IndyCar Mid-Ohio Preview

The NTT IndyCar Series returns this weekend for its fourth doubleheader with the Honda Indy 200 at Lexington’s Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The undulating twists and turns of the thirteen-corner, 2.2-mile road course has seen the circuit become one of the favourite locations on the calendar for drivers and fans alike.

What’s more, with just five races remaining, it’s up to the few remaining title challengers to step up this weekend if they wish to keep the championship alive.

Scott Dixon heads into this weekend on 416 points, a 96-point advantage over Josef Newgarden, with Patricio O’Ward and Takuma Sato realistically the remaining two contenders, albeit around 150 points behind.

Scott Dixon (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

Looking Back to 2019 Mid-Ohio and beyond.

The 2019 running was won by current championship leader Dixon in spectacular fashion. The New Zealander had rookie Felix Rosenqvist charging in the closing laps. In the final pass through turn two they had wheel contact. Both cars bobbled, but the drivers kept them straight, which led to a thrilling run to the chequered flag as Dixon drove with tires that had lost their effectiveness.

The margin of victory was 0.0934 seconds, the closest IndyCar finish at Mid-Ohio and third closest on a road course in IndyCar history.

Dixon and Chip Ganassi have proved a dominant force at Mid-Ohio in recent years. ‘Mr Mid-Ohio’ has a staggering six wins at the Sports Car Course, likewise Ganassi have won there 11 times, giving them a vast amount of confidence heading into the weekend.

Other drivers who have enjoyed success at the circuit have been Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud with a win apiece. Alongside them, look out for likes of O’Ward, Jack Harvey, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay who have all had relative success at the track in the junior categories.

Pato O’Ward (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

What should I look out for this weekend?

Dixon is the bookies favourite to win the IndyCar championship due to his commanding lead. However, the focus on this race will continue to be on his realistic championship rivals to see whether they can make a dent in that points deficit. Out of those only Newgarden has won here before, and he may be the most obvious challenge to the Kiwi.

O’Ward will be coming into the weekend following some magnificent but bittersweet performances having narrowly missed out on a handful of wins this season. The Mexican has been a consistent qualifier and regularly puts himself in the frame to challenge for the win. It’s often been strategic calls that have stripped those opportunities away. He’ll be looking to rectify that here to claim his maiden IndyCar win.

Sato, perhaps coming down from his second Indy 500 win, was in the fight arguably in both races last time out at Gateway. He’s somehow found a run of form that’s put him in his highest championship spot in his career. Although challenging Dixon in the standings is a tough order, to compete well against the likes of two-time champion Newgarden and up-and-coming superstar O’Ward will be all the incentive Sato needs to prove that experience sometimes trumps youth.

Another driver with something to prove this weekend will be Andretti’s Rossi. His crushing performance in the 2018 running race saw him and the team take a dominant victory from pole with an incredible tyre strategy. Rossi has demonstrated that he has the speed and his team have the strategies to come out on top in Mid-Ohio and he’ll be determined to do so again to try and draw himself closer to the top five in the championship, after a season plagued by bad luck.

Rinus VeeKay (Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media)

In terms of the battle for the coveted ‘Rookie of the Year’ title, VeeKay currently leads that fight, 13th in the standings on 181 points. His closest rivals are Alex Palou on 160 and Askew on 155. All three drivers have enjoyed a mixed bag of success and rotten luck, showing promising qualifying and race pace. VeeKay certainly has the momentum coming into the weekend and will be looking to replicate the win he had at the circuit during his time in the Pro Mazda Championship.

Just a mention about Colton Herta. What a season he’s been having. I wrote about his incredible qualifying performances during my preview for Gateway and touted him as someone to watch out for. He then went on to finish in fourth and sixth across both races of the doubleheader putting him in fifth place in the championship on 250 points. In only his sophomore year in IndyCar he’s certainly proved that he’s a superstar in the making, and now has the consistency to mount a title challenge in the future. I wouldn’t put it past Herta to do something similarly impressive this weekend to try and break into the top four.

Dale Coyne Racing‘s Santino Ferrucci is also on an impressive run of form. A fellow sophomore and a young American ‘hot-shot’, he is easily, like-for-like Colton Herta’s closest rival. After an amazing fourth at the Indy 500, followed by a top ten finish last time out at Gateway, Ferrucci is making somewhat of a name for himself. It wasn’t too long ago that he enjoyed a run of three top ten finishes between IMS and Iowa. He’ll be hoping to draw on his prior experience of racing single-seaters in Europe to try and get a similarly strong result on the Mid-Ohio road course this weekend so that he can impress further.

Finally, keep an eye on Meyer Shank Racing‘s Jack Harvey, aiming to continue what has so far been relatively strong season so far for the British driver. He’s shown glimpses of brilliances with three consecutive top ten finishes (IOWA 1, IOWA 2, INDY) and a strong showing at Gateway before an unfortunate timing with the caution ruined a race where he’d been running in the top 5. He’s currently 14th in the standings, which is by far the highest he has ever been during his time in IndyCar. This weekend he has an opportunity to push for 11th in the standings as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marcus Ericsson, VeeKay and Harvey are all separated by just 3 points.

IndyCar at Mid-Ohio will be shown live on Sky Sports F1 with qualifying set for 7:30pm (GMT) on Saturday followed by the race at around 8:30pm (GMT) on Sunday.

Outside contenders at the IndyCar Bommarito Automotive 500

Following the dramatic conclusion of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar relentlessly ploughs on with frightening momentum into a double header weekend at the World-Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Illinois.

Now two-time Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato brings massive confidence to the Bommarito Automotive Group 500, a race he won last year after holding off a late-charging Ed Carpenter in the closing stages to win by a narrow lead of 0.0339 seconds. It was the closest finish in IndyCar history.

He will get the opportunity not once, but twice to win at Gateway again. It is a sight we have almost become accustomed to, with doubleheaders at Iowa, Road America and of course over in Formula 1 with double-headers at Austria and Silverstone.

Looking at the championship standings it is a grim picture for anyone who is not Scott Dixon. The New Zealander holds a commanding lead of 84 points over his next closest rival, Josef Newgarden. It paints a clearer picture of how dominant the five-time world champion has been this season when noticing third placed Patricio O’Ward is a further 33 points behind Newgarden. Can anyone stop the brilliance of Scott Dixon?

Frankly, outside Newgarden, O’Ward and Sato, you may think the chances are slim.

But alas, there are many other drivers looking to prove themselves at the famous ‘egg-shaped’ circuit. Here are my surprise candidates to achieve a good result this weekend:

James Black / IndyCar Media

Santino Ferrucci

However infamous this young driver may be, you can’t argue with the results he has been putting in this season.

A pair of sixth place finishes in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America road course doubleheader was certainly a standout. More recently, a fantastic fourth at the Indianapolis 500 following a late charge which saw him finish three tenths behind leader Takuma Sato and within touching distance of podium finisher Graham Rahal.

In three out of the last five races he has finished in the top six. You could therefore argue that the young gun is finding his feet comfortably in IndyCar, vehemently charged to change his reputation in global motorsport.

While the likes of VeeKay, Palou, Askew and O’Ward may be stealing most of the headlines, Santino will be looking to upset the status-quo. You only have to look back a year when he finished fourth at Gateway after leading almost one hundred laps of the famous egg-shaped circuit.

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media

Conor Daly

Weeks have elapsed since a hilarious prank war between Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi, where the Andretti driver awoke to find his golf cart dismantled and relieved of its wheels. Since then, you could say Daly would have gladly swapped that same golf cart in place of his actual IndyCar over the last few races.

He has not finished in the top ten since the first race at Iowa and will be looking to bounce back in spectacular fashion.

Luckily for Conor, it seems he has a knack at Gateway. In his two race starts at the Bommarito 500 he has never finished outside the top six, a statistic that may give him confidence going into the weekend.

Bouncing between Carlin and Ed Carpenter Racing this year certainly will not have helped to form any sort of consistency needed for a title challenge. However, out of all his teammates he is currently tied with the most points alongside hotshot rookie Rinus VeeKay. If you were looking for a dramatic teammate battle, this one would be the one to watch.

Chris Owens / IndyCar Media

Colton Herta

The young American has had something of a roller-coaster of a season. While he is win-less this year, a seventh, fourth and a pair of fifths in the opening four rounds of the campaign proves he has consistency as well as raw speed. He comes radiating confidence after finishing a tremendous eight at the Brickyard.

What has been most impressive this year has been his qualifying form. Since the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway his qualifying results have been as follows: Indianapolis (3rd), Road America Race 1 (7th), Road America Race 2 (2nd), Iowa Speedway Race 1 (4th), Iowa Speedway Race 2 (5th). He only barely missed out on the ‘Fast Nine’ shootout at the Indy500. In such a competitive field, such consistent qualifying pace is a solid indicator that Colton has the speed to match anyone in the series. I expect a similar solid qualifying run to occur, and with that, a potential for a good result.

If you need any more evidence, the Californian has made two Indy Lights starts at Worldwide Technology Raceway leading 69 of 75 laps in 2018 before settling for second. Herta finished one spot lower in his first race at the 1.25-mile oval.

Three conclusions we can take from IndyCar’s opening six races

Can Anyone Stop Scott Dixon?

To some, the incredible form of Scott Dixon is nothing of a surprise. After winning at Texas, Indianapolis, and Road America he sealed his 49th career win, three behind IndyCar and Formula 1 legend Mario Andretti who stands at second on the all-time list. This will be his 18th consecutive season in American open-wheel racing with a win on his quest to achieve his sixth championship title.

Dixon proved his class on the restart of the season, finishing 4.411 seconds clear of rival Simon Pagenaud at Texas Motor Speedway where he led 157 of the 200 laps. What immediately followed was another dominant win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning by over 20 seconds over Graham Rahal. Finally, a win at Road America gave him his third consecutive win, with seemingly no let-up in sight.

Chris Jones / IndyCar Media

Since then, we have had three more races: one other at Road America, and two at Iowa Speedway. Despite starting 17th in both races, Dixon rose to an incredible second and fifth place to solidify his lead at the top of the standings

How has Dixon done this? A mixture of raw pace, consistency, experience, and well-executed strategy calls. Interestingly, despite not starting anywhere higher than the third row of the grid five of the last six races he has finished on the podium four times, a testament to how good his race strategy and decision-making skills are.

However, all three Penske drivers are firmly in the hunt. Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden will be looking to stop Scott Dixon’s momentum heading into the second half of the season.

Dixon says that he is in impeccable form, in an interview he states:

“For me right now, I’m physically stronger,” he said. “Mentally, I’m in a better place than ever.”

Bad news for his competitors, but great news for race fans.

 

Safety is Key

A significant moment in IndyCar history was the implementation of the Aeroscreen, designed by RedBull Advanced Technologies. The engineering consultancy of the championship-winning Formula 1 team proposed the concept in 2016 only to be rejected for the Halo device.

The device improves the design of the Halo in a significant way. The polycarbonate ballistic windscreen protects the driver from any debris that would otherwise bypass the titanium frame. Additionally, the windscreen can withstand a hit from a 2lb (0.9kg) object at a speed of 220 mph (354kmh). Thus, pieces of a car, that for any reason, rise to meet the cockpit of a competitor are very unlikely to reach the driver inside, and we now have evidence to back this up.

During lap 144 at the Iowa Speedway, a botched pitstop left Will Power’s car with a loose left front wheel. Subsequently on lap 157 Power understeered into the wall, breaking the front suspension, and sending one of his tyres over the car itself. Luckily, the tyre deflected off the windscreen and away from the driver. Power heaped praise on the effectiveness of the Aeroscreen following the race:

“Man, I can’t thank IndyCar enough for everything they’ve done safety-wise with the Aeroscreen and halo inside the Aeroscreen,” he said. “You just saw Colton Herta go over the top of someone, and they’ve just done a tremendous job. It’s better than any other series that have invented something like it. Just a very good job,”

The crash he was referring to involved Colton Herta on lap 157. Due to a confusion during an aborted restart he accelerated into the back of Rinus Veekay. Horrifically, Herta can be seen being thrown into the air above Veekay. Luckily, the Aeroscreen kept the Dutchman safe as Herta’s car lands on top of him.

Without the Aeroscreen it is highly likely that both these incidents could have resulted in serious injuries for all the drivers involved.

The Aeroscreen, while still criticised for things such as overheating the drivers in the cockpits, is a positive contribution to safety in motorsport and certainly here to stay.

 

McLaren’s Rise to Prominence

Chris Jones / IndyCar Media

Two years ago, McLaren were struggling in Formula One with a series of reliability issues with their Honda powertrain and a car that did not meet the team’s expectations. A disastrous campaign resulted in them losing two-time champion Fernando Alonso. However, it forced them to embark on a fundamental restructuring process that would lead them back to the front of motorsport.

Since then, it has been a remarkable turnaround for the team, with two podiums and two fastest laps to its name in Formula One this year.  McLaren also have been racing in IndyCar alongside Schmidt Arrow Peterson, rebranded as Arrow McLaren SP. This seems to have been a partnership made in heaven with a serious of impressive drives from both Patricio O’Ward and Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew.

An impressive race at Road America saw Patricio O’Ward score his first pole position, but unfortunately lose the win to Chip Ganassi star Felix Rosenqvist on the final lap of the race. Not too long after at Iowa Speedway both Arrow McLaren Chevrolets were among the fastest cars in the field even if the results for both cars did not reflect their outright pace.

Rookie Oliver Askew impressed with his first podium in Race 1 and an impressive sixth after a late stint on fresher tyres. Meanwhile, it was a case of what might have been for O’Ward.

After making some impressive overtakes using the high line he gained five positions, eventually hunting down race leader Josef Newgarden for the win. Unfortunately, a slow pitstop cost O’Ward the lead lap and ultimately the race win. He finished in 12th, arguably an undeserved result for such an impressive drive.

Oliver Askew now sits at the top of the Rookie of the Year standings (115 points) while his teammate is firmly in the championship hunt, sitting in fourth (162 points). Though, after narrowly losing two race wins, O’Ward may feel that he should be sitting in second place only below Scott Dixon in the standings had results gone his way. Pato remains cautiously optimistic about the team’s chances this year:

“We want to win races, be a contender in the championship,” he says. “Everyone is pushing the same way as I am, with the same amount of energy and motivation. We have a great group of engineers and the car has felt good everywhere we’ve been.

 

[Featured image – Joe Skibinski / IndyCar Media]

O’Ward’s Rookie IndyCar Season on Hold

Patricio O’Ward has parted ways from Harding Steinbrenner Racing, with whom he was expected to compete in his rookie IndyCar season this year.

The Mexican driver won the 2018 Indy Lights championship, winning nine out of 17 races. O’Ward then made his IndyCar debut in Sonoma last season with Harding Steinbrenner, reaching the Fast Six in qualifying and finishing the race in ninth place. He was understood to have signed a deal to race for the team on a full-time programme in 2019.

Credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

O’Ward’s Indy Lights championship win was accompanied by a scholarship worth $1 million to be put towards an entry in the IndyCar championship.

However, O’Ward announced today that he had parted ways with the team, releasing the following statement:

“The Harding Steinbrenner Racing team supported my decision to seek a new opportunity by releasing me from my contract and allowing me the opportunity to find a new team before the start of the 2019 season. Now, I am fully focused on finding the right opportunity and how I will use my scholarship from Indy Lights for 2019.”

With the first race of the IndyCar season on March 10, time is running out for O’Ward to secure a new seat, and it is unclear whether he will be able to find a full-time or part-time deal.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing are now expected to contest the season with only one entry, the #88 car, to be driven by 2018 Indy Lights runner-up Colton Herta.

(Featured image credit: Chris Jones/IndyCar)