If you were one of the fans who bitched and moaned about last year's IndyCar Series being all about Target Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Team Penske, then suck it up: there's a 95 percent chance that the same will happen in 2010. A high chance, too, that the only guy to prevent these teams' quintet of drivers taking all the wins will be Justin Wilson.
But that's enough to create great racing, so long as all of them are evenly matched at any given track. Of course, that often wasn't the case in '09, and that's what disenchanted many. However, that doesn't make it easier to predict race winners or polesitters. For this weekend, I'll predict Will Power for the pole and win with Dario Franchitti and Justin Wilson joining him on the podium. But ask me to explain why Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe aren't figuring there, and I'll struggle.
Anyway, this is a season preview, so here goes.
TARGET CHIP GANASSI RACING
One of the two best teams, with a pair of drivers who each has two IndyCar Series titles to his name. Reigning champ Dario Franchitti
is analytical, one of the fastest on street courses, one of the smartest on ovals and usually unruffled in the heat of a fight.
In 2009, Scott Dixon
was stronger than Franchitti on road courses (with the notable exception of Sonoma) and evenly matched with him on ovals. Between them, in other words, they have all bases covered. Dixon has vowed to step up his technical debriefing sessions and work hard to understand how he can get the best from Firestone's rubber compound on street circuits – both areas that he felt prevented us seeing him at his best 100 percent of the time in '09. The competition from their leading rivals may have increased, but expect that, as last year, both drivers arrive in Homestead-Miami Speedway in October with a shot at the title.
How do you solve a problem like getting beaten? Add more arrows to your quiver. And that's exactly what The Captain has done, by adding a third full-time car. Entering his 11th season as a Penske driver, the pressure is probably greatest on Helio Castroneves. The effervescent Brazilian is a fast and brave oval racer who is no slouch on a road or street course, but allowed too many errors to creep into his game in 2009. However, he didn't win a total of 22 CART and IndyCar Series races by accident; playing the consistency card whenever he doesn't have a winning car could yet earn him his first Indy car title.
Ryan Briscoe came of age as an Indy car driver in 2008, and spent '09 as a regular threat for victory. How badly he beat himself up over his mistake in the penultimate round at Motegi is unclear, but he rebounded in a gripping duel with Dixon in the finale. Two of Briscoe's wins last year came on ovals, but those magnificent pole positions at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio show he possesses every talent necessary to be IndyCar champion.
Will Power's great pace now has 17 race outlets. That's bad news for the rest, as many rate Power as the fastest driver in the series, and with his old KV Racing engineer Dave Faustino working on the No. 12 car, Will is going to be more comfortable than ever to unleash his potential. If he combines his natural road/street course pace with consistency on ovals, pouncing only when he feels he has a legitimate shot at victory, there's no reason why he can't be 2010 champion.
What was once known as Andretti Green Racing should have the capacity to rise to the top once more, especially now there's just one boss to make decisions, and that boss is Michael Andretti. But it won't happen overnight: It's a steep hill to the Penske/Ganassi level. Tony Kanaan
is the only non-American in the (for now) four-strong driver lineup, and the 2004 champion is still perceived as the team leader. He had a horrible year in '09, usually through no fault of his own, but give him a sniff of victory and he'll rise to the challenge. He's still got the pace to win.
It's a personal view, but I think Marco Andretti could have a breakout year. In terms of results, that very much depends on how well the team has been revamped in the off-season, but I still believe he has the raw talent to match Kanaan and become the next homegrown Indy car legend. He needs to be disciplined in down time, and form a strong bond with new race engineer Tino Belli, but he also needs a car tailored to his taste. This is a kid who qualified fourth at Sonoma last year (ahead of Dixon, Kanaan and Rahal), and who was quicker than all his teammates in the Barber Open Test last month.
For now, Ryan Hunter-Reay has just six races to show everyone how good he is, and that may work in his favor.
Free from the shackles of thinking in terms of points, he can just go for it, and that's when we should see Hunter-Reay at his best. After struggling against misfortune so many times, he deserves a chance to show what he can do – especially alongside a yardstick such as Kanaan.
It's anybody's guess how Danica Patrick's season will turn out, but commitments to NASCAR, perfume launches, TV shows and ads, etc., will surely slow her momentum in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Last year there were good signs of progress in her road course form – qualifying seventh at Watkins Glen, for example – but there are now questions being asked over her commitment to Indy cars. I hope they're unwarranted.KV RACING TECHNOLOGY
At one point over the winter, there were some who questioned whether KV Racing would continue into 2010: team co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven would perhaps be distracted by Cosworth's new Formula 1 commitments, there were few hard results achieved in 2009, despite the fact that Mario Moraes often ran in the top six, and the team apparently needs its drivers to bring a fair wedge of dollars. Now, here's the Jimmy Vasser-led team heading into a new season with three cars driven by well proven open-wheel racers.
Starting with Moraes, there's no question he's very quick over a flying lap and maybe the five or 10 beyond that. Keeping his act together over a whole race was his problem in his second year in the series, and Vasser and team manager Mark Johnson will continue to drum it into him that remaining calm and constructive when the pressure is on is a huge part of becoming a three-dimensional driver. Performing in front of his home crowd after a season of no testing (he was a very last-minute addition to this weekend's grid) is a big challenge.
EJ Viso is one of the most popular drivers in the series who, after two seasons with HVM Racing, has a car that should allow him to prove his quality to everyone, especially with Bill Pappas as his engineer. Although he still has his wild moments, there are many who believe the pint-sized Venezuelan could have a big future in the IndyCar Series.
Both Moraes and Viso may find themselves struggling to match teammate Takuma Sato
(left), however. If KV's engineering department has the depth, the ex-Formula 1 racer should be in the Firestone Fast Six at every street and road course qualifying session. Those are the circuits where his natural aggression will flourish, and while that same quality may make the oval-learning process a fraught affair, I suspect that, over the season, Taku will win over a lot of race viewers with his attacking driving style.NEWMAN/HAAS/LANIGAN RACING
It's a sorry sign of the times when one of the legendary teams in U.S. open-wheel racing – actually, all U.S. racing – has lost its major sponsor, lost its rising star racer and its principals have cut back to one car for a funded driver. Hideki Mutoh
is OK, and on one or two occasions last year he was Andretti Green's strongest runner on race day, but he ain't no Graham Rahal. As the IndyCar Series increases in depth at the front of the field, with the arrival of such as Sato at KV, Wilson's elevation to Dreyer & Reinbold and Power going full time at Penske, it's hard to see how Mutoh can expect more than to occasionally scrape into the top eight. I have no doubts that NHLR's engineering department, led by Craig Hampson, can elevate its new driver above the plateau he's been on for the past couple of seasons; it's just hard to see what the team gets from this association, besides an IV drip of money.DREYER & REINBOLD RACING
Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl have every reason to be excited about 2010. Replacing Milka Duno with Justin Wilson
is like upgrading from a broken skateboard to a Ferrari 599, and retaining the fast albeit fractious Mike Conway
is a decision with substance. While there were Moraes-like tendencies at the start of last year when Conway's in-cockpit ebullience would turn to out-of-cockpit anguish as he scanned another bent wishbone or broken nosewing, it was satisfying to see his natural racecraft and speed shown to such good effect at Sonoma last August as he headed for his first IndyCar podium.
For an example of what to do and how to do it, Conway need look no farther than across the garage to his new teammate. Away from ovals, Wilson is arguably the best driver in the series (at least one of his arch-rivals and one ex-Indy car champ have said so) and he is likely to have that D&R car running ahead of Ganassi and Penske cars on a regular basis on road and street courses.
Interestingly, though, it was Dreyer & Reinbold's off-season efforts on their oval setups that convinced JWil that this was the team for him. While the Wilson/D&R combo is unlikely to trouble the likes of Castroneves around Texas, the Brit wants to know what it's like to have a fast oval car so he can gauge his own progress.
This weekend, Ana Beatriz
will drive a third D&R car. She's a worthy graduate, so it's sad that it's only a part-time gig. In Indy Lights, she had the ability to run top five on any shape of circuit, and she pricked the egos of far more recognized names. FAZZT RACE TEAM
If this team is the sum of its parts, there are going to be podium finishes, even in its first year. Ex-Walker Racing team manager Rob Edwards has assembled a very strong crew on behalf of team owners Andre Azzi and Jim Freudenberg, and Alex Tagliani
is still one of the most underrated drivers in the paddock. The last time he had a top car was almost a decade ago. He's a way smarter driver now, and appears to have lost none of his youthful pace, so if the No. 77 car is up to the task, expect to see this Canadian team in the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying. Some might question the wisdom of running just one car, but to be honest, Tag does the work of two drivers anyway.LUCZO DRAGON DE FERRAN
Speaking of one-car teams, it's great to see Gil de Ferran join his buddy Jay Penske and Steve Luczo, for it was Gil who recommended 2008 Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos
to this team. “Rafa” shone brightly on occasion in his rookie season, but he would have benefited from an experienced teammate with whom to pool information. It's unfortunate that funds haven't been found to add a second car with, for example, Oriol Servia driving it. Set against that, however, is Matos' attitude – he's right up there with Power, Wilson and Tagliani in terms of constantly thinking about the car and how to make it better. Having an ex-driver like de Ferran on hand to ask even more of the right questions can only help Matos and race engineer Eric Zeto make further progress.DALE COYNE RACING
While Justin Wilson has left Coyne's plucky little team to join Dreyer & Reinbold, Milka Duno
has made the opposite journey, bringing with her a bag of CITGO money, a ready smile for the fans and a racing résumé that I might be proud of, but a racecar driver shouldn't be. Duno is not without talent, but she doesn't belong at this level of racing.
So Milka's feedback is going to be of no use to her teammate, be it the 2007 Indy Lights champion, Alex Lloyd (who occupies the Boy Scouts of America car this weekend in Brazil) or, perhaps later in the season, the reigning Lights champ, J.R. Hildebrand. Both the Brit and the American are excellent drivers who deserve full time rides and have already impressed DCR with their pace and feedback, but the team is unlikely to maintain the level it achieved last year now that Wilson and engineer Bill Pappas have departed.
An excellent oval racer but a mediocre driver on any course where he needs to turn right, Dan Wheldon managed to finish 10th in the point standings last year, and that is likely to be the most he can expect in a series that now has only eight ovals in its 17-race schedule. However, that can't bother team owner John Barnes too much since he employed a driver who hasn't qualified in the top six on a road or street course since Sonoma in 2006. However, if the team can step up to the plate with their mechanical and aero package setups, they can exploit Dan's extraordinary bravery and racer's instinct on ovals, and together they could occasionally hassle Ganassi and Penske cars.
SARAH FISHER RACING
Once upon a time, B.D., (Before Danica), Sarah Fisher was the IndyCar Series' most popular driver. Now it might be time to bow down and worship her again because, as a team owner, she has just done a wonderful thing for the series as a whole (above and beyond swelling grid numbers with her thoroughly respectable little team). On Thursday, she announced that she would be standing down from the No. 67 Dollar General car for the St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park races, and handing the wheel over to Graham Rahal.
Those who wonder whether Rahal really is America's Next Big Thing in terms of open-wheel racing talent should note that, driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan last year, he only once qualified outside the top six on a road or street course, he gets better with every year having learned at the feet of Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson, and in '09 he blew aside a respectable ex-F1 talent like Robert Doornbos. It's a crying shame that Graham's 2010 schedule is so fractured, but thanks to Sarah Fisher, Rahal at least has the first metal pin in place to start putting it together again.
Fisher herself will shine on ovals again (she's a smart cookie when it comes to dicing) while Jay Howard
, the 2006 Indy Lights champion, will drive for the team in a handful of races this year, including the Indy 500. The Brit did a good job for Roth Racing in his five starts for the team in 2008. HVM RACING
Now that the series appears to have stopped making both team and driver jump through unnecessary hoops to make this partnership happen on a full-time basis, Simona di Silvestro
(who so nearly beat John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton to the Atlantic Series crown last year and led more laps than either) can get on with what she does best which is driving fast. She did spend three years in Atlantics to get so good, apparently she's ready for it now. She will be new to most of the circuits, and she will have to learn quickly on ovals, but if there's any driver who has the right combination of pace, humility and open-mindedness to learn from engineer Michael Cannon, it is Simona. As a longstanding supporter of U.S. open-wheel racing, HVM team owner Keith Wiggins deserves a shot of good fortune, and he may just have found it in the Swiss Miss.A.J. FOYT RACING
Welcome back Vitor Meira
, who suffered that spectacular shunt after tangling with Matos in last year's Indy 500, and spent the year recuperating from his broken back. The Brazilian, who made his first IndyCar Series start back in 2002, is probably the finest driver that the IRL has nurtured in the last decade who has yet to win a race. He has eight second-place finishes to his name, notably including the '05 and '08 Indy 500s, and the man who engineered the first of those, Jeff Britton, will reunite with Meira in Foyt's team.
Is that going to be enough to send the No. 14 car to Victory Lane in 2010? I'd love to say yes, but can't. Then again, I wouldn't have put a dime on Ed Carpenter/Vision coming within 0.0162sec of beating Briscoe/Penske at Kentucky last year…
Mario Romancini finished sixth in last year's Firestone Indy Lights championship, winning two races along the way. His dominant Milwaukee performance was one eye-opener, and so was his progress on road courses, which reached its zenith at Mid-Ohio where he qualified on the second row. While it would be difficult to make a case for him above fellow FIL 2009 alumni Hildebrand (obviously), Sebastian Saavedra and James Davison, Romancini is clearly not a pushover and he and Conquest did an excellent job to finish the Barber Open test in 10th fastest. The 22-year-old Brazilian's problem is that his best circuits (ovals) are likely to be Conquest's worst and vice versa. Eric Bachelart does a remarkable job with a fraction of the budget of the big teams, but it would be an amazing day if the Romancini/Conquest combo ever broke into the Firestone Fast Six.