INDYCAR witnessed another year of memorable storylines in 2017 – both on and off the track – as the Verizon IndyCar Series continued its upward trend in worldwide exposure, fan growth and exciting, intense racing.
Selecting the top 10 stories of the year was a difficult exercise, to say the least. But those of us at IndyCar.com – including regular writers Joey Barnes, Jeff Olson, Phillip B. Wilson and a few others on staff – have compiled our subjective consensus of that list. In today’s second installment of three parts, we feature the storylines that ranked sixth through fourth. We will complete the series on Dec. 29 with our top three stories of the year.
But for now, read about what came in Nos. 4 through 6 here.
No. 6 – Universal aero kit debut builds universal excitement for 2018
By Joey Barnes
On July 25, the world witnessed the birth of INDYCAR’s newest creation in the form of the sleek and sexy universal aero kit.
"From Lap 1, it just felt at home," said Oriol Servia, a veteran of 202 Indy car starts and Honda pilot for the initial series test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away.
"I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer."
The praise has been widespread throughout the tenuous testing process, which began with series trials using wily veterans Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya (in a Chevrolet) as test drivers, followed by manufacturer testing in the fall with two cars each from Chevy and Honda.
Many drivers, team members and fans compliment the aesthetics of the body, while others are excited by the development and new challenges the car presents. Each driver who’s had an opportunity to test the car thus far has raved about its performance. The rest can’t wait for their turn behind the wheel when private team testing launches in early January so that every team can be prepared to compete with the same universal kit at the season opener in March, following three years of manufacturer competition.
“I think if you join the series in a reset year (for equipment), it definitely helps because you don’t have a lot of people that have a lot of knowledge,” said Scott Dixon, the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion, who participated in the manufacturer testing portion. “But saying that, I think the Indy car, especially on the short oval and road course, the amounts of downforce that we had made it a lot easier to get close on time.
“Whereas this (universal kit), especially on the road course … it’s a lot more difficult to put a lap together. The braking zones are much bigger. It’s very difficult to get braking right. The window has become much smaller. It’s better for maybe a rookie coming in because it’s new to everyone, but it’s also a lot harder to hit the mark correctly. I think for the drivers it should be a very good challenge.”
No. 5 – Bourdais’ memorable season of highs, lows and miraculous recoveries
By Phillip B. Wilson
A Verizon IndyCar Series season that began with such promise for Sebastien Bourdais quickly took a turn for the worse, then it became frightening.
Or as the four-time Indy car champion would later say, his 2017 was “derailed.”
The Frenchman won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in an inspiring drive from last place after he crashed in qualifying the day before. He finished second in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach a month later. He still had the points lead entering the fourth race, when his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda was caught in an opening-lap, five-car incident that wasn’t his fault at Phoenix Raceway. An engine issue ended his INDYCAR Grand Prix early.
That’s when the misfortune became painful. Bourdais was on pace to be the fastest qualifier on the first day of time trials for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil when he slammed the wall exiting Turn 2 in a horrific crash on the third of four qualifying laps. He suffered multiple fractures to his pelvis and right hip.
Team owner Dale Coyne considered Bourdais finished for the season, but the driver vowed to make it back for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in less than four months. Bourdais healed enough to return for the last three races.
Before he finished ninth in the season finale, Bourdais offered a pointed perspective on the year that was.
“There’s no given in racing,” he said. “All you can do is try your very best and your hardest. Sometimes, you’ll get the reward. Sometimes, you’ll get more reward than you probably deserve. And sometimes, you get nothing. Sometimes, you get a big kick in the ass and you get set down.”
Bourdais blamed himself for the crash at Indy.
“Nobody else was driving the car,” he said.
Coyne won’t soon forget that qualifying run.
“Those first two laps of qualifying were pretty exciting,” Coyne said. “I’ll never forget those two … or three.”
Despite missing nine races, Bourdais finished the year with five top-10s in eight starts. But it could have been so much more.
“We both have unfinished business,” Coyne said, eagerly looking to 2018.
No. 4 – Gateway Motorsports Park returns to schedule with full grandstand, pass of the season
By Jeff Olson
Before the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline in late August at Gateway Motorsports Park, the Verizon IndyCar Series hadn’t raced at the Madison, Illinois, oval in 14 years. Helio Castroneves remembered that race like it happened yesterday.
Not just because he won it, but because he won it without any electronic feedback.
“I didn’t have a dash,” Castroneves said of his 2003 win at Gateway. “My steering wheel somehow had a glitch. It was blinking from the beginning, and it never stopped doing it throughout the race. I had no information. No RPMs, no information regarding fuel mileage or lap times, no gear pattern – nothing. It was like old times.”
The return to the egg-shaped oval with different turns – Turns 1-2 are much tighter than Turns 3-4 – turned out to be profound for Castroneves’ Team Penske teammates. Josef Newgarden’s controversial bump-and-run pass of Simon Pagenaud for the lead with 30 laps to go didn’t sit well with Pagenaud.
“It's terrible for the team,” Pagenaud said after the race. “That's the kind of thing that's disappointing. At the moment, it's not something I really want to talk about with him. But it will come to a conclusion, I'm sure.”
Newgarden went on to win the race and then, three weeks later, the championship by 13 points over Pagenaud. The victory at Gateway, just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, was the turning point. But the sold-out grandstand and enthusiastic crowd were just as impressive for INDYCAR’s return to a repaved and revitalized racetrack.
"I don't think I'd be bold enough to predict the kind of outcome we had (in attendance)," Curtis Francois, owner of the track, told RACER.com, "but I was proud of my people and I think we were all thrilled. I know this community and St. Louis is very supportive of its sports, so it was up to us to make sure we got the word out that the stars and cars of the Indy 500 were coming to town. And that resonated."
(In case you missed it, click here to read the first of this three-part series recapping the stories that ranked 10th through seventh.)