The past year brought a number of surprising and inspiring moments and story lines in racing, a season that showcased and embraced drama, strategy, a transformational change and monumental accomplishments. So, somewhat arbitrarily and in no particular order, here is the first of three installments in IndyCar.com’s Ten Best Things about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season:
The season opener in St. Pete: The questions before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had everything to do with a new universal aero kit and the brief time drivers and engineers had to sort out the basics, let alone fine-tune the quirks. After Sebastien Bourdais crossed the finish line ahead of the field, the only prediction that could be made about the remainder of the season involved its unpredictability.
Bourdais won after an incident between Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens, who had led 65 of the race’s 110 laps, on Lap 108. It was Bourdais’ second consecutive victory on the streets of the city he calls home, and his first victory since recovering from devastating injuries sustained while attempting to qualify for the 2017 Indianapolis 500.
The underlying story, though, was the new kit, designed to reduce downforce and encourage passing. It accomplished that immediately. The race’s 366 on-track passes broke the previous event record of 323 set in 2008.
“These cars are far more demanding than anything we’ve driven,” said Graham Rahal, who started last in the 24-car field and raced to second place. “Not demanding in that it’s harder to get the speed out of them, just that it’s easier to mess up. The window of opportunity is very, very, very slim.”
The new kit offered significantly less downforce, a factor in eight caution flags on the difficult street course. Bourdais, who cut a tire early in the race, somehow battled back to win.
“We had an eighth-place car today,” said Dale Coyne, Bourdais’ team co-owner. “His consistency made that a fourth-place car, and luck made it a winning car.”
Honda’s successful season: If you recall 2016 – and the folks at Honda Performance Development wish they could forget it – then you understand how significant 2018 was for Honda.
In 2016, Honda won just two races against rival Chevrolet, but in 2018 the tide turned. Honda took 11 of the 17 races and secured the championship with Scott Dixon. It was the first Honda championship since 2013, when Dixon also won.
“It's been a really good season,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development. “It's been a really good partnership with our teams, drivers and Honda working together to really address some of the issues that we had last year from a durability standpoint.”
Indeed, durability was Honda’s strong suit – along with Dixon, of course – in its return to prominence. Every full-season entry in the Verizon IndyCar Series is allowed four engines during the season, not to exceed 10,000 miles. If an entry uses a fifth engine or more before the 10,000-mile mark, it’s ineligible to score manufacturer points.
“It just shows the strength of our engine and the strength of what we've done with all of our associates at HPD,” St. Cyr said. “We've always come to this series looking at it as a way that we want to be challenging for race wins every single week.”
The only disappointment in an otherwise stellar season? Not winning the Indianapolis 500, which went to Chevrolet and Team Penske’s Will Power.
“This year will not go down as a complete success because we did not win the Indy 500,” St. Cyr said.
Farewell to Sonoma: Losing a popular circuit that had been on the schedule since 2005 wasn’t what the track, the series or the fans wanted, making the season finale at Sonoma Raceway a bittersweet affair for all.
“One of the toughest things for sanctioning bodies to do – folks who run the leagues in any sport – is to make the schedule,” said Mark Miles, president CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series. “There's so many different considerations. It starts with the league's desire to have the strongest possible events, where events are compelling and dominant in the market where you compete, and capable of making national news and achieving television, media ratings.”
The series will remain in Northern California – WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will replace Sonoma on the schedule – but saying goodbye to a unique racetrack and California’s wine country was difficult for many.
“I love catching up with friends here,” said Dixon, who won at Sonoma in 2007, 2014 and 2015 and celebrated his 2018 championship there in September. “There’s just a lot of diversity here. There are a lot of ex-pats here – Kiwis and Aussies. I like the laid-back feel here in Sonoma. And I enjoy wine, which certainly helps.”
NEXT IN THE SERIES: A look at Alexander Rossi’s run to prominence, a hearty welcome to Circuit of the Americas, the continuing success of new venues and more on the new aero kit.