If off-seasons could kill, practically every Indycar fan would be pushing up daisies by now. October 19 and Scott Dixon’s moment of glory in Fontana seems like an ice age ago – an appropriate analogy considering the freezing weather experienced in most of the northern half of the US since then. The wait will reach 152 days by the time the green flag falls this weekend, but it all comes to an end this weekend as a new Indycar season begins again, albeit with a number of very significant changes.


WHAT’S NEW

Perhaps most importantly, a new naming rights sponsor for the series brings a new sense of optimism and vitality, with US telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless stamping its name on the front door following the departure of long-time supporter, IZOD. One of the key targets for the tie-up was to see Verizon help to drive innovation and encourage technical enhancement for the series for several years to come. Verizon will remain the sponsor of the Pole Position award at each event and will also maintain its sponsorship of Will Power’s Team Penske entry.

Season 2014 was also supposed to see the introduction of individual “bolt-on” bodykits including sidepods, engine covers and front/rear wings from any supplier, however at the request of the teams, these will now not be launched until next year at the earliest.

At the dawn of each new season comes new drivers, however perhaps the biggest news of the off-season has been the announced returns of two old ones in Jacques Villeneuve (Indy 500 only at this stage) and Juan Pablo Montoya (for the whole season).

Juan Pablo Montoya

Juan Pablo Montoya

Both are former powerhouses of the sport who reached the summit more than ten years ago and moved on to new pastures, but within whom the fire, passion and drive clearly still burns bright.

Both are accomplished stars – no argument there – and both have earned their stripes in the American open-wheel landscape through winning the 1995 and 1999 CART championships respectively. Both then went on to race-winning success in Formula One, incidentally both for Williams, although only one conquered that particular mountain and became World Champion.

Montoya has plied his trade in NASCAR since a rather heated, hasty and public fallout from Formula One in 2006 precipitated his departure. So seven years later, and as it appears, a few kilograms heavier (hanging around with Tony Stewart too much I suspect), Montoya will suit up for Roger Penske for a full IndyCar season this year. That in itself is something of an irony, for it was Penske himself (with Gil de Ferran and Hélio Castroneves at the time) who was suffering from Montoya’s earlier prowess at the wheel of a Target Chip Ganassi car back in 1999, so nobody will want Montoya to rediscover the form of his younger years more than The Captain. Up at Ganassi, skipper Chip will know what his former charge is capable of, even if it has been a decade and a half since he last started an American open-wheel race. Will it be just like “riding a bike” for Juan Pablo, or will a re-learning period be required?


NEW(er) FACES

With every new season comes the fresh faced crop of graduates from junior formulae and foreign shores and season 2014 will be no different.

Rarely does a man begin his first full season classed as a rookie by definition but already the proud owner of an Indy 500 runner-up trophy on his mantle. Carlos Muñoz takes the place of E.J. Viso in the Andretti Autosports stable and instantly makes the Rookie of the Year betting market a very short priced gamble. The promising Colombian has seen success in Indy Lights in two years, with multiple wins and an impressive bedrock of form to begin his top flight career. Qualifying and finishing second in such barnstorming fashion last May shocked even the most stony-faced pit wall pundit but if there was a negative to it, it set the bar of expectation higher than most rookies would prefer ahead of a full season. But the 22-year old is capable if nothing else and may again shock with podiums a near certainty and wins a distinct possibility.

Mikhail Aleshin

For the first time ever, a Russian driver makes his debut in the IndyCar Series, with Mikhail Aleshin strapping in to one of the seats at Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Schmidt is nothing if not an incredible spotter of prodigious talent, so for him to so quickly sign Aleshin is a sign that will likely have those further up the pit lane looking twice in Schmidt’s direction. Aleshin becomes the first Russian to start an IndyCar race since Baron…yes, Baron Vladimir de Rachewsky in 1926 and the first driver from a former Soviet state since Tonis Kasemets of Estonia, who started five events for Rocketsports Racing in Champ Car in 2006.

Although not an entirely new face, former Indy Lights star Martin Plowman will return to the series for the first time since 2012 to participate in the two events at Indianapolis, driving for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Bryan Herta Autosport has taken a leaf out of Sam Schmidt’s playbook, opting for one from Schmidt’s own stable in rising British star Jack Hawksworth, who has climbed the rungs on the Road to Indy through absolutely dominating the Star Mazda championship in 2012 and finishing fourth in the Indy Lights series last year.

In a classic mash-up between Indycar and NASCAR, long-time tin-top superstar Kurt Busch will swap his roof for open wheels come May in an attempt to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Speedway in the same day. Busch’s move will undoubtedly bring a host of mainstream media attention, but with absolutely no open-wheel racing experience of which to speak, Busch failing to qualify, should that eventuate, will be a major pants pull-down for the 2004 Nextel Cup Champion. Still, he might also qualify and race strongly too…such is the unpredictability of both the series, the DW12 chassis and indeed, Busch himself.


GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Speaking of Ganassi, it will take some getting used to for fans around the world to see the great Dario Franchitti sitting on the pit wall at plenty of events this year – not least of which the Indy 500.

Save for 2003 due to injury, and 2008 for a brief yet unsuccessful foray into NASCAR, Dario has been part of American open-wheel racing in one incarnation or another since 1997 when he burst on to the scene driving for Hogan Racing in what was then the PPG/CART World Series. Since then, Franchitti went on to become one of the most experienced and successful drivers in series history, with a combined total of 31 victories and four series championships. He could have gone on, but is a wise enough head to know when doctors say you shouldn’t continue for your own long term health and safety, then there must be some merit in such a claim. Aside from a fractured vertebrae, broken ankle, it was a concussion caused by a horrendous accident in Houston last year that enforced his retirement. The same accident injured 13 spectators in the grandstand – never a good thing no matter who you are. But for the Scot, medical advice recommended he hang up the helmet, and so it came to be that the IndyCar Series will enter a new era in 2014 – one minus Dario Franchitti.

Another gaping hole in the series this year, albeit more from a promotional perspective is the departure of Simona de Silvestro, who has opted to develop her career with the Sauber Formula One team in the hope of becoming the first female driver to start a Grand Prix race since Giovanna Amati in 1992. Dragon Racing, headed by Jay Penske, has also opted not to return to the series in 2014 as it works to prepare for a tilt at what is coming together as the Formula E Series – an FIA-accredited racing series with identical cars that are electrically powered. It is expected this series will stage its first event in China in September this year, will run throughout the northern winter, and will also be a supporting category at next year’s Monaco F1 Grand Prix.

Also not yet confirmed for a seat this year, if we see them at all, are Conor Daly, E.J. Viso, Luca Filippi, Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann, James Davison, Stefan Wilson, Buddy Lazier, James Jakes, Tristan Vautier, Katherine Legge and A.J. Allmendinger.

As for circuits, Baltimore (schedule conflicts) and São Paulo (logistics and crowd attendance) have been removed from the schedule, although the series is reportedly working to bring the latter back next year.


NEW TRACKS

Purists of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and those firmly on the side of tradition may not like the idea of an Indycar race on a specially designed road-course at Indianapolis, not least in the ‘Month of May’ which has always been reserved for build up to the 500. Those same purists will tell you to negotiate with Road America or another circuit if you MUST have a race so close to the Memorial Day spectacular. That being said, we can’t really judge until we see it. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis will therefore take place on 10 May, and it will be fairly apparent whether the event last more than one year in addition to its irreplaceable calendar staple at the end of May.

In addition, Pocono has been extended to 500 miles, Iowa has been extended to 300 laps, and an additional 50 kilometres will be run at Texas Motor Speedway.

The season this year will be considerably more compact, with 18 races (one less than last year) held over a very intensive schedule which will see the champion named no later than August 30. In one way, this is good as we won’t have long to wait between races. At one point this season, there will be six races in four weekends from the Houston double-header on 28-29 Jun through to Toronto on 19-20 Jul, with the season’s final three races also occurring in consecutive weekends.

But in a far less exciting way, this could potentially lead to the next off-season lasting up to SEVEN MONTHS! Again, if off-seasons could kill, have mercy on us all next time around.

Here’s hoping the top brass at IndyCar find a way to return the season to a more suitable length from 2015 and onwards.

But for now, LET’S GO RACING FOR 2014!

Images via Motorsport.com

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Matt Lennon

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