With the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg now less than two months away, it's time to start thinking about what IndyCar Series stories will get attention in 2019.
There are many to consider, but here are a few that might be main conversation points.
Rookie of the Year sweepstakes
A great crop of young drivers signed over the offseason with several teams, so the 2019 Rookie of the Year battle promises to be interesting between at least five drivers with impressive success in other series.
The early favorites will likely be a pair of Swedes, Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Marcus Ericsson. Rosenqvist has four titles in ladder series along with wins in sports cars, open-wheel and even the all-electric ABB Formula E Championship. His compatriot Ericsson spent the past five seasons in Formula One and has two ladder titles and wins in GP2 under his belt.
2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion Patricio O'Ward of Mexico will be looking to continue his form from an amazing IndyCar Series debut last September at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, where he made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying, started fifth and then showed poise and speed as he raced to ninth place. Colton Herta, a six-time Indy Lights race winner who will be O’Ward’s Harding Steinbrenner Racing teammate, and Santino Ferrucci, who started four races for Dale Coyne Racing last season, are the U.S. contingent.
Indy cars on a Formula One circuit
The newly minted race in March at the Circuit of the Americas, the INDYCAR Classic, will spark an inevitable comparison to Formula One, which has raced at the track in Austin, Texas, since 2012. It will be a good-news story for the IndyCar Series.
Back in 2002 when Indy cars raced in Montreal on the same circuit as F1, some predicted that the lap-time difference between the two would be embarrassing. It wasn't.
At the time, F1 was two years into a raging tire war, and the battle saw about six seconds shaved off the previous single-supplier lap times in Montreal. When Indy car polesitter Cristiano da Matta was a similar gap off the F1 pace, the Brazilian quipped: “If both (series) had similar (tire) compounds, I would say it would be within two seconds, which is pretty damn close with the difference in budgets — I think it's only $200 million.”
What happened in Montreal was an exciting Indy car race weekend that saw fans walk away caring little about lap times. The big difference in Montreal was the open experience offered to Indy car fans compared to the closed world of F1. The same will be on offer when the IndyCar Series arrives at COTA with its fan-friendly format, open paddock and approachable stars. Fans will no doubt leave the circuit after rubbing shoulders with their favorite drivers, getting a close-up look at the cars, watching the teams work and seeing some great wheel-to-wheel racing.
A committed TV partner
Another important story is the new NBC Sports Group television deal that sees eight of 17 INDYCAR races on the main network, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500. The remaining nine will air on NBCSN. While it's terrific to have “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on NBC for the first time, the bigger picture here is that the network is a destination for motorsports in the U.S. and puts great effort in building its partners.
It's hard to argue with the cross-promotion NBC has planned for the series or 350 hours of television and streaming that includes every IndyCar Series on-track session. Fans will get more action than ever from a television network that wants to help the IndyCar Series grow and flourish. A win-win for everyone.
Title recipe has many ingredients
The last big story of 2019 has three prongs: The title fight will be a tale of Ganassi driver Scott Dixon's amazing ability to win no matter the circumstances, Andretti Autosport's Alexander Rossi and his determination to take the bull by the horns, and the anticipated return to form for the Team Penske trio.
Simply put, don't ever count out Dixon. It doesn't matter if it’s a short oval, superspeedway or street or road course, the guy finds a way to win. Just ask anyone who's had to race against him. And when the chips are down, nobody is better. Preventing a sixth IndyCar Series title for Dixon is no small order.
In the other corner is Rossi, entering his fourth season hot on the heels of a runner-up performance where he dominated several races and showed a good balance of aggressiveness and maturity. Without a couple mistakes in Detroit and Sonoma, Rossi may have been champion. Bottom line is he won't make the same errors this year.
While it's hard to fathom, Penske drivers weren't really a season-long factor in the 2018 championship, even though two of them won three races apiece. There were flashes of brilliance — Will Power's double at Indy stood out — but the Captain's squad didn't put together the consistent kind of season fans expected. 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud didn't win a race. Josef Newgarden led the championship after winning two of the first four 2018 races, but his only podium finish in the final 13 races was a win at Road America and he wound up fifth in points.
Look for the Team Penske trio to be back with a vengeance.