INDYCAR 2018: Five things to know

Scott Dixon, in his new livery earlier this month while testing a prototype IndyCar windscreen, will again be one of the contenders in a downsized Chip Ganassi Racing stable in 2018 in the Verizon IndyCar Series. (Associated Press photo)

New look.

New faces.

New champion.

It is all about what is different as the Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off the 2018 season this weekend on the Streets of St. Petersburg.

Is change good or bad? We will find out over the course of 17 races in the next six months.

Here’s a look at what has changed and what to keep an eye on this season:

1. NEW AERO

We were told that it would bring an added level of competition. That the cars would no longer look spec.

Instead, the only thing that manufacturer-designed aero kits did over their three years was drive up the price of competition for not only Honda and Chevrolet but the teams themselves.

This year signifies the return of a universal aero kit, designed to not only evoke memories of the open-wheel cars of the past, but also improve the quality of racing by moving downforce from atop the car to underneath and (in theory) allowing cars to run closer together.

“The best thing is that it’s putting the driver back in the car,” said Roger Penske to Autoweek in January. “You don’t have the downforce, but yet you have the speed. You have to brake going into the corners.

“There’s less drag, yet you have to stop the car. It’s a whole different driving technique. It’s going to be interesting to see what drivers adapt to it quickly.”

The question is, will it work? Pre-season testing has been largely inconclusive, but drivers and team owners alike seem to like the direction IndyCar has gone.

2. NEW TEAMS

In the never-ending car count battle, IndyCar has leaned on its three power teams — Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, and Team Penske — to at times in recent years provide nearly half of the series’ competing cars.

That’s what makes the addition of two full-time teams and two part-time operations to the series in 2018 so important.

After competing in three races last year with Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing is back with the Columbian and will partake in all 17 races this season. Meanwhile, European power Carlin Racing has moved up from IndyCar’s feeder series to compete a full season with Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton, both of whom raced for Chip Ganassi a year ago.

Juncos Racing, another team moving up from IndyCar’s minor leagues, will race in a total of eight events this year with rookies René Binder of Austria and Kyle Kaiser of the United States.

Michael Shank Racing, one of the top teams in sports cars, will compete in six races with driver Jack Harvey as part of a partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

3. NEW CHAMP

In his inaugural season with Team Penske, American Josef Newgarden emerged not only as one of the premier drivers in the series…but perhaps its face of the future. The 27-year-old became the youngest IndyCar champion since Scott Dixon won the title in 2003 and age 23 and is the first American-born driver to be crowned champion since Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012.

As the old guard of IndyCar begins to fade away, Newgarden has become one of the symbols of the new breed of open-wheel driver. His peppy personality and affability are eclipsed only by his ability in a race car.

After zero career wins in his first three years in the series, Newgarden has scored seven wins in the last three seasons, including standing at the top of the podium four times a year ago.

Newgarden will race this season with the traditional No. 1 as the defending series champion. He will likely be in contention for back-to-back titles.

4. MORE FOR RAHAL, LESS FOR GANASSI, PENSKE

Graham Rahal won five races over the last three seasons as the sole full-time driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

This year, he’s getting some help.

RLL Racing will be a two-car operation this season with 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato joining the stable.

The overarching storyline with Rahal over the last few years has been that he has been so competitive without a teammate to bump ideas and data off of. With a veteran like Sato on board, some believe Rahal could contend for his first IndyCar title.

As RLL Racing grows, Penske and Ganassi shrinks. Ganassi has cut its entries in half from four to two, electing to focus on being more competitive with its car opposite Scott Dixon. Penske is now at three cars, down from one after moving Helio Castroneves to its sports car program. The three-time Indy 500 champion will compete at Indianapolis in May.

5. THE FUTURE

As IndyCar readies for this year, it is also looking ahead.

The quest for additional engine manufacturers continues, with the series attempting to lure at least one and maybe two OEMs into the fold in the coming years. That would lessen the financial and manpower stress on Honda and Chevrolet and introduce additional capital into the series.

IndyCar is also testing a windscreen designed to deflect objects that could make contact with the driver in the cockpit. Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono in 2015, along with a couple near misses, has pushed IndyCar to look at improved safety measures around the cockpit.

The push for a new chassis also continues, with the series eyeing a 2020 or 2021 debut based on early discussions.

With Verizon stepping away from its title sponsorship of the series following this year, IndyCar is also seeking a new title sponsor for 2019 and beyond.

2018 INDYCAR SCHEDULE

SEASON SCHEDULE

2018 INDYCAR SERIES DRIVER LINEUP (As of March 3)

A.J. FOYT ENTERPRISES (Chevrolet)

#4 Matheus Leist (r), Brazil

#14 Tony Kanaan, Brazil

ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT (Honda)

#26 Zach Veach (r), United States

#27 Alexander Rossi, United States

#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay, United States

#98 Marco Andretti, United States

#25 Stefan Wilson, England (Indy 500 only)

#29 Carlos Muñoz, Columbia (Indy 500 only)

CARLIN MOTORSPORT (Chevrolet)

#23 Charlie Kimball, United States

#59 Max Chilton, England

CHIP GANASSI RACING (Honda)

#9 Scott Dixon, New Zealand

#10 Ed Jones, United Arab Emirates

DALE COYNE RACING (Honda)

#18 Sebastien Bourdais, France

#19 Zachary Claman DeMelo (r), Canada (10 races)

#19 Pietro Fittipaldi (r), Brazil (seven races)

#63 Pippa Mann, England (Indy 500 only)

DREYER & REINBOLD RACING (Honda)

#24 Sage Karam, United States (Indy only)

TBA (Indy only)

ED CARPENTER RACING (Chevrolet)

#20 Jordan King (r), England (road/street courses only)

#20 Ed Carpenter, United States (ovals only)

#21 Spencer Pigot, United States

TBA Danica Patrick, United States (Indy only)

HARDING RACING (Chevrolet)

#88 Gabby Chaves, Columbia

JUNCOS RACING (Chevrolet)

#32 Kyle Kaiser (r), United States (four races)

#32 Rene Binder (r), Austria (four races)

LAZIER PARTNERS RACING (TBA)

TBA Buddy Lazier, United States (Indy 500 only)

MICHAEL SHANK RACING (Honda)

#60 Jack Harvey (r), England (six races)

RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING (Honda)

#15 Graham Rahal, United States

#16 Takuma Sato, Japan

SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS (Honda)

#5 James Hinchcliffe, Canada

#6 Robert Wickens (r), Canada

#7 Jay Howard, England (Indy 500 only)

TEAM PENSKE (Chevrolet)

#1 Josef Newgarden, United States

#12 Will Power, Australia

#22 Simon Pagenaud, France

#3 Helio Castroneves, Brazil (May only)

THOM BURNS RACING WITH DALE COYNE RACING (Honda)

#17 Conor Daly, United States (Indy only)

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