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 second of three installments in IndyCar.com’s Ten Best Things about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season:
Rossi’s runner-up season was quite solid: It’s no secret that Michael Andretti’s choice of Alexander Rossi before the 2016 season was one of the best hiring decisions in recent memory. After all, Rossi was considered a possible American breakthrough in Formula One. As a free agent after the 2015 season, he was highly sought.
That first year with Andretti Autosport, Rossi won the Indianapolis 500. Since, he has shown what talent scouts long suspected – if given the proper equipment and a shot with a first-rate team, he had championship potential. He finished 57 points behind Scott Dixon in the final 2018 standings, but the possibility of a championship looms large in his future.
Rossi posted three victories on three widely different circuits – Long Beach (tight street course), Mid-Ohio (permanent road course) and Pocono (superspeedway oval) – and won three pole positions. He finished on the podium in eight of the 17 races and only finished outside the top 10 three times.
“All the Andretti cars have been strong all year,” Rossi said before the season finale at Sonoma Raceway. “I think the second half of the year we made a pretty big step forward on road courses.”
In particular, at Mid-Ohio. If anything framed Rossi’s season, it was starting from the pole, leading 66 of 90 laps and winning at one of INDYCAR’s toughest road courses.
“We definitely found something then,” he said. “We've been able to kind of carry that forward, not just be a flash in the pan sort of progress. It's been progress that's been quantifiable and repeatable. That's a huge testament to the effort that the team puts in. I have every expectation that they're going to continue this development process this offseason and we're going to come back in 2019 even a bigger step ahead than we were this year.”
Also, for those keeping score at home, Rossi has 56 laps at Circuit of the Americas, courtesy of the 2015 U.S Grand Prix. Whether it gives him a leg up when the IndyCar Series debuts at the Austin, Texas, track in March remains to be seen.
Speaking of COTA ...: It was the most significant scheduling news of the season. Rumors had swirled for years about the possibility of INDYCAR racing at the 20-turn, 3.427-mile road course, but confirmation that it will be on the 2019 schedule – and in March, no less – was met with enthusiasm throughout the paddock and fan base.
“I came to the first Formula One race (in 2012) and went up on the tower (observation deck) and watched the first (practice) session,” AJ Foyt Racing driver Tony Kanaan said after testing at the facility in October. “I’ve always wanted to test here. Every year, I ask the team if we could come here to test. We finally made it.”
One of only two FIA Grade I circuits in the U.S. – the other being Indianapolis Motor Speedway – COTA is spectacular. And spectacularly difficult. It features a number of blind turns, numerous passing zones and a wide test of driving skills.
For now, everyone – not just drivers – is fired up about Austin.
“It’s off the charts, whether it’s drivers who want to be there on that great stage in that great market on a world-class track or the team owners who want to bring their sponsors,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent company of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series. “Everybody is thrilled about it.”
New venues are trending upward: The return of Portland International Raceway to the Indy car schedule was a hit, as were previous additions of Gateway Motorsports Park and Road America. The Labor Day weekend at Portland resulted in a win by Takuma Sato, greeted enthusiastically by fans.
The reason for the enthusiasm lies in recent history. The track had a 24-year run in the CART/Champ Car days, with winners like Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. After a 10-year absence, Indy cars returned to PIR to a large crowd and a happy winner.
“Who won? I don't care,” Sato joked afterward. “Obviously, I wanted to win. I won a street course (Long Beach in 2013), won a superspeedway (Indy in 2017), very close to the short oval, but (on a) road course, (this is) my first career win. Means a lot. … I'm really, really happy today.”
Like many other circuits on the schedule, the location, the vibe and the fans make Portland interesting.
“Love this part of the world,” said Dixon, who miraculously escaped unscathed from a multi-car crash on the first lap and recovered to finish fifth and keep his drive to the championship intact. “The people are so friendly. The fans are really knowledgeable. It's even cool to see a lot of people walking around in the old-school CART shirts, Indy car shirts, Newman/Haas shirts everywhere. … Just stoked to be back here. INDYCAR, the promoters – everybody involved – did a hell of a job.”
The little aero kit that could: The question of the year coming into the 2018 season – whether a new universal aero kit would perform as intended – was answered positively, even if it was a major (and at times difficult) transition. All competing cars were outfitted with the universal kit this year, following three seasons of sometimes unbalanced aero kit competition and development from Chevrolet and Honda.
To wit: At one of the first tests of the new kit at Sebring International Raceway, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport quipped, “It’s alive.”
The kit, bodywork fitted to the existing Dallara IR-12 chassis, was designed to reduce downforce and make the cars more difficult to drive, thereby offering more passing opportunities. It did that, for the most part, successfully.
“It’s obviously a lot less downforce, so the car is a lot less stable,” Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud said after his initial experience with the new kit. “I actually think it’s harder for a driver who has been driving the high-downforce kit the past three years compared to somebody who comes into the series with no reference. It’s really hard to step back down and try to back off rather than going forward with your limits.”
Overall, the universal kit was massively praised by drivers, teams, fans and media for making IndyCar Series racing even better. Never satisfied, however, INDYCAR technical officials have been working since the end of the 2018 season to shore up the kit’s performance in one of the few areas necessary – on superspeedways to give cars more stability and ability to overtake when running in large groups.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: The inspiration of Robert Wickens, the reaction of Will Power to winning the Indy 500 and Scott Dixon’s remarkable fifth championship.