Season Preview: 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series

Credit: Bret Kelley / Courtesy of IndyCar

There is just one week to go until the much anticipated 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series gets underway with its opening round of the season, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Over the last few years, the Verizon IndyCar Series has continued to provide some of the closest and most exciting single seater racing on the planet.

This year is unlikely to be any different. Ahead of the teams and drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series lies a seventeen race calendar that mixes traditional road courses such as Mid-Ohio, tight and technical street courses like Long Beach, and finally the unique and fearsome challenge of high-speed ovals such as the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the biggest race of the season; the Indianapolis 500. Six races this year will take place on ovals, with a further six being held on road courses. The remaining five races will be run on city streets.

Other highlights of the calendar will include the long-awaited return of Oregon’s Portland International Raceway after an eleven-year absence; replacing the slot in the calendar that had been occupied by the sadly absent Watkins Glen. As has been the case the last few years the series will conclude at the superb Sonoma Raceway in California.

The main headline heading into the 2018 season, however, is the major shake-up in the regulations, predominantly focused on the design of the cars themselves. For the three seasons prior to this year, the design of the aerodynamic body-kits had been specific to the manufacturer of the engine. Honda and Chevrolet would have their own specific aero designs for both the circuit and oval races. For this season, that changes.

This year, the Verizon IndyCar Series introduces the universal aero-kit. The series has two aerodynamic configurations, one for the circuits, one for the ovals. These must be used by all cars, regardless of what engine they use. What’s more, whilst the cars still use the Dallara DW12 chassis base that has been used since 2012, the aerodynamic elements fitted to the cars have been massively trimmed back. The cars have significantly less downforce than their predecessors, which has led to the cars being much more of a handful to drive. This has the potential to completely change the style of driving and racing that we are going to see over the coming months.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Once again, the Verizon IndyCar Series has attracted a fantastic mix of drivers from all over the world and from a variety of different racing backgrounds. As it stands, twenty drivers have signed up to compete in all seventeen rounds, with a further eighteen set to compete on a part-time basis; many of which taking part solely in the Indianapolis 500. Eleven teams will have representation from at least one driver at every round of the season, so let’s take a look through the list, starting with the teams most likely to be in the running for the title this year.

The reigning champion heading into this season is Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden. The young American set the series alight last year in his first year racing for Penske. He’ll be looking to become the first driver since Dario Franchitti to successfully defend his championship. Newgarden’s two full-time team-mates have also previously won the championship. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power will be hoping that 2018 will see them return to the top. The trio will also be rejoined by Helio Castroneves for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as the Indianapolis 500; with Helio only racing the two races after having been moved by his team to race full-time in IMSA for 2018.

The only non-Penske driver to have won the title in the last five years is Chip Ganassi Racing‘s four-time champion, Scott Dixon. The formidable partnership of Dixon and Ganassi will continue into its seventeenth consecutive year in 2018, with Dixon hoping to win his fifth series title; a result that would make him the driver with the most titles in the championship’s history. Dixon will be joined by just one team-mate this year, with sophomore driver Ed Jones being given a fantastic chance by Ganassi to compete with a top team.

Once again hoping to take the title fight to Penske and Ganassi will be the Andretti Autosports team. The team, helmed by Michael Andretti, will field four full-time cars in the series this year. 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive his signature DHL #28 Honda yet again. Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti remain with the team for another year but will swap car numbers for this season. The trio will be joined by a rookie in the fourth Andretti car. Zach Veach will compete for rookie of the year honours as he replaces reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato in the #26 car. For the Indianapolis 500, Stefan Wilson and Carlos Munoz will compete in a further two Andretti cars.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Sato’s departure from Andretti Autosports leads him back to his former home of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. There, he will join Graham Rahal in a two-car effort from the midfield team, with a third car set to race at the Indy 500 with an as yet unnamed driver. The team are very capable of challenging for race wins, but they will need to be taking those wins on a regular basis if they want one of their drivers to challenge for the title.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises are in a similar position to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Their two-car team will be bolstered by a great signing in the form of series veteran Tony Kanaan; who was left out in the cold after Ganassi’s downsize from four cars to two. A.J. Foyt Enterprises will become an all Brazilian affair this year, with Kanaan joined by the exciting rookie and former British F3 champion, Matheus Leist.

Whilst A.J. Foyt becomes an all-Brazilian outfit for this year, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will turn to an all-Canadian team. Former IndyCar series race winner James Hinchcliffe will be joined by fellow countryman and rookie, Robert Wickens. Robert will make his return to single seater after spending several years in Europe racing in the DTM series. The team will also include a part-time effort from British driver Jack Harvey, who will race under the Michael Shank Racing banner. A fourth SPM car is also expected to be run for the Indy 500, with British driver Jay Howard behind the wheel. The team did secure a victory last year at the second round of the season in Long Beach, but it was downhill from there for SPM, with Hinchcliffe finishing outside of the top ten in the standings at the end of the season The team will be hoping for better this time around as they continue to challenge their fellow midfield runners.

Joining the previous three teams on the list of potential ‘giant killers’ is Dale Coyne Racing. Their full-time 2018 driver, Sebastien Bourdais, was right up at the front of the standings after the first few races last year. However, the Frenchman was sidelined for most of the year after a hard crash during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 left him with multiple fractured ribs. Sebastien will have been rueing what might have been last year but will now be more determined than ever to have a strong season in which he could possibly be a dark horse for the championship.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

The second full-time Dale Coyne car will be shared by two drivers. Canadian driver, Zachary Claman De Melo, will be behind the wheel of the #19 car for ten races of the year, with Brazilian driver and Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi taking to the track in the remaining seven races. There will be much anticipation to see whether Fittipaldi can follow in the footsteps of his Grandfather, Emerson Fittipaldi, by managing to win the Indianapolis 500 in May. The team will field a further two cars just for the Indy 500. Pippa Mann will race one of them, with another unknown driver taking the other seat.

Ed Carpenter Racing will field two full-time cars in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar series. Spencer Pigot will drive the #21 for all seventeen races of the season. Team owner Ed Carpenter will take the wheel of the sister #20 car for the six oval races of the season, with British driver and former GP2 Series race winner Jordan King being given the car for the remaining road course and street circuit races.

ECR will also field a third car for the Indianapolis 500. That seat will go to Danica Patrick, who will make her much anticipated return to the IndyCar Series having last raced in 2011. Patrick’s appearance in the Indy 500 this year will be her last race before retiring from motorsport. She’ll be hoping that she can find the speed that she used to have at the Brickyard so that she can cap off her career with a long sought-after win in the world-famous race.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series will see two teams compete full-time for the first time. After having made their series debut last year in three races, Harding Racing will step up to full-time competition with their driver Gabby Chaves. The new team defied all odds in the first race at the Indianapolis 500 last May when they took a superb ninth place finish. This was followed up by a fantastic fifth place finish a few races later at Texas Motor Speedway before falling back to fifteenth at their final appearance of the year at Pocono Raceway. The team will be hoping that their respectable results were not a case of ‘beginners luck’ as they strive to be a regular feature in the top ten throughout 2018.

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

The final full-time team of 2018 is an exciting prospect indeed. During the winter, Carlin made perhaps the biggest leap of their illustrious single-seater history so far by confirming their full-time, two-car entry into the Verizon IndyCar Series for this year; thus becoming the first British team to race in the full series. The team have made a name for themselves after having competed at seemingly every level of European single-seater racing except for Formula One. 

Carlin will reunite with their former GP2 driver, Max Chilton, for their IndyCar assault. His team-mate will be Charlie Kimball, with both having come to the team after being dropped from Ganassi at the end of last year. Both Chilton and Kimball’s prior experience in the series will be of great importance to the team, who will be the only full-time team to enter the year with not a single race under the belts so far. Pre-season testing has been encouraging for the squad so far, but we won’t get an accurate reading on how well they could perform this year until they get to St. Petersburg for the first race.

A further three teams will race on a much more reduced schedule in 2018. Juncos Racing will take part in eight of the seventeen races this year. Austrian driver Rene Binder will share the Juncos #32 car with the reigning Indy Lights series champion, Kyle Kaiser.

The remaining two teams will race in the Indianapolis 500 only. Lazier Partners Racing will aim to get Buddy Lazier to qualify for his twentieth Indy 500, whilst Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will field an as yet unnamed line-up of two cars into the world famous motor race.

With such an exciting mix of series veterans, growing young talents and exciting rookies, the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series is set to be yet another fantastic year of incredible racing. Thankfully, there’s not too much longer to wait until the series kicks off. The season-opening race, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, takes place on March 11. Be sure to check out the TCF race preview for St. Petersburg that will be released on Wednesday.