By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season rapidly approaching, Motorsports Tribune is previewing each of the teams competing on the tour. The site’s IndyCar staff will break each team down, laying out their results from the previous season while previewing the year to come for the organization and their driver(s).
Team: Dale Coyne Racing
What Happened Last Year: A season that began with unexpected promise was undone by an injury for Dale Coyne Racing.
The company entered the 2017 IndyCar season with high hopes, having reacquired open wheel ace Sebastien Bourdais and paired him with promising rookie Ed Jones. Known traditionally for having at least one car with a rotating cast of drivers, owner Dale Coyne set his lineup early and began preparation for what he hoped would be a transformative year.
The season started better than most could have dreamed, with Bourdais rising from last on the grid to claim a victory in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg. The Frenchman followed the performance up with runs of second and eighth in the next two races to firmly establish himself in the championship chase heading into the spring, and even when a debacle at ISM Raceway left him 19th without completing a lap, Bourdais still carried lofty expectations into the Month of May.
Then everything fell apart.
Bourdais was in the midst of what appeared to be a run strong enough to lead the session in the opening day of Indianapolis 500 qualifying when he lost control of his No. 18 Honda, slamming the Turn 2 wall in a vicious shunt that left the 39-year-old with a fractured hip and pelvis. He would be sidelined for a significant portion of the season, with most assuming he wouldn’t return at all.
With Bourdais out, the No. 18 turned into the standard Coyne fair. Three drivers traded off the ride for the ensuing nine races.
James Davison subbed in at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, contending briefly for the victory after a solid strategy play before crashing out in 20th. Former Formula One shoe Esteban Gutierrez followed, competing in seven races with a best finish of 13th at Iowa Speedway. Tristan Vautier piloted the machine admirably in a one-off run at Texas Motor Speedway, running up front and leading 15 laps before being caught up in one of the race’s many crashes.
With the No. 18 surrounded by uncertainty, DCR leaned heavily on rookie Jones to carry the torch for the organization. The Dubai native performed well, earning a podium in his first Indy 500 and averaging a finish of 14.2 en-route to 14th in the standings.
Bourdais made an triumphant return to his No. 18 at Gateway Motorsports Park, running the final three races of the year with two top 10s. The season ended with expectations that Bourdais would return for 2018, while Jones departed for Chip Ganassi Racing.
2018 Breakdown: For the second-straight year Bourdais will find himself surrounded by youth, balancing mentorship with his attempt to surge to his first championship under the official IndyCar banner.
This time it’ll be two drivers – Pietro Fittipaldi and Zachary Claman de Melo – filling the second ride for Coyne. While their full schedules have yet to be announced, the early trends show Fittipaldi competing in oval races in Phoenix and Indianapolis, while Claman de Melo takes over the machine or road-and-street circuits.
Claman de Melo makes the move to Coyne after making one series start for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Sonoma Raceway in 2017. The Canadian is a graduate of the Mazda Road to Indy, having competed in Indy Lights for the past two seasons with Juncos Racing and Carlin.
Fittipaldi’s leap to IndyCar comes from the World Series 3.5 V8 Championship, where he scored a record nine poles en-route to a series championship. The grandson of open wheel legend Emerson Fittipaldi has a varied history despite his young 21-year-old age, having competed in everything from the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series to various formula tours in Europe.
Both Fittipaldi and Claman de Melo will lean heavily on Bourdais, who claimed four championships in what was then CART from 2004 through 2007 and has won at least one race in the past four IndyCar seasons. The rookies will be tasked with completing clean laps and gaining experience in their partial IndyCar seasons.
Bourdais’ aim will be simple – to begin 2018 in the same impressive manner he did in 2017. Should that be the case, then the former F1 driver should be in championship contention through the early stages of the season.