Although its start is still months away, 2016 is shaping up to be a challenging season for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
In addition to the Groundhog Day-like concerns that seem to cling to the Series like a stubborn toe fungus, the Series is still dealing with the loss of one of its most popular and well-respected drivers, Justin Wilson, who died after being involved in an on-track incident at Pocono Raceway last August.
With Wilson’s untimely passing still hanging over it, IndyCar, led by President Mark Miles, forges ahead and change appears to be the order of the day. Here are three key storylines to watch as the season progresses.
1. SCHEDULE SHUFFLE
As is customary with IndyCar schedule building, the 2016 calendar has been revealed in jigsaw-puzzle fashion over several months. In late October, Miles confirmed the complete schedule and there are some noteworthy changes.
One of the biggest – Miles’ aversion to racing after Labour Day – appears to have subsided. Slightly.
Although the number of races remains unchanged (16), the calendar is 36 days longer in 2016, beginning in mid-March on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and concluding in mid-September at Sonoma Raceway in California.
As is often the case, there are some casualties. Auto Club Speedway, NOLA Motorsports Park and the Milwaukee Mile won’t be back due to varying degrees of poor attendance, promoter issues and the inability to find workable dates.
In their places are three new venues: Phoenix International Raceway (April 2), Road America (June 26) and Boston (September 4).
Phoenix and Road America are old IndyCar venues that haven’t hosted a race since 2005 and 2007, respectively. Boston is a new date that will see racing on streets in the city’s Seaport District.
All three venues (Phoenix and Road America in particular) have been rumoured to be coming for some time, so it will be interesting to see how the ticket-buying public responds.
Phoenix and Road America already have very successful NASCAR dates and, perhaps because of that, IndyCar may have more time to build an audience for its events.
Either way, all three events will be closely scrutinized as management continues its search for the 16- to 18-race schedule that balances road courses, street circuits and ovals.
The steady churn of events coming and going, and dates being flip-flopped around the schedule (like Auto Club Speedway, which raced on four different dates in four years), isn’t sustainable and Miles needs to find venues with long-term potential.
Another thing to keep an eye on in the coming year is the status of potential 2017 venues. Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (which last hosted an IndyCar race in 2007 and is the current site of the Mexican F1 Grand Prix) and Gateway Motorsports Park (last hosted an IndyCar race in 2003, and will be used as a test facility in 2016) are both in play.
2. REPLACING DERRICK WALKER
When Derrick Walker announced his resignation as IndyCar’s President of Competition and Operations last August after three years on the job, the news caught many observers off-guard, myself included.
Walker, a motorsport lifer with decades of experience as owner and operator in IndyCar and sports car racing, was viewed by many to be the perfect person to manage the clashing egos and agendas that roil the IndyCar paddock. As a former owner, Walker would be able to engage current car owners on their level – he’d be able to get things done because he could speak to them in their language.
As his tenure wound down though, he expressed frustration publicly over an inability to get much done due to resistance from car owners and a lack of resources within the IndyCar office.
At times, it appeared as if Walker had been effectively sidelined, especially in 2015. His attempts at tackling the big issues confronting the sport, such as the eventual successor for the current Dallara DW12 chassis, received much resistance from the paddock. To the point he all but gave up trying to even to broach the subject after a while.
With the situation deteriorating and little hope of relief, in the short term at least, Walker elected to jump ship.
The selection of a successor will have a long-term impact on a broad range of competition issues, from managing manufacturer relationships, to future chassis talks, to officiating and staffing race control. It’s a hire IndyCar needs to get right.
3. MANUFACTURER RELATIONS
Chevrolet won the manufacturer and drivers’ championship in 2015, and has won both titles every year since engine competition returned in 2012 (with the exception of 2013 when Scott Dixon won the drivers’ championship with Honda power).
With the introduction of areo kits last year, Chevrolet seemed to get the upper hand early, and the advantage helped paved the way to wins in 10 out of 16 races. In many cases, Honda-powered cars had a hard time cracking the top 10, much less the podium.
The advantage was less pronounced later in the season, with four of Honda’s wins coming in the final six races, but that didn’t stop Honda from asking IndyCar for help.
Over Chevrolet’s objections, IndyCar elected in early November to permit the Japanese manufacturer to make changes to its road / street circuit and short oval aero kit for 2016 by invoking Rule 9.3.
This rule basically give the Series discretion to enable either Chevrolet or Honda to alter its aero kit specs in the interest of improving competition. This ruling does not apply to Honda’s superspeedway kit, which will remain unchanged.
With just two engine manufacturers, and no third supplier on the horizon, IndyCar has to manage these relationships very carefully.
Another down year might encourage Honda to question its involvement within IndyCar moving forward.
IndyCar has to keep them happy and in the fold – doing so should to be a top priority for both Miles and whomever he chooses as Walker’s replacement.