Once Josef Newgarden settled down at Team Penske, he found himself embroiled in a five-way tussle for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship, and the young American came out on top after seventeen hard-fought races.
All four full-time Penske drivers were in contention right until the end of the season, and each were victorious along the way, while Scott Dixon was his usual impressive self, being the sole Chip Ganassi Racing and sole Honda challenger for the crown against the charge from Chevrolet.
Of course there were others that played their part, with Takuma Sato becoming the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500, with victories across the season also coming to Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi, while it was the last season of aero kit competition between Honda and Chevrolet before a standardised aero kit gets introduced in 2018.
Newgarden Joins Penske, Bourdais Re-Joins Coyne
One of the biggest talking points pre-season was the switch of Newgarden from Ed Carpenter Racing to Penske in place of Juan Pablo Montoya, who was ultimately relegated to the role of part-timer for the two races at Indianapolis, while Bourdais joined Dale Coyne Racing after KV Racing Technology closed their doors, where he was joined by 2016 Indy Lights champion Ed Jones.
Sato made the move to Andretti Autosport in place of Carlos Muñoz, who moved the other way to AJ Foyt Racing, with the Colombian being joined there by Conor Daly following his own departure from the Coyne team, while JR Hildebrand made a full-time return to IndyCar as he replaced Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing.
There was also a welcome addition to the calendar for 2017, with the Gateway International Raceway returning to the championship for the first time since 2003, extending the season to seventeen races, which began around the Streets of St. Petersburg in March and ended six months later at Sonoma Raceway.
Ten for Penske, Four for Newgarden
The year may have started with seven different winners in the opening seven races, but Penske were the team to beat all season long, taking eleven pole positions and ten race victories, with Newgarden, 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud, 2014 champion Will Power, and long-term Penske stalwart Helio Castroneves all finding themselves on the top step of the podium.
Newgarden took four of those victories, with the first of his Penske career coming in just his third race at Barber Motorsports Park, capitalising on problems for team-mate Power, while his second victory of the year came as a result of a perfectly timed pit stop in the Honda Indy Toronto, which came as Tony Kanaan crashed in the tyre wall and brought out the caution flags.
Newgarden was already in the pits when the flags flew, giving him track position when the pits reopened, and from there on, he dominated the race, and promptly followed the victory in Canada with another win at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, with his final win coming at Gateway.
2016 champion Pagenaud did everything he could to retain his crown but came up thirteen points short, and only took two victories, the first at the Phoenix International Raceway in April before closing out the season with a second consecutive victory at Sonoma.
Power’s season started terribly, with three results well outside the top ten in the opening three races, while it was round five – the road course at Indianapolis – where he took the first of three victories in 2017. His other two wins both came in oval events, with the Australian winning at both Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
Castroneves took a sole victory at Iowa Speedway, his first win since 2014 at Detroit, but once again the Brazilian was unable to add the IndyCar crown to his trio of Indianapolis 500 victories, and will now leave the championship in 2018 to join Penske’s effort in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Dixon Shows it is not All About Penske…
There is a case to say the Scott Dixon is the best IndyCar driver of the current era, with the New Zealander often putting his Honda-powered Dallara where it ought not to be, and in 2017, he kept himself involved in the championship battle right until the end, only to fall short by twenty-one points.
The Kiwi, a four-time series champion, was the only one of the four Chip Ganassi Racing drivers to take victory in 2017, with his sole victory coming at Road America. His six other top-three finishes kept him in the hunt, but against a four-prong Penske challenge, it was always going to be hard work for Dixon, and although he went into the final race of the season in contention, it was too much for him to overcome.
Dale Coyne Racing started the year with a victory, with Bourdais coming through from the back of the grid to win around the Streets of St. Petersburg, meaning the team led the championship standings for the first time in their history.
James Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports took the spoils around the Streets of Long Beach, while Bourdais retained the early championship lead with second, while a final lap crash for Hildebrand after contact with Mikhail Aleshin ruled him out of the following race at Barber Motorsports Park, where Zach Veach deputised to make his IndyCar debut.
Sato Takes The Big One
Following a trio of victories for Penske drivers at Barber, Phoenix and around the road course at Indianapolis, thirty-three drivers took part in the 101st running of the legendary Indianapolis 500, with the headline attraction coming from Formula 1, with Fernando Alonso joining Andretti Autosport in conjunction with McLaren.
The Spaniard was quickly up to speed, and amazed many by qualifying inside the top five on his very first oval race, but there was heartbreak for Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing, with the Frenchman suffering multiple fractures to his pelvis and hip that ruled him out for eight races.
Qualifying saw Dixon take pole position with a mighty four-lap run at an average of more than 232mph, while Ed Carpenter and 2016 winner Rossi joined him on the front row, but for the polesitter, his race was run early with a spectacular exit after a collision with Jay Howard that saw him lucky to walk away unscathed, with the race being red flagged while repairs were made to the catch fencing.
Fifteen drivers took turns at the front of the field, including Alonso and James Davison, who was drafted in to replace the injured Bourdais ahead of Carb Day, though Newgarden surprisingly was not one of those to hit the front, though all of his team-mates did, including Montoya.
Max Chilton led the most laps at fifty, but in the end it came down to a battle for the win between Castroneves and Andretti Autosport’s Sato, with the Japanese racer prevailing by just 0.2011 seconds at the end of the 500 miles, while Ed Jones finished third and the leading rookie, 0.5278 seconds back despite having a damaged front nose for the last stint!
Alonso’s challenge, much like the challenges of team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball, ended in engine failure, but there was no denying that the two-time Formula 1 World Champion made his mark on the legendary event.
After coming so close but ending up in the wall on the final lap of the 2012 event, Sato finally put that disappointment to bed to take the chequered flag, taking Andretti Autosport’s third victory in four years, and etching his name into the history books of the legendary race.
Rahal and Rossi Show they are not just making up the numbers
Following the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar made the trip to Detroit for the now traditional double header, and for the first time one driver made the weekend his own, and this driver was Graham Rahal.
Detroit was one of only three weekend’s all season where Rahal had a team-mate, with Oriol Servia partnering him in the Indy 500 and in Detroit, while Zachery Clement De Melo made his debut at Sonoma, but the weekend at Motor City was firmly his, with two wins and the most laps led in both events.
Penske took six of the next seven victories, with only Dixon’s triumph at Road America breaking up the party, but the penultimate round of the season at Watkins Glen International saw Rossi finally add a second IndyCar victory to his 2016 Indy 500 win, the former Formula 1 driver dominating ahead of Dixon, while Newgarden suffered one of his rare off days, hitting the wall at the exit of the pit lane and ending up right at the back of the field.
The consistency of Rahal and Rossi over the second half of the season meant the duo were comfortable inside the top seven in the championship standings, and by far the best of the rest behind the Penske quartet and Dixon.
Honourable mentions to Jones, who became de facto team leader at Coyne following Bourdais’ injury, and to Hunter-Reay, who claimed a trio of podiums at the Indianapolis Road Course, Iowa Speedway and Watkins Glen International, while Hildebrand took two podiums of his own, third at Phoenix and second at Iowa.
Looking at the results of 2017, there should be no real complaints that the championship went to one of the Penske drivers, but for it to go to a driver who was in his first year with the team was remarkable.
Josef Newgarden has long been a fan favourite, with his personality often showing through, but he let his driving do the talking in 2017, with four wins and five further podiums helping him clinch the title.
Of course there were down moments, such as his Indy 500 performance and his off-key weekend at Watkins Glen, but these were fewer and far between. It took him two races to get a podium for Penske and three to take a win, and once the confidence was there, he was a contender right until the end of the season.