Archive for October, 2019

Does Size Really Matter?

Posted in IndyCar on October 23, 2019 by Oilpressure

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First of all, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about race teams, not whatever entered your filthy mind when you read the title of this post. This past weekend, David Malsher of Motorsport.com wrote a very interesting article on an interview he had with Trevor Carlin, whose team entered the NTT IndyCar Series two seasons ago.

We always think of Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett as the go-to sources for anything that has to do with IndyCar, but I think that Malsher is one of the most underrated IndyCar writers out there. If you are not reading his stuff – you should be.

In this particular article, Carlin is afraid that if the Big Three keep growing, it will squeeze the little guy out. He predicts that if that happens, you will essentially have three mega-teams competing for race wins and the IndyCar crown. While I’m sure he was over-dramatizing the situation in order to make a point, it may not be as crazy as it sounds.

He is concerned that with Andretti Autosport expanding to five cars next year, and Ganassi expanding to three – it’ll be tough for a smaller team to crack the Top-Fifteen in any given race. I’m not sure I am completely buying what Carlin is selling, but he makes a few good and interesting points in the article.

But the thing is…I’m not convinced that over-expansion is the way to go. In my opinion, bigger is not always better and there is such a thing as too big.

During the CART days of the early 1990s, single-car teams could still win races and championships. Derrick Walker came within a half-a-car-length of winning the 1992 Indianapolis 500 and won the 500-miler at Michigan later that year. Hall/VDS won at Surfer’s Paradise as a one-car team in 1991. Bobby Rahal won the 1992 championship as the owner-driver of a single-car effort. Scott Goodyear won at Michigan for the second time in three years, while driving for Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King Racing in another single-car effort.

But the maximum size for a team was generally two cars. I never remember Newman/Haas ever running more than two cars in their entire existence. Ganassi was always a two-car fulltime team until 2001, when they made room for Scott Dixon when Pac West closed their doors. I’d say that move worked out for them.

Roger Penske doesn’t like for his team to be too big. For decades, it was rare for The Captain to run three fulltime cars. The first year he did it was in 1981, when he ran cars for Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and Bill Alsup. He scaled back down for two cars the following year and didn’t do it again until 1985, when he ran Danny Sullivan and Al Unser fulltime and Rick Mears on a partial schedule, as he recuperated from the severe foot, ankle and leg injuries he sustained at Sanair in the fall of 1984. The next year, he was back down to Mears and Sullivan fulltime, with Al Unser in a handful of races.

In 1990, Penske expanded the team to three fulltime cars for one year, in order to make room for Emerson Fittipaldi. The following season, it was back down to two as Danny Sullivan was not invited back at the end of his contract. It was a similar situation in 1994, when another expansion took place at Marlboro Team Penske in order to accommodate Al Unser, Jr.; but the following year it was back down to Fittipaldi and Little Al, as Paul Tracy was farmed out to Newman/Haas for a season. From that point, Team Penske operated under the two-car model for over a decade.

When the career of Helio Castroneves was in jeopardy due to his tax evasion trial that started in the fall of 2008, Roger Penske enlisted the services of the unemployed Will Power as a potential fill-in. Power tested throughout the offseason with Penske, but his fill-in role lasted a total of one race; since Helio was acquitted the Friday leading into the Long Beach race – the second race of the season. But Penske took note of Power’s ability and kept a part-time car for him for a few races.

2010 started the regular three-car era for Team Penske. Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe all enjoyed fulltime status at one of the best teams in the business. When Briscoe was not brought back in 2013, they momentarily ran only two full-time cars, but went back to three in 2014 – when Juan Montoya made his return to IndyCar for the first time since 2000.

In 2015, they did the unthinkable for The Captain – they expanded to a four-car effort to make room for Simon Pagenaud. They ran four cars for two seasons, before Montoya was shipped off to Penske’s sports car team and they contracted down to three. Penske and Tom Cindric have both stated that they would prefer to not run four full-time cars for the foreseeable future. Since 2017, Penske has scaled back to three cars and that seems to be their comfort zone.

In 2011, Ganassi expanded from two to four cars, with the newer cars being part of a satellite team. While one of those cars had several occupants, Charlie Kimball was the one constant in the other car. During that time frame, Chip Ganassi Racing won three championships – one with Dario Franchitti and the other with Dixon – so I’d say that four cars didn’t seem to be much of a distraction. Nevertheless, Ganassi pared back down to two cars for 2018 and 2019. For 2020, they will expand to three cars with the addition of Marcus Ericsson.

But when it comes to running multiple fulltime cars, Michael Andretti is the master. But has it really served Andretti Autosport well?

Since Michael Andretti bought Team Green from Barry Green for the 2003 season, when they only ran three fulltime cars, they have run less than four fulltime cars only one other season – 2012, when they ran three fulltime cars for James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Is it a coincidence that that season was the last year an Andretti Autosport car won the IndyCar championship?

Andretti cars won two championships in 2004 and 2005, when they were part of just a handful of teams that used Honda engines. After Honda became the sole engine provider in 2006, Andretti Autosport only won one more championship in the 2000s – when Franchitti won it in 2007. When they scaled back to three cars for 2012, Hunter-Reay won the championship with Chevy power. By 2013, Andretti was back to four drivers and they are still searching for their first championship since 2012.

If four is good, is five better? We are about to find out. I understand that Colton Herta and Harding Steinbrenner Racing were essentially satellite teams of Andretti Autosport. But next season, all five teams will be under one roof. Will that improve the situation over what they had in 2019, or will it be worse?

Personally, I think Andretti Autosport is spreading themselves too thin. But I can promise you this – many teams will be watching for various reasons. Teams like Penske and Ganassi will be watching to see how this works out. If Andretti Autosport takes the Top-Three spots in the championship in 2020, you can bet they will be copying the Andretti model shortly thereafter. If Andretti Autosport becomes an absolute train-wreck next season, that will be duly noted by their rivals also.

The Trevor Carlins and Dale Coynes of the paddock will also watch with great interest. They don’t want five and seven car teams to become the norm. Trevor Carlin stated in the David Malsher article that one thing that appealed to him about IndyCar was that there is always the chance for an underdog to get a big result. If that trend continues, Carlin said “…we would probably just pack up our bags and leave.”

This not-so-veiled threat puts IndyCar in a tough spot. They are not in a position to limit teams to a certain number of cars. With car-count down to twenty-two or twenty-three cars per race, we need every car we can get on the grid – no matter who owns it. But I can see Carlin’s point. If you are going against mega-teams with five cars or more, what are your chances when you are under-funded and your driver-lineup is unstable throughout the year? After a while, you get tired of qualifying on the back row every weekend and being a perennial backmarker – or even worse, a punchline.

Andretti Autosport may or may not succeed carrying five cars. Some say that in all actuality, it was a five-car team this past year. If that’s true, would you call the season a success? Their top driver faded in the last few races and finished third in points. Their only championship driver in their lineup failed to win a race this past season and finished eighth in points. Their other two drivers, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach, finished sixteenth and eighteenth in points respectively. Their “satellite” driver, Colton Herta, won two races and finished seventh in points.

All three of the Big Three had drivers in contention for the championship going into the last race. If you count Herta as part of the Big Three, which most people do, you have to go all the way to ninth in points to find a driver from outside the Big Three – and that would be Takuma Sato, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That fact alone sort of bolsters Trevor Carlin’s point.

The 2020 season is still almost five months away, and there are already several interesting storylines. Trevor Carlin just gave us another one to watch. I’ll admit I had never really given much thought about how expansion by the Big Three had the potential to crush the smaller teams. Now that he has brought it to our attention, the fortunes of Andretti Autosport as a five-car team will be another interesting tidbit to watch as the 2020 season unfolds.

George Phillips

Let Marco Decide When to Quit

Posted in IndyCar on October 21, 2019 by Oilpressure

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With the silly season still in full force, there has been a popular theme going around by fans suggesting that Marco Andretti should hang up his helmet and give up his seat for a more deserving driver.

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Where, When & How to do a Double-Header

Posted in IndyCar on October 18, 2019 by Oilpressure

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One week after winning his second NTT IndyCar Series championship, Josef Newgarden drove his Indy car with Shell/Pennzoil livery around the road course in an exhibition run inside Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR-types call it the Charlotte Roval, because it incorporates parts or the 1.5 mile oval of the track.

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Responding Like a Thoroughbred

Posted in IndyCar on October 16, 2019 by Oilpressure

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Before we get started, I wanted to acknowledge that it was eight years ago today that Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I chose not to write about it as I have a few times on this date because there is only so much one can say every year before the words start sounding hollow – and I certainly don’t want that to happen. But I will keep Dan Wheldon and his family in my thoughts today and hope each of you will do the same. – GP

It may seem that there have been a lot of recent posts here regarding McLaren’s upcoming fulltime IndyCar program in 2020. Well, it’s not your imagination. Last week, there were two posts here that were at least partially about the questions surrounding Arrow McLaren SP’s status. The week before that, there was one.

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Reserving the Right to Change My Mind

Posted in IndyCar on October 14, 2019 by Oilpressure

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Over the years, one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of people is to say that so and so never likes to admit that they’re wrong. My question is who does?

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A Surprising Twist in IndyCar’s Musical Chairs

Posted in IndyCar on October 9, 2019 by Oilpressure

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Put this in the category of “I didn’t see that coming”. Yesterday, Chip Ganassi announced that he has signed Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson to drive the heavily rumored third car at Chip Ganassi Racing. Perhaps there are some that suspected that move, but I didn’t. My friend Paul Dalbey of Fieldof33.com texted me about it yesterday afternoon and I was totally unaware of it. To say it caught me by surprise would be an understatement.

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Possibly a Blessing in Disguise

Posted in IndyCar on October 7, 2019 by Oilpressure

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Like just about any fan of the NTT IndyCar Series, I have drivers that I really like and a few drivers that I don’t really care for. Over time, drivers may go from one list to the other. For example, when Graham Rahal came into the series through unification in 2008, he was not my favorite for a few reasons. Over time, he won me over. I was flat-out wrong in some of my criticisms of the second-generation IndyCar driver, and Graham also evolved in other areas. Today, I rank Graham Rahal among my favorite drivers in the series.

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