James Hinchcliffe can't wait to start his first Verizon IndyCar Series race of 2016 after a serious injury in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500 kept him out of most of last year's season.
While the changes in the car have the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver pumped to get the season under way, he's most looking forward to visiting the new venues that have been added to the 2016 schedule.
“Honestly, the thing that excites me is the new races,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Phoenix (April 2) coming back on the schedule, Boston (Sept. 4) I am hoping is just going to be a blockbuster event, and then we're going back to the best road course in the country (Road America, June 26). There are a couple of tracks we've added that are very exciting and I am looking forward to them.”
In Part 2 of Hot Topics, on the eve of this weekend's season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, drivers talk about cagey veterans, aero kits and the impact of more European-trained drivers choosing INDYCAR as a career path.
1. There are several veterans who might be looking for glory as their careers wind down. Whom should we keep an eye on?
Conor Daly (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda): I think there are so many good ones. Will Power is incredibly relentless. Juan Pablo Montoya is fast but I think the toughest guys, for sure, are going to be Power and Scott Dixon. Those guys are just at the top of their game and they're extremely talented. And then you can't count out Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti over at Andretti Autosport because those guys are also extremely competitive. This has to be one of the deepest fields from top to bottom in a few years.
Scott Dixon (No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): The usual suspects: You’ve got Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud – well, you probably can't even call him a veteran – but these guys are probably at their peak as far as having the information and know how. It's very strong between about six or eight drivers and some of these guys are also 40 or 41 years old and they know their years may be starting to dwindle a little bit, even though a lot of them are performing better than they ever have. They know it's time to get some results, but I am not sure it changes it too much.
James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): That's a tough call, but I am going to have my eye on Helio Castroneves. He has come so close so many times and he obviously triumphed in the (Indy) 500 three times and he's going to be going for that record-tying fourth and he's going to be pushing hard to get that championship. He's still just as fast and the Penske organization produces phenomenal cars, so he'll have the equipment. It's going to be interesting to see if maybe 2016 can be his year.
Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): Finishing third at the Indy 500 last year and watching Juan Pablo Montoya drive was pretty impressive to me. He has been around a long time and has driven a lot of different stuff, but that fire is just as hot and fierce. Then you look at Tony Kanaan, who has had lots of success and yet who has the capability to race for a few more years, so maybe he's looking not for a sunset to ride into but to get some serious success and build toward a multiyear program for the next few years so he can retire on his terms.
Will Power (No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet): Probably me (laughs). Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are all pretty strong. Obviously, Montoya came very close last year to winning both the “500” and the championship. He missed the championship, but he will be very strong contender again, although I will be also.
Graham Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda): Helio Castroneves is always in the battle. He can always be very quick and I totally expect Juan Pablo Montoya to be strong once again. Those are the two I think will stand out the most as this year goes on.
2. There has been lots of talk in the offseason about the aero kits. Can Chevy maintain its upper hand or will Honda bounce back?
Daly: I think Honda has done a great job. There was a lot of work to be done and there still is with the new aero kit because we have to develop it. The best part is that we will have room to develop it – it will take a few races to really perfect how we run this new aero kit. Chevy certainly hasn't been resting and they have been working, too, so there's going to be stiff competition, but I have a feeling Honda will be in a strong position as we run through the year.
Dixon: It's hard to tell. I think with how the rules are controlled, we are still going to see it pretty damn close. If you look at the end of last year, Honda had a really rough start but at the end of the year I think they won four of the last six and they were extremely competitive. In preseason testing so far, the cars are very close again. Chevy had a small advantage last year – bigger at the start of the year and smaller towards the end – but right now it'll be hard to tell until we get through the first couple races, but I imagine it's going to be a more even playing field this year.
Hinchcliffe: For sure, Honda has made some huge leaps over the offseason, but we won't know where everybody stacks up until we get to that first road course, that first street course and that first oval. The gap will be much closer and I think it's going to be a much better race between the manufacturers. I hope Honda comes out on top.
Kimball: I have a lot of faith in the Team Chevy guys, be that the Chevy corporate support, be that Pratt & Miller engineering, be that Ilmor for the race engines. I have a lot of faith in their ability to come up with a good starting point as far as the baseline and then not stop developing. Working with these guys for the past two years has given me a good understanding of how they operate and work and I really believe in their ability to be competitive. Having said that, it would be unwise for anybody to underestimate Honda and Honda Performance Development's ability to be competitive. We have two great manufacturers and two great competitive heritages going up against each other. The second half of last year the racing was really close.
Will Power: Honda is very close — they have made some serious upgrades so I would say this year Honda will be in the mix for the championship.
Graham Rahal: Honda has worked very hard this winter. From what we have seen in testing, possibly our competition might still have a bit of an advantage, but we are going to work as hard as we can to overcome that once again. I feel like that's what we did extremely well last year, and we certainly are not going to back down now.
3. Talented drivers who had Formula One aspirations are seeing that the competition level in the Verizon IndyCar Series is very strong, so some are looking to compete here. How does that change things for the series?
Daly: I think it's all good. INDYCAR has been quite competitive for many years. Formula One has become so outlandishly expensive and many teams have just started relying on massive backing from different countries around the world for their drivers – whether they deserve to be there or not – so it's become a bit ridiculous. I think people are seeing that this INDYCAR deal is legit, it's a great championship, and it's the best racing in the world. It definitely beats Formula One in the racing category. I am glad to see the series getting more attention and more young drivers from the European system. I think it's all good in general.
Dixon: I don't think it changes much, but the depth of the field right now is insanely competitive and I think we have the most competitive fields that we have seen in a long time. What makes INDYCAR so difficult is that there are so many disciplines. In Formula One, you basically just have road courses while we have road courses, street courses, short ovals, superspeedways and it's very tough to be good at all disciplines. What attracts a lot of people is that it's good, pure racing and if you look at Formula One right now, unless you're at Mercedes or Ferrari, you are just filling the field and you have no chance of winning a race. In INDYCAR, even the small teams have a shot with a great driver and that's what attracts people.
Hinchcliffe: It just raises everybody's level. We already had a really competitive series when you look at the gaps we have in qualifying and the closeness of the race finishes, and the more that talent from the other parts of the world comes over and sees that and brings their level, it just raises the overall average, which is already pretty high.
Kimball: As a driver, I don't know that the perspective has changed because everybody in the (Verizon) IndyCar Series believes that the championship is good enough and the racing is good enough that, if you cut your teeth here, you can go racing anywhere else in the world. But it's nice to see that belief substantiated by other people coming across from Formula One, having spent some time there or on their way up there. Conor Daly as a young American spent a lot of time working in the European ladder, Alexander Rossi is an American who went over there and raced a few Formula One races and is now coming back, and Max Chilton as well. I think that bodes well for the future of Indy car racing’s health.
Power: The (Verizon) IndyCar Series has been very competitive for the past few years and I think these guys have watched the racing on television and it looks fun. If you are a driver, you want to compete. With the way Formula One is now, you have to be in the right team and, with the manufacturers constructing a whole car and engine, it's very difficult to have parity.
Rahal: It does in the sense that you get a lot of good big names over here, but I don't know it changes the playing field. The drivers in the (Verizon) IndyCar Series are as good as anybody in the world and I'd put them up against any driver. This is the most competitive form of motorsport in the world by far and I really do think the drivers have to be most well-rounded to win a championship more than any other series in the world.