IndyCar season preview - we rate the drivers for 2014
There have been no rumors of buyouts and hostile takeovers. No CEOs have been amateurishly deposed. Sure, there’s been the occasional grumbling about such matters the upcoming season’s incredibly compact schedule and continued lack of television traction for the series. There’s likewise been disappointment from fans over popular drivers such as J.R. Hildebrand, Simona de Silvestro, and Conor Daly not earning full-time rides.
But all in all, by IndyCar standards it’s been a relatively quiet off-season. And this coming weekend, the newly christened Verizon IndyCar Series will after 161 idle days, return to the track in St. Petersburg, Florida, and commence its 2014 championship.
Of course, we here at AutoRacing1.com, have been preparing you for the IndyCar season for a few weeks now. If you happened to miss our special features IndyCar Head-to-Head, or the IndyCar Prediction Bake-off, feel free to check those out now. Today, however, using Vegas-style championship odds, AR1 will handicap the 2014 IndyCar field in our 2nd annual IndyCar Series preview.
Now, it should be noted that today’s analysis will cover the 20 drivers currently confirmed to contest the full-series championship. So, this won’t include whoever is later confirmed for the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Nor will the rotating road and street course/oval duo of Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter in the #20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.
But let the record show, that even without the formidable Carpenter/Conway combo or other part-timers such as Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Oriol Servia this is one very impressive field. Of the 20 scheduled full-time participants, 15 have won an Indy car race, 15 finished at least one race on the podium last season, and four have previously won Indy car series championships. And if you include Carpenter, Conway and Servia in the mix that makes 18 Indy car winners.
In short, while we spend a decent percentage of time highlighting the challenges facing IndyCar, from a promotional and commercial standpoint, “quality of field” is not on the list of problems. Below, we handicap the impressive 2014 field. Enjoy.
The Elite: Odds are probably better than even money, that the man who hoists the Astor Cup come late August (yes, the season will end in August) will be one of these three.
Will Power, 5/2
The likable, no-nonsense Aussie has scored an impressive 17 victories and 23 pole positions, both series highs, since joining Team Penske full-time in 2010. Of course, what has eluded Power, who finished runner-up in the series standings three consecutive seasons from 2010-2012, has been a series title.
In 2013, a difficult start to the season put Power out of contention for the championship early. However, the driver of the #12 Verizon Chevrolet would win three of the final five races. Particularly noteworthy was Power’s incredibly convincing win from pole in the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway, which he passionately called “the most satisfying win of my life.”
Power wins his first title if…He carries the momentum and conviction from the end of 2013 into 2014.
Scott Dixon, 5/2
Of course, to win that elusive title, Power has a very tall task: defeat three-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon.
Now, I’ve already gone to great lengths waxing poetic about the accomplishments of Dixon. And there’s little question, Dixon at 33 years-old is in the prime of his career. With the sport’s best team fully behind him, there’s no reason Dixon won’t win 3-5 races, and contend for victory at probably a half dozen more. Or stated another way: have an average Scott Dixon season.
Dixon wins the title if…He can continue to follow the tried and true Ganassi formula of relentlessly wearing down Power and Team Penske.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, 3/1
Hunter-Reay was something of a party-crasher in 2012, claiming the title from Power with a heady run in the season finale at Auto Club. Although RHR only managed 7th place in 2013, let the record show he was arguably better last season than in 2012’s championship campaign. In particular, RHR scored three pole positions in 2013, after earning only two in 9 previous seasons of Indy car competition.
Also, RHR has shown the ability to excel on all types of circuits. As the unquestioned lead driver at Andretti Autosport, RHR could greatly benefit from AA’s newfound status as the de facto Honda factory team.
RHR wins the title if…He combines the luck of 2012, with the qualifying form of 2013. Also, if Honda gains a performance advantage over Chevrolet, RHR will be more than a small thorn in the side of Dixon and Power.
Aspiring Insiders: The following could challenge for the series title with an improvement in form in a certain area.
Simon Pagenaud, 7/1
The fast, likable Frenchman and the Schmidt Petersen Motorsports team, just seem to get better and better all the time. Last season, Pagenaud followed up a surprise fifth-place in the 2012 championship with a third-place finish in the 2013 points race and his first two career victories.
Now, entering his third season for Schmidt-Petersen Motorsports, Pagenaud is competitive week in-week out, and unquestionably represents the best hope to unseat the big-3 teams, and drivers above in lifting the Astor Cup. The question with Pagenaud comes down to qualifying and oval tracks.
For example, Pagenaud did not post a top-5 qualifying effort through the season’s first 15 rounds in 2013, He also did not score a top-5 finish on an oval, and none of his 10 career podium finishes have been on an oval.
Prospects for Pagenaud: One-two victories and possibly more if the SPM boys up their qualifying and oval performance.
James Hinchcliffe, 8/1
The Mayor of Hinchtown had a breakout season in 2013, recording three victories in the first 10 races. Unfortunately, six finishes outside the top-20 and a less-than-stellar second half prevented Hinchcliffe from mounting a championship run.
Similar to Pagenaud, Hinchcliffe will need to up the qualifying game if he wants to unseat Power, Dixon and Hunter-Reay. And while The Mayor recorded five top-5 qualifying efforts through the first 11 races, he recorded none in the last 8.
Prospects for Hinchcliffe: The Mayor becomes a legitimate title contender if he can improve his qualifying performance and get more from his off weekends,
Sebastien Bourdais, 11/1
No one questions Bourdais’ talent. And in a Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti car, the four-time Champ Car titlist would undoubtedly be regularly running with Dixon, Power and RHR?
Prospects for Bourdais: A return to victory lane for the first time since 2007, and a possible top-5 in the championship.
Tony Kanaan, 12/1
Part of me says the move to Ganassi will give the 2013 Indy 500 champion a renewed energy and focus. And there’s no question that TK will benefit from the resources of what has been the best IndyCar team of this generation.
What I can’t overlook with Kanaan is the fact he has only recorded two podium finishes on road or street courses since 2009. If TK wants to challenge Power, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud, et al, his road and street course performance needs to improve.
Prospects for Kanaan: An oval win or two is a safe bet. While TK will improve upon his form from recent seasons, Target Chip Ganassi is about Scott Dixon. Kanaan will definitely be in the top-10 in the championship, but I don’t see him cracking the top-5.
Helio Castroneves, 13/1
2013 was something of an anomaly for Castroneves, who was amazingly consistent, posting top-10 finishes in 15 of the first 16 races. Of course, it all unraveled during the doubleheader weekend at Houston as the Brazilian posted a dreadful pair of finishes with an 18th Saturday and 23rd Sunday. Dixon would win Saturday and finish second on Sunday, and Castroneves’ title hopes essentially vanished.
Prospects for Castroneves: Difficult to predict. Can he build on last year’s impressive consistency? Or will having both Power and Juan Pablo Montoya as teammates render Castroneves the forgotten man at Team Penske?
Marco Andretti, 14/1
A 2012-2013 offseason driver apprenticeship in Europe paid dividends, as Marco Andretti scored a career-best fifth place finish in the championship standings. And if not some misfortune on the oval tracks, it could have been better as Andretti was victimized by poor strategy calls and mechanical fortune at places like Milwaukee and Pocono.
Of course, Andretti’s Achilles Heel has for many years and remains qualifying on the road and street courses, where he had 8 starts outside the top-10. If Andretti wants to take that next step and become a regular winner, that statistic must improve.
Prospects for Andretti: In a strange sort of way, Marco is a bit of a sleeper for 2014. It’s hard to imagine he won’t have better luck on the ovals. And if he can build on 2013’s improved form, particularly the road/street course qualifying...
Juan Pablo Montoya, 15/1
If there was ever a driver who fell into the “impossible-to-forecast” category it would be Montoya returning to Indy car racing after a 14-year absence, and 8-year absence from open-wheel formula cars.
Will Montoya’s reflexes be dulled from 7 years of taxi-cab racing as AR1 President Mark Cipolloni predicts? Or will that sublime talent that we saw in the CART days be on display as soon as this weekend?
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But the fact Montoya has trimmed down, been on the trail testing, and has the resources of Team Penske behind him probably forecast a more than favorable return to Indy car racing.
Prospects for Montoya: Who knows? But if I have to venture a guess, JPM will find victory lane once or twice, ruffle a few feathers in the paddock and keep that Dallara repair staff in Speedway, IN busy.
Justin Wilson, 18/1
Wilson returns to Dale Coyne Racing after an impressive 2013, in which he scored four podium finishes and finished 6th in the championship.
Prospects for Wilson: About the same as 2013, although probably not as high in the championship. Wilson maximizes the resources he has wherever he is, and will do the same in 2014 at DCR.
Ryan Briscoe, 20/1
I’ve long been of the belief that Briscoe lost some his mojo so to speak when Will Power arrived full-time at Penske. However, the likable Aussie is in the perfect position to gain it back as he returns to the Ganassi stable, after nearly a decade away.
Prospects for Briscoe: Hard to gauge. If Briscoe gets his 2008-2009 form back, he will emerge as the #2 driver at Ganassi, and be a top-5 title contender. My fear, however, is Briscoe will be something of a forgotten man amongst the many mouths to feed at the new-look Ganassi squad.
Charlie Kimball, 22/1
Kimball can be electric on his day. We saw this when he captured his maiden-victory last season at Mid-Ohio. And we’ve seen this to a lesser extent elsewhere (Toronto, 2012; Barber, 2013).
I don’t think Kimball qualifies well enough (no qualifying effort better than 5th last season) to be a regular race-winner. But can Kimball be more than the occasional party-crasher, and score a win or two? Absolutely!
Prospects for Kimball: Three-four podium finishes, a win , and somewhere between 8th-12th in the championship.
Graham Rahal, 30/1
Rahal’s first season driving for his father Bobby’s team was a rather forgettable one. And like many drivers in this area of the field, Rahal was plagued all season by poor qualifying efforts (only two top-10s).
With the lucrative National Guard funding now in place, and a beefed-up engineering staff, there is hope that RLL and young Rahal will take a leap forward in 2014.
Prospects for Rahal: The team will be better in 2014, but with no regular teammate in this era of limited testing, I see only a small improvement from last year’s dismal 18th place championship finish.
Josef Newgarden, 35/1
The likable Tennessee native quietly took a step forward during his sophomore campaign in 2013, scoring four top-5 finishes and his first career podium (2nd, Baltimore). And there’s no doubt young Josef has the ability to drive his way through the field. Last year, for example he drove from 23rd to 5th at Sao Paolo, and 16th to 5th at Pocono.
However, if Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing are to progress further in 2014, they cannot rely on charge-through-the-field drives every weekend, and do something about those 14 qualifying efforts outside the top-15.
Prospects for Newgarden: Everything with Newgarden and SFHR hinges on whether they improve the qualifying performance. If they do, a win, a couple podiums, and a top-10 championship finish are in the cards for Newgarden.
Carlos Munoz, 40/1
We know the talented 22-year old Colombian doesn’t lack in the intestinal fortitude department, as he showed with his shocking second-place finish last season at Indy. However, rookies have not fared well in recent years in Indy cars, and I imagine Munoz will struggle to keep pace regularly with his formidable Andretti teammates.
Prospects for Munoz: A podium finish or two. 2015, however, will be a different story.
Takuma Sato, 50/1
I was forced to eat my words early last season, after laying 150/1 odds on Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing to win the title. Yes, after winning at Long Beach and a second at Sao Paulo, ‘Taku’ entered the Indianapolis 500 as the surprise IndyCar Series championship leader.
The season, however, completely unraveled afterwards as Sato scored a mere one top-10 finish over the final 15 races, to finish 17th in the series standings. So, which Sato should we expect in 2014?
Prediction for Sato: A lot of DNFs with a few Sato trademark “absolutely light the world on fire” drives mixed in. The question, of course, is whether those magical drives can offset the crash damage, and keep one notoriously grumpy, not-exactly-known-for-his-patience Texan happy.
Mikhail Aleshin, 75/1
Aleshin’s signing with Schmidt Petersen Motorsports last fall, registered a rather large number on the “Where on earth did that come from?” meter. However, Aleshin locking his deal down with SPM early, has meant a full-testing program for the Russian Formula Renault 3.5 veteran, something his predecessor with the team Tristan Vautier did not have the benefit of.
Prospects for Aleshin: Aleshin will benefit from the testing miles, and the fact SPM went through the teething pains of adding a second car in 2013. While that team is 100% about Pagenaud, Aleshin will finish top-15 in the championship and score a podium finish or two.
Sebastian Saavedra, 80/1
Saavedra is a bit of a head-scratcher. He quietly turned in some strong qualifying efforts last season (9th at both St. Pete and Barber). However, he struggles to put together entire weekends, and last season didn’t register a top-20 qualifying effort over the last nine races.
Prospects for Saavedra: He’ll be better than he was in 2013. But a top-15 championship finish would be a good season.
Jack Hawksworth, 100/1
The 22-year old Brit comes to the top-level IndyCar Series with a pretty impressive resume. He won 8 races in 2012 en route to the Star Mazda Championship. Last season, in Indy Lights, Hawksworth won three races and 2 poles. This year he will pilot the #98 Honda for Bryan Herta Autosport.
Prospects for Hawksworth: This program showed some signs of life with Luca Filippi late last season. However, I’m not sure Hawksworth is ready to carry the team. Like Saavedra, a top-15 championship finish would be a good season for Hawksworth.
We hope you enjoyed. Both myself and AR1 President Mark Cipolloni will be on the ground this weekend in St. Pete. Check in regularly with AR1 for updates.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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