IndyCar stories to watch
INDIANAPOLIS -- There's little substantive news to report, but the IndyCar Series is beginning to emerge from a deep freeze in preparation for its 2014 season.
The fact that the biggest story the series has to trumpet is Tony Kanaan receiving his trophy for a race he won seven months ago speaks volumes about the predicament Indy car racing finds itself in.
Kanaan accepted his Baby Borg replica of the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy Wednesday night in Detroit at the Automotive News World Congress. The Brazilian star brought along his 6-year-old son, Leo, who was presented with a special Baby Baby Borg to mark the occasion.
Kanaan started the week in Indianapolis with the rest of the IndyCar Series drivers for preseason physical examinations and a series of meetings in which Hulman Motorsports CEO Mark Miles and his team laid out their vision for the 2014 campaign and beyond.
For the second consecutive offseason, there has been a conspicuous lack of activity emanating from INDYCAR headquarters at the intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, but the start of official preseason testing on Friday at Sebring International Raceway should rectify that. The Sebring test marks the first time that new-generation engines from Honda and Chevrolet will hit the track, and both manufacturers are likely to face a heavy workload prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30.
Here are four key IndyCar Series storylines to follow in 2014:
1. Montoya's return: Juan Pablo Montoya's last stint in Indy car racing was nothing short of spectacular. As a 23-year old rookie, the Colombian won seven races and the 1999 CART-sanctioned championship; the following year, he added three more CART wins and a remarkable victory in the IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500, where he led 167 of the 200 laps and basically toyed with the opposition.
Now, following 12 years split between Formula One and NASCAR, Montoya is back where he began his American career, with one key difference: He's driving for Roger Penske, rather than rival Chip Ganassi, for whom Montoya raced in CART and NASCAR. Montoya's return to Indy cars is certainly the series' most intriguing storyline heading into 2014, and his arrival at Penske to join incumbents Will Power and Helio Castroneves should only strengthen Indy car racing's most famous and successful team.
"I'm glad to be back," Montoya said. "It's amazing how much fun the cars are to drive. When I did the testing, personally I felt I was miles away from where I still need to be. I think the speed has been there, but there are going to be tracks where I adapt really quick and others are going to take a little time. I just have to get used to it again."
Montoya and the Penske team are working hard to keep expectations in check, and it will be interesting to see if the 38-year-old version of Montoya can muster the kind of aggression that was the hallmark of his 23-year-old self during his first stint in American open-wheel racing.
"Think about it -- I haven't been on street courses in seven years!" he said. "It's going to be a challenge, especially at the beginning of the weekend. I think as the weekend goes on at street courses, you start getting your head right and you'll be fine. I'm glad we have a whole week of practice before my first oval race of the year at Indianapolis."
Three-time (and defending) IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is convinced that Montoya will be a front-runner right away, as he was in CART. Montoya won the 1999 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in his fourth Indy car start, and won his first oval race at Nazareth Speedway just a couple weeks later.
"Absolutely," Dixon said. "He's won in every kind of formula he's ever run. It's going to be a learning curve, but it's not something he hasn't done before. The last six or seven years for him have been in a totally different kind of car. The changes for this year with the testing rules having opened it up a little, and that's good for him.
"But also the fact that he's with a really strong team with strong teammates will definitely quicken that process up," Dixon added. "I expect him to be quick straight out of the box and have the possibility to contend for race wins right away."
2. The Ganassi-Andretti engine swap: Chip Ganassi has a habit of shaking things up for his team on a regular basis. This year, his Indy car team will switch from Honda to Chevrolet engines, and he's swapping BMW M-power for Ford EcoBoost motivation for the inaugural season of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship.
Although Honda and Chevy ended up nearly equal in terms of race wins in 2013 (Will Power's victory in the season finale tipped the balance in favor of Chevy, 10-9) and Dixon won the championship with Honda, a common perception still existed that the Bowtie Brigade maintained a slight advantage. Hence Ganassi's switch, which means the sport's top two teams will be running the same technical package.
"Hopefully it will be an advantage," said 2013 IndyCar Series runner-up Helio Castroneves. "[Ganassi] have to go through a learning process, but they are a big team so they know what they need to do. We've really worked our butts off in the offseason and I'm really looking forward to the start of this year. Hopefully it will be similar, but with a different ending to last year."
Meanwhile, Andretti Autosport, which won the 2012 championship with Chevrolet power and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, has made the move to Honda. For the first time since INDYCAR's 2.2-liter turbo V-6 specification was introduced, Honda will utilize twin turbochargers rather than a single turbo installation.
"It should be good, I think, for us and for Andretti," said Dixon. "Having seen both sides of it will probably help both manufacturers at some point. It's just a matter of who pushes a little harder. The learning curve of working with a new engine and drivability and everything is going to be steep. I think the Chevy package is a very good package, but the competition between the two manufacturers is going to be tough and very close. This team is very good at fixing problems and getting through them.
"In simple terms, it's probably a good thing that the majority of our past competition has the same equipment," he added. "So you'd probably say that's a positive."
3. The Month of May makeover: Change comes slowly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but there are clear signs that Mark Miles doesn't want Hulman Motorsports' crown jewel to rest on more than 100 years of laurels. Miles green-lighted an Indy car race on the IMS road course to kick off the Month of May activities, and it appears that the long-standing basic format of Indianapolis 500 qualifying is set for a major revamp as well.
The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, set for May 8-10, has been met with mixed reaction. Recently retired IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is a strong proponent of the event, whereas many others -- including Michael Andretti and Dixon -- like the idea of a race on the IMS road course, but believe the event should be staged later in the year to keep the spotlight on the Indy 500 during May.
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Proposed changes to the "500" qualifying format are another polarizing subject. A "Fast Nine" shootout was added a few years ago, but pole position was still determined on the first day of time trials. Miles' plan, reportedly driven by a desire to increase ratings on the ABC telecast of qualifying, will see the pole winner determined on Sunday, May 18, probably early in the afternoon as a lead-in to the network's NBA playoff coverage.
The new format was set to be revealed earlier this week, but a tentatively scheduled news conference never took place and the drivers were subsequently able to provide their input during the IndyCar winter meetings.
"We discussed a lot of options and scenarios, trying to answer: What can we do to make more fans show up and enjoy the qualifying weekend?" said defending Indianapolis 500 winner Kanaan. "Nothing is set and done. All we are concerned with is how can we make it like the old days and improve qualifying. It's not like it was just a presentation to us. It was more like a brainstorming session, and I'm trying to be open-minded."
"I'm always about tradition," added Castroneves, a four-time Indy 500 pole winner. "I feel that even when they changed to the Top-9 shootout that we shouldn't have. I felt they should have kept it the way it was, with Saturday and Sunday and Bump Day. That's what people understood.
"But I'm up for anything that would enhance the Indy 500 and bring more recognition from the world out there. If we have to do that to make it better, I'm all up for it."
4. The Fast Frenchman: Championship speculation has rightly focused on drivers from Indy car racing's three superteams -- Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, which have won every IndyCar Series championship since 2003 and will run a combined 11 cars in 2014.
But almost everyone agrees on who is the biggest outside threat to the IndyCar establishment: Frenchman Simon Pagenaud and Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Pagenaud had a breakthrough season in 2013, scoring his first two race wins and claiming third place in the final standings. He's the heir apparent to Gil de Ferran and Bryan Herta as Honda's lead development driver, and if the new twin-turbo Honda engine proves to be competitive with the Chevrolet, Pagenaud could be a real thorn in the side of the big boys.
"I'm really looking forward to the season," Pagenaud said. "We finished last year with a lot of momentum, and the chemistry within the team is really good.
"Sometimes being with a smaller team can be an advantage," he added. "We're going to work very hard with Honda to try to have an even better year than we had in 2013."
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