Graham Rahal thinks 2016 might be the most competitive year in Indy car history. His bold prediction comes after preseason testing showed small gaps all the way up and down the timesheets.
Add some capable young guns, wily veterans and highly motivated teams and manufacturers, and it’s tough to argue with Rahal’s assessment.
“It's only going to get harder and harder,” said the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver of the No. 15 Honda.
“This year is going to be extremely demanding and require the most of every driver, every team, every competitor. It's going to be very interesting and a lot fun for everyone to follow.”
There are several storylines that will play out in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season that will keep drivers, teams and fans on their toes.
To help set the stage for this weekend's season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, six drivers answered six questions to help shed light on what and who to watch as the 2016 season unfolds.
In Part 1, the drivers talk about the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the rookie race and push-to-pass. Look for more answers in Part 2.
1. 2016 will see the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. How do you feel about it?
Conor Daly (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda): I think everyone is pumped about it, that's for sure. Just the idea of it is cool and to be part of it is pretty special. As we see the 100-day countdown, there seems to be something going on every day, so it's exciting. But, in the end, it's another race for us and we have to treat it like another race that we want to win, so we have to do our best job to make the car as fast as we can get it to go and have a solid setup for race day and try to be a part of history.
Scott Dixon (No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): I'm excited. Hopefully, I will qualify for the race (laughs). I think we are in a good position to do that, but you never know with that place. I feel privileged because it's such a milestone and if you look at a series or leagues, there aren’t too many that celebrate a 100th, so for me to be in the right era to be a part of this — everyone remembers the first with Ray Harroun winning, so it'll definitely be a prestigious race to win. Ultimately, I’m just very excited and very excited for the city: Living in Indianapolis you can already see the hype and the lead up to it, I know that a ton of people are coming from New Zealand for the 100th, all the tickets are sold out, you can't get suite passes. It's going to be a cool one to be a part of.
James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): What? (laughs) Honestly, I feel privileged that I am going to be able to take part in such a historic event not only for INDYCAR but for sports in general. Not a lot of events have made it to 100, so for ours to have made it there and to be able to take part in it and to be racing at this time is something that I am going to be very honored to be able to do.
Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): The Indianapolis 500 is always the biggest race of our year and in 2016 with it being the 100th, it's going to be even bigger. It magnifies the size, spectacle and importance of the race. Having said that, it's still points toward the championship, so it's probably the easiest one to focus on as far as size and importance, but as a team and a driver it's important to not let yourself get totally wrapped up in the running of the “500” and it being the 100th, it's going to be big.
Will Power (No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet): For the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it's going to be a huge event and I am looking forward to it. I know so many people from Australia who are coming and I can't imagine the number that will come from around the U.S. It's going to be really cool. As far as the race goes, I'll be gathering all the experience I've had over the last few years and doing everything I can to win the thing.
Graham Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda): I am thrilled. We are going to have a great year. The Indy 500 is the coolest thing ever, so to get the opportunity to be part of the 100th will be unique. It's 30 years on from when dad (1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal) won it and hopefully we can get a second win in the “500” for the family.
2. This season will see some great young talent fight it out for Sunoco Rookie of the Year. How tough will the battle be?
Conor Daly: It's going to be really tough. I am up against two guys with a lot of Formula One experience (Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi) and it's a good group of rookies. I am just excited to see how it goes. We are definitely the underdog team with Dale Coyne, but I think we are going to surprise a lot of people, but going up against rookies with Andretti Autosport and Ganassi definitely is not going to be easy. I look forward to the challenge.
Scott Dixon: It's always pretty fierce even if you only have one or two rookies. Typically at this point to have rookies coming in who have obviously achieved a lot and I think with the ones we have it's going to be cutthroat and there's some with pretty good teams, too, so I am excited for that race. I think some of them are going to be fighting for victories, too. They are very competitive and very good to make it to this level, so this year is going to be no different.
James Hinchcliffe: It's going to be a great battle. Obviously you've got your Conor Dalys and Alexander Rossis and it's going to be good. It's going to be like 2011. It's not like we haven't had talented rookies but we haven't had many in year same year, so it's going to be an exciting battle within a battle to watch.
Charlie Kimball: Obviously working beside Max Chilton for the past few weeks in testing has been eye opening. He's very quick and polished as a driver, but the big challenge for lots of rookies is the ovals. Max had two days at Phoenix (International Raceway) to figure out the short oval stuff and did a rookie day at Fontana (California’s Auto Club Speedway), but until you get out there with 32 other cars at Indy and 22 other cars at other races, you won't know as a rookie. Some of the drivers who have a bit more oval experience will probably come to the fore. As a teammate, I am going to end up betting on Max because he has Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon — probably two of the best oval drivers in the series to learn from and Dario Franchitti as a mentor to ask question of and help him learn all the way through the year.
Will Power: There are some really good young guys coming in with Conor Daly, Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. It's going to be a good year for the rookie championship. I will be watching with interest.
Graham Rahal: It's going to be very tough among some good young kids. Guys like Alexander Rossi are extremely experienced, so you are going to see a really good battle there. People are going to have a lot of fun watching those guys and these are good names that are going to be around this sport for many years to come.
3. Drivers will have more juice under their thumb when it comes to push-to-pass on road and street courses, with an added 20 horsepower. How will that play out in 2016?
Conor Daly: We got to try it in the test at Sebring (International Raceway in Florida) and it's definitely good. I can't see any problem with having more boost for the overtake button. It will make for some exciting passes and also some mistakes. Because with more power it's easy to enter corners with a little too much speed, so people might be using it in defence and then make a mistake. I think it's great, for sure.
Scott Dixon: It’s definitely an improvement: I think it (nearly) doubles the overtake power we had from last year. We did have talks about having the car behind blocking out the overtake for the leading vehicle, which might come into play down the road, but I think with more of a difference it will be more of a tool especially if someone at the end of a race has used all theirs — man, they are going to be a sitting duck.
James Hinchcliffe: It's a logical step. For us there were situations last year where you thought you had the run and used the push-to-pass but it just wasn't enough. So I think that you will see more passing as a result of this because it just opens the window of opportunity a tiny bit. If anything, it almost makes conserving them and spending your overtakes wisely even more important because it's more likely that you will successfully pull off a pass this year. It's a sizable jump and it's a good kick and you will have to make sure you have one at the end in case there's a late restart or else you can get swallowed up by the field.
Charlie Kimball: It's nice to have that added horsepower and it would be great if we could have that added horsepower all the way around all the time, but that's a typical racing driver looking for more horsepower and better fuel mileage. It will make the racing better because you will have to continue to be more intelligent with using your push-to-pass so you don't run out when someone has something left for you at the end of the race.
Will Power: It's definitely is going to create passing. The one thing they didn't do was increase the rev range, so it does get to the limiter, which would stop you from passing. But yeah, I think it's great and a really good idea. We needed a little bit extra there and I think the next step would be to add that the car in front cannot react. You are going to have to be smart. If you start near the back of the pack and you have to use a lot of it to get to the front, you may have to hang on at the end or if you start at the front, try to hang on and then use it all at the end.
Graham Rahal: It's going to make the racing very interesting. Drivers are going to be able to make passes a little easier and make things a little bit more fun frankly. When you have more power under your thumb, it opens up the opportunities for racing, passing and defensive moves and everything else. It will be pretty interesting.