Latest and longer IndyCar series begins this weekend
The longest off-season of any top-level international motorsport comes to a close on Friday when practice begins for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener in Florida.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg — on a combination airport and street circuit layout in the Florida gulf coast city is the first time IndyCars have been in competition since Kiwi Scott Dixon claimed his last-gasp title success at Sonoma Raceway at the end of August last year.
Ahead of them is a 16-race championship trail, and one that has been stretched a little with St Petersburg bumped a fortnight earlier in the year and a September 18 date for the finale at Sonoma Raceway.
The season includes the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 and the return of two venues that have a long history in Indycar racing.
Scott Dixon celebrates his 2015 IndyCar Championship victory. PICTURE/ Chevrolet Racing.
The lightning fast one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway returns to the IndyCar schedule in April and the challenging 6.5km Road America road course at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin will see top level open wheel action for the first time since Champ Car raced there in 2007. Also added to the calendar is a new street course event in downtown Boston.
The calendar has 16 races — counting the Detroit double-header in June as two races — with five (one less) oval events, six (one more) street course races and five road courses. It’s a balanced calendar for a series that promotes itself as the home of the most versatile drivers in motor racing. The grid looks like being slightly slimmer than in 2015 with 22 full season cars expected.
With the powerhouse Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing squads each running four cars and Andretti Autosport having three — and a fourth run in partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport — something like half of a grid is concentrated in the hands of just three teams.
There’s no change in the Chevrolet-powered Penske entries with Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Helio Castroneves (Brazil), Will Power (Australia) and Simon Pagenaud (France) all ranked as title challengers.
The Ganassi operation — also with Chevrolet power — continues with Dixon chasing his fifth IndyCar crown alongside Tony Kanaan (Brazil) and Charlie Kimball (USA) while ex-Manor Formula 1 driver Max Chilton (GB) joins Ganassi as an Indycar rookie.
Chilton isn’t the only driver moving from F1 as Alexander Rossi (USA) will drive the Andretti/Herta entry while Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Marco Andretti (USA) and Carlos Munoz (Colombia) continue as the three Andretti drivers with Honda power.
One of the strengths of Indycar has seen race winners come from deep in the pack. The 16 races in 2015 delivered nine different winners from seven teams as Josef Newgarden (USA), Sebastien Bourdais (France) and Graham Rahal (USA) each claimed two wins.
Newgarden remains with Ed Carpenter Racing, Bourdais continues with a KVSH Racing effort, slimmed down to a single full-season entry, and Rahal drives for his father’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad with Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot as a team-mate for three races.
Canadian James Hinchcliffe also won last year before being sidelined by an Indy 500 practice crash. He returns with Schmidt Petersen Motorsport with Russian Mikhail Aleshin as his team-mate.
AJ Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato (Japan) and Jack Hawksworth (GB) and the Dale Coyne Racing duo of the Connor Daly (USA) and Luca Filippi (Italy) complete the likely grid for the St Petersburg opener.
2016 Verizon IndyCar Series – schedule:
March 13 – St Petersburg, Florida (street course) April 2 – Phoenix Raceway, Arizona (oval) April 17 – Long Beach, California (street course) April 24 – Barber Motorsports Park, Alabama (road course) May 14 – GP of Indianapolis, Indiana (road course) May 29 – 100th Indianapolis 500, Indiana (Oval) June 4 – Belle Isle Detroit Race 1 (Street course) June 5 - Belle Isle Detroit Race 2 (Street course) June 11 – Texas Motor Speedway (Oval) June 26 – Road America, Wisconsin (Road course) July 10 – Iowa Speedway (Oval) July 17 – Toronto, Canada (Street course) July 31 – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) August 14 – Pocono Raceway, Pennsylvania (Oval) September 4 – GP of Boston (Street course) September 18 – Sonoma Raceway, California (Road Course).