Categories
Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY’S OUTLOOK: Penske Is Looking Toward The Future, Now.

There is a reason that Helio Castroneves may be leaving the full-time Verizon IndyCar Series fleet after this season.

It is not due to diminished skills, the Brazilian’s triumph Sunday at the Iowa Corn 300 and his high placing on the current championship points table disposes of that theory. Yours truly thinks this is a move to bolster not only a new entity (IMSA sports car team), but also maintain a solid foundation on the other (IndyCar).

Team Penske’s return to the prototype ranks for the first time in nine years with Acura and ORECA has the chance to show the same muscle flexed during a three-year run with Porsche from 2006 to 2008. Recall that span resulted in class titles and an overall win at the 12 Hours of Sebring in its final season.

The squad has one solid cog in the form of Juan Pablo Montoya, who in addition to winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, has done likewise at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Having already spent three years as a teammate to Castroneves, this increases the chances of a successful pairing in IMSA.

So what about the IndyCar operation? If Penske decreases its full season entry to just three cars, the organization enters 2018 still as a favorite. Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden are all well within their prime years and should continue to contend for wins and a series crown next season. However, if the team remains at a quartet of participants, there is a bigger reason why the Captain may be making a move now.

For comparison purposes for those familiar with the NFL, Roger Penske’s philosophy is very similar to that of former San Francisco 49ers head coach and general manager Bill Walsh. Walsh was not a guy that looked at the current scenario to influence his transactions. The Super Bowl-winning manager always glanced two to three years down the road, and that’s what I feel the Captain is doing with the future of his IndyCar team.

At this time, there are a couple of notable IndyCar prospects who could become hot property during the upcoming silly season, based first on the situation involving Castroneves at Penske, but also the future of Tony Kanaan at Chip Ganassi Racing. TK, like Helio, is on the other side of 40, and his ability and desire to continue another season is a question mark. If both Brazilians are out of full-time service, the timing of the Penske to IMSA announcement could give the Captain and Tim Cindric the first choice of a replacement.

The two big fish to snap up appear to be in the back half of the grid. One is Carlos Munoz, who has suffered through a horrendous year at A.J. Foyt Racing. Of course, the Colombian had success at Andretti Autosport, keeping his value high. The other target could be Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones, the likely winner of the 2017 Rookie of the Year award. The Dubai-based pilot finished third at this year’s Indianapolis 500, but has had a bit of a trial by fire period as the team leader following the month of May accident to teammate Sebastien Bourdais. Joining a bigger group could ease the pressure on the former Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion.

While replacing Castroneves may not be a favorable move in the short term, it could allow Penske to continue to dominate the IndyCar circuit for many years to come.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Will 2017 Indy 500 Mimic Last Year’s?

Four races into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, the focus shifts to two big events this month – the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, followed by the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later.

With the Diamond Desert West Valley Grand Prix of Phoenix now complete, questions have arisen, including this will scenarios influencing last year reveal themselves in 2017?

As was evidenced last year, Chevrolet prevailed at Phoenix and Honda struggled to keep up. However, when the teams made their way to Indy, the tide changed. Honda won the pole position with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe and fellow manufacturer affiliate Andretti Autosport led a majority of the laps on race day, with Alexander Rossi taking the trophy. Let’s look at what could allow for a similar story.

Andretti Autosport has strength in numbers with six cars in their stable. One of them is driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who until suffering a pit road collision seemed primed to win the 1ooth Indianapolis 500. The team however, does have some hurdles to jump. They enter May just removed from frustrating results at Phoenix by all four full-time pilots. Also they are without Carlos Munoz, who joined A.J. Foyt Racing during silly season. Finally, there is the presence of current Formula One driver Fernando Alonso that could present a roadblock to their goal of victory. The Spaniard garners attention, but will his inclusion take away from the effectiveness of its regulars?

There are also questions raised from some of the other Honda teams. Chip Ganassi Racing returns to HPD’s camp for the first time since the 2013 Indy 500. CGR’s pairing with the engine option since IndyCar began using the Dallara DW12 chassis a year previous has been hot and cold. In 2012, CGR surged from mid-pack to grab a one-tw0 sweep for Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. The following year, Ganassi could not replicate the result as they fared no better than 14th.

Unknowns also surface around 2016 pole winners Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, who enter this May at a slight disadvantage. After being held out of a portion of the IndyCar oval test last month at Texas Motor Speedway due to an engine rule violation, SPM has less experience with the new aero package as opposed to some others who will be in Gasoline Alley.

Now things are not all rosy for the Chevrolet party either. Team Penske has momentum following back-to-back IndyCar wins, but early season triumphs were not backed up last year. The Captain’s quartet failed to make an impact on race day as contact and misfortune pushed them out of contention. Without GM’s top dog, Honda took center stage.

The question is who will step up to uphold the Bow Tie’s legacy if Penske cannot?  Although four Chevy runners placed in the first ten in 2016, two of those squads are absent this year. As mentioned, Ganassi Racing has crossed over to rival territory, and KV Racing ceased operations. The missing in action reports, leave Ed Carpenter Racing as GM’s second in command. While J.R. Hildebrand enters this month off an excellent effort at Phoenix, team boss Carpenter was stuck among the back markers all weekend.

So in summary, Embury’s Outlook sees how an Indianapolis 500 close to a year ago could occur. However, five major threats from Chevrolet will keep the big three sharks from HPD honest from day one of practice.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

Engineer Swaps Could Be Key to Success

When the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season ended everyone was on notice that Team Penske would be the team to beat. With its four drivers, Simon Pagenaud (5 wins and the 2016 Championship), Will Power (4), Juan Pablo Montoya (1), and Helio Castroneves (0), the team racked up ten victories in sixteen events. Maybe not a surprise as Team Penske is known for its ultra professionalism and its name is synonymous with success.

This Chevrolet-powered team greatly contributed to the domination of Honda, the other engine manufacturer in the series. Scott Dixon (2 wins) driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, Sebastien Bourdais (1) for KVSH Racing, and Josef Newgarden (1) for Ed Carpenter Racing gave Chevy its other four victories. Honda, however, did win the most coveted event, the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, with rookie Alexander Rossi driving for Andretti Autosport. Also winning for Honda was Graham Rahal (driving for his father’s team – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), by stealing a victory at Texas from fellow Honda driver, James Hinchcliffe (driving for Schmidt Peterson Racing). 

Making it even harder for teams to get to Winner’s Circle this year is the freeze on the development of aero kits that both Chevy and Honda designed (kits consisting of front and rear wings, side pods, and engine cover). And, while Honda seemed to be stronger than Chevy on superspeedways, Chevy won all the road, street course, and short oval events. So if an engine manufacturer didn’t have the optimal design as the 2015 season ended, the rules prohibit changes.

One of the ways to obtain ideas on how to improve your effort is to hire people away from winning teams. And, with the majority of the IndyCar team shops located in the Indianapolis area, it makes it very easy for personnel to change employers. 

RLLR hired Tom German who was Rossi’s engineer last season at Andretti and before that had over ten years at Team Penske.

“We brought on Tom German to help out on the engineering front with specialty projects, particularly because Indianapolis was such a struggle,” explained Rahal. “German brought with him a wealth of knowledge. German implemented some of the processes that say a Penske does in areas that we weren’t that strong. Even areas we actually thought we were, and he looked at and suggested a whole bunch of stuff, At Iowa I struggled with massive tire vibration issues the last couple years; I had no hope. Yet, he’s cured me of that. On the preparation side of things, German has already pinpointed things we need to do.

“My hope, as a Honda guy through and through, is that the engine can continue to improve and overcome what the aero kit lacks. There is no doubt that there are aero kit inefficiencies. It is a little bit tough going into a season knowing we’re going to have the same uphill battle we’ve had for the last couple years. I actually believe that Honda on the engine side is pretty strong and will continue to develop. Horsepower can overcome anything!”

Newgarden won on the shortest oval in 2016, the Iowa race. His engineer at ECR, Jeremy Milless (pictured), was recently hired to fill the vacancy at AA as Rossi’s engineer. Certainly, Ryan Hunter-Reay will appreciate his expertise after his struggles at Iowa last season.

“Eric Bretzman has been brought over from Ganassi’s NASCAR program (formerly Dixon’s IndyCar engineer) as Technical Director (of Andretti Autosport),” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 IndyCar champion. “He asked what our biggest complaint was and why we weren’t addressing it.

“We also have Jeremy from ECR. One track really threw us for a loop last year. We’ve always been very, very strong at Iowa. It just completely turned on its head for us last year. In the past, I knew exactly where to put the car, what I could do with the wheel over the bumps – what I could get away with, and the car would be forgiving. This past race every bump I went over was trying to turn the car around. It was almost terrifying to drive because it was only a matter of time before something bad would happen. I can’t say I was overly disappointed when the engine expired.

“We know the areas we need to improve in and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. There’s no reason why we can’t win four or five races.”

Justin Taylor, coming from the Audi factory LMP1 sports car program, joined ECR as JR Hildebrand’s engineer. And, AJ Foyt Racing, switching to Chevy power, added Will Phillips, who previously served as IndyCar’s VP of Technology, to be Carlos Munoz’s engineer.

With testing limited to only four days, teams look for any means to become more competitive. Hiring engineers from other teams is one way to cross-pollinate the lessons learned and bring in new ideas. And, that’s what makes the IndyCar series so enjoyable to watch with its stiff competition and versatility challenge for both drivers and teams having to adapt to ovals – short and superspeedways, and the road and street courses.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

AJ Foyt Racing Makes Switch to Chevrolet

Going into the 2017 season, it looks as though everything will be new at A.J. Foyt Racing. In addition to their pair of new drivers behind the wheel, the Texas-based organization announced on Tuesday that they will switch from Honda to Chevrolet for the 2017 season.

“I am looking forward to what will be a new chapter for us that involves returning to an old friend in Chevrolet,” said Team President Larry Foyt. “There are a lot of changes happening within our team this off season and I won’t minimize the challenges, but I see a lot of potential with our plan.”

Chevrolet isn’t new to A.J. Foyt Racing, as A.J. Foyt IV drove a Chevrolet powered entry in 2005. A.J. Foyt also spent drove a Chevrolet powered entry during his career, including his final IndyCar race as a driver, the 1992 Indianapolis 500.

“We are pleased to welcome AJ Foyt Racing to the Chevrolet IndyCar program,” stated Mark Kent, Director Chevrolet Motorsports Competition.  “Chevrolet and Foyt both have long histories in IndyCar racing, including prior opportunities to work together.  We look forward to renewing the partnership and a strong start to the 2017 season.”

As previously announced, Carlos Munoz makes the move from Andretti Autosport to drive the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet, while Conor Daly makes the move from Dale Coyne Racing to drive the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet.

“I’m glad to be back with Chevy,” said A.J. Foyt, team owner and first four-time winner of the Indy 500. “I’ve had a lot of success with them in the past and I’m looking forward to more success in the future.”

The team expects to conduct its first test in the ABC Supply Chevrolets at Sebring International Raceway later this month.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Can Sato Finally Match His Potential?

Based on his current portfolio, Takuma Sato seemed like an odd candidate to secure the fourth and final full-time role with Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The above view certainly has some truth to it for the 39-year old from Tokyo, Japan. In seven seasons contesting North America’s premiere open-wheel racing circus, the veteran has shown a ton of pace in qualifying and the early stagases of many races. The problem, however, has been a glaring one: an inability to stay there at the finish. Entering the 2017 campaign, Sato has placed no better than 13th on the final points table and has only one victory next to his name coming in the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Of course, Sato has had his share of close calls likewise. The most notable came in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 when he moved up from the 19th starting position to take the lead for 31 laps in the event’s second half. Unfortunately, a failed overtake on eventual race winner Dario Franchitti at turn one on the final lap relegated him to contact with the outside wall and a 17th-place finish. The Japanese veteran pilot has also contended in the 2013 and 2016 editions of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing; however, a spin and wall contact respectively ended those challenges.

So on paper, the potential for a breakthrough exists and while many experts understandably raised eyebrows when Michael Andretti tapped him to replace Carlos Munoz, a two-time Indianapolis 500 runner-up. However, before one is quick to criticize the decision, keep this fact in mind – the fourth ride at Andretti Autosport has bolstered the chances for at least two other hard luck drivers during this decade.

The first was Venezuela’s E.J. Viso, who qualified a strong fourth in the 2013 Indy 500, led five laps and ran amongst the lead pack for the first 150 laps of the race until a bad pit stop dropped him to 18th at the finish. The other of course was Alexander Rossi in this year’s race. Rossi, like Viso, struggled during the remainder of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, yet he managed put all the puzzle pieces together during the month of May. After qualifying 11th, Rossi drove a steady race and then pounced upon a golden opportunity strategy-wise to take the victory.

So based on my evaluation, the potential in both the understudy seat(s) at Andretti Autosport and what Takuma Sato can achieve is out there. Now comes the hard part: can the ex-Formula One driver finally grasp this chance and extend it to the fullest? The 2017 season will provide the answer.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

Daly and Munoz Make Up Youthful Line-Up at A.J. Foyt Racing

While A.J. Foyt shows poise and age, his driver line-up is full of youth and promise.

“Both of our drivers are very young, and they’ve got their whole future ahead of them,” team owner A.J. Foyt. “I’m looking forward to being a part of that future.”

A.J. Foyt Racing announced on Tuesday that Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly would drive for the organization in 2017.

“It’s been a busy offseason, which to me is a great thing,” Team President Larry Foyt said. “There are many moving parts as we grow and continue to strengthen our weaknesses as a team. It’s wonderful to continue our relationship with ABC Supply and adding two young, and fast drivers is exciting for our program. I can’t remember a time when the Verizon IndyCar Series has been this competitive from top to bottom, so we know we have to work around the clock this winter to meet our goals before the season starts. We’ve had a great deal of changes in a short amount of time, but the team is committed, and the group as a whole is moving in the same direction. I’m looking for this positive momentum to translate to on-track results.”

Munoz will replace Takuma Sato, who has been rumored to join Andretti Autosport, in the No. 41 entry. The 24-year-old is coming off a 10th place finish in the year-end points standings last year with Andretti Autosport in his fourth full season of competition, following a runner-up in the Indianapolis 500. In 53 IndyCar starts, the Key Biscayne, Fla. resident has scored one victory (Detroit), one pole (Texas), and 23 top-10s.

For Munoz, this season will mark the first year he has driven for a team other than Andretti Autosport, which is a change he calls a big step forward in his career.

“I’m glad to join this team,” he said. “It’s been for a long time in IndyCar, and also A.J. is Indy 500 champion. I really honored to be a part of his team. I think it’s a new challenge to my career. It’s also nice to be teammates with Conor Daly. It’s good to have two young, really fast drivers in the team. We want to drive really good; we want to win races. We’re going to work really well together.”

Part of the reason for a change in Munoz was the fact he was tired of bringing money to the table like he did at Andretti in contributing funds from his family, but rather get paid his dues behind the wheel. He said the confidence he could make it work came from the success he was able to put together to date.

“I say, ‘Enough is enough. That was my personal choice,'” Munoz said. “We can do really good stuff. We put all the package together really good. I think we can show results, right? We have a really good example with Ed Carpenter. Five years ago no one was saying anything about this team. Now everyone wants to go to that team, right, because they did a really good job with Josef (Newgarden), with the engineers and everything. I think we have a good example.

“So, you know, finally I see the light in the tunnel. Like I said, I have improved. It’s not like I’m done, completely done. I still have to push a lot to stay in the light of the tunnel. I have to push. I still pushing really hard, to show the teams that I really deserve the position I am right now.”

Daly will replace Jack Hawksworth behind the wheel of the second entry, which will have a noticeable number change, with the No. 41 switched to No. 4 for Daly next season. The number change pays homage to Daly’s step-father Doug Boles, who was a founding partner and co-owner of Panther Racing which previously fielded the No. 4 car. Boles is now president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Notably, the team will be based in Indianapolis while No. 14 team remains in Texas.

“I mean, it’s really cool when Larry told me that we were going to be based in Indianapolis. Obviously, that helps me quite a lot because that’s my hometown. Pretty excited about that,” Daly said. “Then I actually didn’t know we’d be the No. 4 until probably like just a few days ago. That was even cooler just because of the history that we have there with my stepdad Doug, when he was running with Panther Racing, involved there. I grew up watching those guys, Scott Goodyear, Sam Hornish, Tomas Scheckter, as well, then Dan Wheldon.

“It was just a cool number that meant a lot to my family. It was cool to carry on. I have plenty of Pennzoil hats with No. 4 on them from when I was a kid. It’s just going to be cool. It’s just a great relationship, a great opportunity, and then I just can’t wait to get started.”

While it’s odd to have two teams and base them out of two different shops, Daly notes he isn’t worried about a breakdown of conversation due to the level of technology out there to allow for communication, such as a live video conference.

Daly previously drove for Foyt in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 in his IndyCar debut. The 24-year-old is coming off his first full season of IndyCar competition with Dale Coyne Racing, which featured some strong runs highlighted by a second in Detroit. In 22 starts, he has six Top-10 finishes and has led 68 laps.

Daly now looks to take what he learned, and continue to improve as a driver behind the wheel. He notes he’s ready to apply what he learned and do some things differently.

“Last year, the tracks that I had been to before, like Detroit and Toronto, you know, we had two of our best — well, Toronto qualifying and Detroit would have been good qualifying had we not got a penalty. We obviously had a great race weekend in Detroit,” he said. “I want to use that experience at every track that we go to. So just trying to build on it, build on it, and continue to get better. More podiums is obviously the goal.”

The organization also announced long-time sponsor ABC Supply had renewed their contract, marking the 13th consecutive season they’ve sponsored Foyt.

“As we celebrate our 35th anniversary at ABC Supply, we are very happy to be continuing our relationship with AJ Foyt Racing,” said Keith Rozolis, ABC Supply Co. Inc. president and chief executive officer. “They’ve been part of the ABC team since 2005, and our associates and customers look forward to watching Carlos and Conor compete and win in 2017.”

Daly noted he was excited to have the brand onboard with their signature colors, and the fact they have a passion for racing.

“There needs to be more companies like that in the world,” he said. “I’m excited about it. The car is red, white and blue. I bleed red, white and blue. I try to be the most American dude around. I’m excited to kind of use that and just strengthen the relationship. It’s going to be awesome.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.