By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer
With a little less than two months remaining in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ agonizingly long off-season, teams are preparing in earnest for the 2016 season.
When the green flag waves at St. Pete on March 13, expect a field that looks remarkably similar to 2015. There was no major driver movement within the top teams and we should see some familiar faces in victory lane along the way.
Some of the changes that we will see include the return of Mikail Aleshin to the Schmidt-Pererson Team. In 2014, the Russian driver put on an impressive rookie campaign, despite never having raced on any of the tracks in the past.
Aleshin was forced to sit out 2015, recovering from injuries sustained at Fontana, compounded with issues in the Russian economy. Aleshin was funded by SMP, the largest banking firm in the former Soviet Union. It appears that those issues are now resolved, paving the way for his return to the IndyCar Series.
Also returning to the Schmidt-Peterson team will be James Hinchcliffe. The popular Canadian driver sat out the bulk of the 2015 season recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained in a practice crash at Indianapolis.
Now, fully recovered, Hinchcliffe will be a welcome addition back to the IndyCar paddock.
As far as young American drivers are concerned, its a good-news / bad-news situation. Good news for Conor Daly who will have his first full-time ride in the series with Dale Coyne Racing. Daly, who is the son of Formula One driver Derek Daly, has been actively seeking a full-time spot since 2013.
His performance subbing for Hinchcliffe in selected 2015 events undoubtedly helped his chances, and I feel that he will make the most of the opportunity.
On the bad news edge of the spectrum we find young Sage Karam, who had a part-time ride with Ganassi in 2015. Karam’s 2015 season featured mixed results, and a bit of controversy surrounding his aggressive driving.
With that being said, Karam was essentially released from his loose contract with Ganassi to look elsewhere. Karam has secured an Indy 500 ride with Dreyer & Reinbold at this point, with nothing else solid on the horizon.
The 2015 Championship once again came down to a dual between Ganassi and Penske drivers with Ganassi’s Scott Dixon winning the title on virtue of a tie-breaker with Penske Racing’s Juan Montoya.
While we should certainly see these two teams become major players in the Championship, some of the more compelling stories came out of two of the smaller teams on the grid: Carpenter/Fisher/Hartman and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan.
Both these teams had multiple wins, with RLL’s Graham Rahal getting close to the title. Rahal led the Honda contingent last season, and looks for improvement in 2016.
Honda teams were granted additional development on their aero package, and they will continue development with their power plant. Rahal participated in a test at Sebring last week along with the three Andretti Autosport drivers. It remains to be seen how Honda’s tweaks to the aero kit and engine will perform head-to-head against Chevrolet, but early indications from the drivers involved with the test have been quite positive.
With Steak n’ Shake signed on as a 2016 sponsor, the Rahal team is actively looking to add a second car to their team, at least on a part-time basis.
On the other end of the spectrum, at CFHR, the situation appears to be little clearer than mud. Josef Newgarden was brilliant taking a couple of wins with the team formed by the merger of Ed Carpenter Racing with Sarah Fisher’s team.
Recent reports have indicated that the third partner, Wink Hartman, will pull his financial support leaving the Fisher half of the partnership in jeopardy. Ed Carpenter still has Fuzzy’s Vodka on as a sponsor, but it remains to be seen what will happen to Josef Newgarden should Fisher become unable to round up some sponsor dollars.
Carpenter ran an oval-only season in 2015 with Luca Fillipi occupying the seat of the #20 car on the road courses. The possibility exists that Newgarden could move to that car should Ed Carpenter see fit. This is a developing story that could have a drastic effect on the 2016 car count.
With Andretti Autosport and Ganassi Racing both likely to scale down to three full-time cars apiece, and a second entry for KVSH Racing technology up in the air, the entry list could drop below 20 cars running a full season.
While we may indeed see a depleted grid for much of the season, it looks as if the Indy 500 will have a full field, with the possibility of some bumping. With the much-anticipated 100th running of the event on deck for 2016, only the Kentucky Derby and the World Series can claim a longer pedigree for American Professional Sports.
The Speedway has been abuzz with activity implementing a number of improvements before the Month of May. Dubbed Project 100, expect to see a vastly different Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the IndyCar Series arrives.
The Speedway recently announced Penn Grade Motor Oil as a presenting Sponsor of the event. Some racing purists have called this blasphemy, while other, more realistic, folks like myself, welcome the support to a series that had been hit hard with financial issues.
In addition to the 100th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, 2016 will also see the return of two traditional open-wheel venues, Phoenix and Road America. The two tracks are as different as night and day. Phoenix is a tight one mile oval, while Road America boasts a sprawling 4-mile long road course through a beautiful wooded area of Wisconsin.
Drivers and fans alike are thrilled with the return of these two tracks, as well as a new street course in Boston. The Boston Grand Prix has been mired in controversy, largely due to protests from residents of the area, and local politics.
Slated for a Labor Day weekend debut, it appears that every thing is a go, and the event has the Mayor’s blessing: for now…This, again, is a developing story to keep your eyes on in 2016.
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series will feature sixteen races at fourteen venues in a season that begins on March 13 and runs through September 18. Stay tuned.