rank alongside Lewis Hamilton, actually). Dixon has a winning pedigree with a winning team and seems always to be in the conversation for series championship. But no sponsor has materialized. Dixon has been left to run with a faux rip-off of Tony Kanaan’s NTT Data car. Yes, got a sponsorship from Camping World for the 500, but seriously… Camping World? Where are the big boys? Is there really no company out there who is willing to sponsor the, arguably, best driver in IndyCar?
And if Dixon can’t get a major sponsor to sign with him, maybe it’s no wonder that Sebastian Bourdais’s Dayle Coyne machine is still running sans-sponsors.
Yes, eyeballs are crucial to signing sponsors, and IndyCar is still trying their best to get more people to watch races. But surely there has to be a company out there who is willing to sponsor these guys. McDonald’s, Miller Lite, and so many other household names were as much of a part of IndyCar as the tires and the tracks. I don’t know how the series can get more sponsors to come back in, but they need to, because the lack of sponsorship right now is not only hurting the teams, it’s also slightly embarrassing for the series. It’s a silent act of contrition saying “Yeah, we’re not good enough to get the big boys to want to give us money.”
*Yes, that’s a deliberate omission of Helio’s 2001/2002 win.