The final year of the current car regs could produce a classic season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. OK, so the champion will surely come from Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske, but who will it be? Between them, Chip and Roger now have seven cars. It would also be a brave gamble to bet against Andretti Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing taking wins. And there are some strong outsiders, too.
Can Target Chip Ganassi Racing win four consecutive IndyCar titles?
Heck yes! Chip's boys did it in Champ Car in 1996-'99 and now, like then, the team's basic package of chassis/engine/tires/ace drivers isn't changing. Only bizarre circumstances – bad luck, in other words – would prevent Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon from being frontrunners at all circuits on the IndyCar schedule. Ganassi has huge strength in depth throughout its IndyCar squad, and there's not much wrong with the guys in the cockpits, either, who have five IndyCar titles between them. Franchitti is as quick as ever, and will consistently bank points when the car's not at its best. Dixon hasn't quite got that in-cockpit composure nailed down, in that he sometimes allows issues to escalate into problems. But he's as fast as Dario, he can make winning races look easy – and because of his teammate winning the last two titles, Scott's got more to prove, too. This season will be make or break for him – but he can't afford to let that show.
Will Graham Rahal win the championship?
Yes, but not in 2011. Rahal has the talent to win races, even now the front of the grid is as packed with aces as it was in CART's heyday, and with Ganassi's Service Central car underneath him, he should have one of the best-prepared cars on the grid. Consistency, though, is what wins titles, and counting against Rahal in this department is that (a) the team will take a while to gel like the crews on the Target cars, and (b) being thrust into a great car from a midfield one, any driver takes a while to adjust to the talent and tools now at his or her disposal. For example, has Rahal yet experienced an oval car that was great from the start of a race to the finish and therefore only needed fine-tuning to make it a winner?
Meanwhile, his teammate in the Novo Nordisk car, Charlie Kimball, is a smart cookie for a rookie. The Indy Lights graduate won't overreach himself, but will instead gain confidence in the big cars, provide excellent feedback and, by the second half of the year, should be able to spring surprises.
Is 2011 the year that Team Penske captures its first title since 2006?
There's no reason why it shouldn't…but that's been the case for the last three years, too, and the team's come up short. Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power all have the breadth of driving talent to match the Ganassi boys at all tracks, but temperament, at least in the case of Briscoe and Castroneves, is more open to question. It's also fair to wonder if having team owner Roger Penske, team president Tim Cindric and A.N. Other calling the raceday strategy for individual drivers is the wisest course of action. Sometimes The Captain or Cindric pull tactical masterstrokes for “their” driver that could be best used to favor all three, or at least the one who's highest on the leaderboard and/or in the championship. Having RP and TC in more advisory roles could give the team an edge that Ganassi would struggle to combat. Also, all three pit crews need to be as slick as Franchitti's was in 2010.
Has Andretti Autosport lost its talisman by ditching Tony Kanaan?
No; that happened when Franchitti left at the end of 2007. Kanaan is a fast, determined and brave driver who, although the most senior of the AA lineup, struggled to guide the team out of its engineering disarray over the 2008-'09 seasons. Last year, he and Ryan Hunter-Reay liked similar setups on road and street courses and it was the American who made the most of them over the course of the season and made fewer mistakes. So it's good that team owner Michael Andretti has at least kept Ryan who has also become a fine oval racer.
With him are Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Mike Conway. Andretti, now entering his sixth year in the series, needs to win and show all around him that he's hungry to match his raw talent with dedication. Otherwise he's going to be shoved aside as one of racing's what-might-have-beens, which would be a sad waste of his ability.
Conway has much to prove following his leg-breaking shunt at Indy last year that curtailed his sophomore season after five rounds. If he's 100 percent recovered, look for him to be the quickest of the Andretti Autosport cars on occasion. He can learn a lot from Hunter-Reay.
So too, could Patrick who, for a second year, splits her time between IndyCars and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She remains quick on ovals (in an IndyCar, at least), and as she proved in her battle with Kanaan in last year's finale, she knows how to race hard, too. But while her loyalties are divided, she'll only progress as a by-product of team improvements.
Can Justin Wilson score Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's first win in a decade?
Yes, of course he can. He came close at Toronto last year, beat all but Power in St. Petersburg and all but Hunter-Reay in Long Beach. It's safe to say, therefore, that Wilson's a red-hot street course driver and the team has a good handle on setups for temporary circuits. Road courses were more of an issue, with D&R a step behind the big two teams, fighting Andretti Autosport to get into the Firestone Fast Six.
The revolving door attached to car No. 24's cockpit following Conway's Indy shunt was not helpful to team manager Larry Curry as he and the race engineers sought consistency of feedback, so while one of Wilson's 2011 teammates is a rookie – Ana Beatriz – at least she should be in for the whole year. If Dreyer & Reinbold's plan to step up its oval-testing program pays off and the third-car entry for Paul Tracy can be expanded beyond just the Indy 500 (a potential deal is being worked on right now), there could be big gains on banked ovals, matching the team's strong raceday showing at Indy last year.
Will the former FAZZT team shine under Sam Schmidt Motorsports?
It would have been sad if IndyCar's newest supergroup had dissolved following the departure of former team owner Andre Azzi. Sam Schmidt, who'd been looking at eventually expanding beyond his excellent Indy Lights operation, has promised not to break up the band that brought you hits like second on the grid at Sao Paulo (the team's debut!), fifth on the grid at Indy (beaten only by three Penskes and one Ganassi car) and fourth on the grid at Sonoma. Notice the common factor there? Yeah, qualifying provided most of the team's highlights in 2010. We've said it before: If Alex Tagliani and Co. have their best race performances and luck on the same weekends as their best qualifying performances, there could be podium finishes or better this year.
Is the J.R. Hildebrand/Panther Racing combo a potential top-five contender?
Hildebrand may be a rookie (OK, he has two starts under his belt, thanks to Dreyer & Reinbold last year) but the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion appears to have the right blend of pace, cool judgment and technical smarts to become one of the series' elite drivers in the years ahead. At Panther, he knows he has good oval setup data already, thanks to the performances of predecessor Dan Wheldon. As for road and street courses, neither the team nor J.R. are sure what they've got – again, thanks to the performances of Wheldon.
Also bear in mind that Hildebrand is a rookie without a teammate, a situation which surely hindered another Indy Lights champ, Raphael Matos in the now defunct De Ferran Dragon team. And, of course, J.R.'s chances aren't helped by the fact that there are now four Ganassi cars as well as three Penskes, and aces at Andretti Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold. Still, don't be surprised to see Hildebrand on a podium.
Are we on the brink of a Newman/Haas Racing revival?
If you witnessed this team in its pomp last decade, it was heartbreaking watching it struggle to rise higher than midfield in 2010. When Rahal was in a second car, there were flashes of pace, but Hideki Mutoh was there only because he brought money – and that emphatically is not what NHR is about. Oriol Servia is one guy that can prove that, providing excellent feedback, strong performances on all types of circuit and reinvigorating everyone behind the scenes. It's to be hoped that Indy Lights grad James Hinchcliffe, who looked so stellar in his tests with the team, can get in a second car. He clearly has much to offer.
Will Simona de Silvestro prove the real deal in 2011?
It's beginning to look very encouraging for the HVM Racing team, and it was de Silvestro's eye-catching performances and humility that enabled her to suck up the negatives that her rookie season threw at her. She reflected the stoicism of team owner Keith Wiggins who is a past master at absorbing misfortune and whose team suffered more than most in the switch from Champ Car to IndyCar in 2008.
Last year was grueling, too, for there were some spectacular and expensive accidents as Simona learned her way around ovals and occasionally allowed enthusiasm to overtake her on road courses. But, generally, de Silvestro is cool-headed, determined and quick. The loss of Michael Cannon was a last-minute kidney-punch, but Wiggins is wise with his money, so with funding from new sponsor Entergy, de Silvestro and HVM should continue to make good progress.
Will KV Racing's drivers turn potential into concrete results?
Takuma Sato and EJ Viso are quick drivers who too often let aggression bloom into overambition. Sato's accidents tend to be while running alone, while Viso's are made in the heat of battle. Late arrival, 2004 IndyCar champ Tony Kanaan, could be a major help here; it will be interesting to see how his setup knowledge contributes to KV's progress. Certainly he should know exactly what he wants from an oval car, so Sato and Viso would do well to listen up! If new team manager Tom Wurtz and general manager Mark Johnson can persuade all three to rein in their wilder sides, KV as a whole can flourish.
What are the prospects for A.J. Foyt Racing?
It's a team that rarely rises above midfield these days, yet A.J. Foyt's boys always answer the bell. However, the increasing depth in quality of the IndyCar field is making it ever harder for this team to reach the top 10 on road and street courses. Barring freak circumstances (as seen at Sao Paulo last year, when Vitor Meira snagged third place), the new colors on car No. 14 will only likely become prominent on ovals, where Meira is brave and stands his ground.
Will Bourdais take Dale Coyne Racing back to Victory Lane?
Not impossible but doubtful. The game has moved on since Justin Wilson's giant-killing performance for DCR in Watkins Glen two years ago, and there are too many very quick driver/team combos around now. However, Coyne's signing of Don Halliday to engineer and Phil LePan as team manager is a sign of serious intent and if SeaBass is the same driver who left Champ Car at the end of 2007, then there should be a several top-five finishes. However, Seb is only down to do the road/street course races, so who gets the No.18 for oval races hasn't been revealed.
Rookie teammate James Jakes is unlikely to be disgraced and will get better as the season goes on, but his résumé doesn't compare with that of the sadly absent Alex Lloyd.
Do Conquest Racing have a fighting chance?
If Sebastian Saavedra's money has secured his ride for the whole season, then Eric Bachelart's team can make progress with him. As he showed in Firestone Indy Lights, Saavedra has talent, but the jury's out on how big a talent that might be. Hopefully Conquest can provide him with a secure platform on which to show his worth, but the biggest favor Bachelart can do is pair him up with an experienced teammate, especially for road/street races.
That may not be the case for ovals, because there is the strong possibility another rookie, Pippa Mann, will drive the second Conquest car for the left-turn only tracks. She learned a lot at Sam Schmidt Motorsports last year and she could cause some surprises, but it's going to be daunting for her to make her race debut at the Indy 500 (as did Saavedra last year).
Can AFS Racing shine in its debut season?
Gary Peterson's intentions for his team only became concrete last week, so it will be interesting to see who and what team manager Neil Micklewright has pulled together over the course of the opening months of the year. However, with Matos – now in his third year in the series – in the cockpit and Tom Brown engineering, there is definitely cause for optimism.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.