Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske, Barber Motorsport Park, 2014

Montoya returns to a condensed and closely-fought IndyCar series

2014 IndyCar season previewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

James Hinchcliffe, Andretti, Barber Motorsport Park, 2014The first of 19 races in this year’s IndyCar championship begins on the streets of St Petersburg, Florida this weekend.

It’s the same number of races there are on the F1 calendar. But on IndyCar’s compressed schedule the season finale takes place on the last Saturday in August – when F1 will still have seven races to run.

As with many changes which made to IndyCar in recent years the aim is to shore up its disappointing television audience. As it heads into its seventh year post-reunification, interest in the series bears no comparison with the attention it once attracted.

But the arrival of major names from other series may go some way to address that. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve – F1 race winners, Indianapolis 500 winners and Champ Car-era champions both – will compete this year.

Villeneuve has an Indy 500-only deal while Montoya is making an overdue full-time return to single-seater racing, eight years after his acrimonious departure from F1. Montoya’s application has been in doubt in the past but pre-season footage shows he’s been busy getting in shape for his IndyCar comeback.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske, Barber Motorsport Park, 2014While Montoya’s spell in NASCAR was something of a disappointment, yielding just two wins on road courses, the same can’t be said of 2004 champion Kurt Busch, who will also make an appearance in an open-wheel racer this year. Busch is to attempt three journeys of at least 500 miles each in one day: the Indy 500 followed by a 500-mile trip to Charlotte where he will start NASCAR’s 600-mile race.

The appearance of these star drivers comes at a vital time for the championship following the retirement of four-times champion and three-times Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti due to injuries sustained in Houston last year.

Happily Franchitti has recovered sufficiently that he will be able drive the pace car at the Brickyard this year. But his accident was a sobering reminder of the work the series needs to do on its safety standards, coming just two years after the horrible accident which claimed the life of Dan Wheldon.

IndyCar has made changes to the Dallara DW12 on safety grounds ahead of its third season with the chassis to improve head and arm protection. The car remains one of the less attractive designs in motor racing – though Formula One has done its bit to help with that this year – but the quality of racing it has created is hard to fault.

It’s hard to think of another top-flight single seater series which produces racing which is consistently as close and exciting as IndyCar’s in recent years. Since 2006, every championship has been decided at the final race.

Tony Kanaan, Ganassi, Barber Motorsport Park, 2014That makes their decision to fiddle with the points system rather surprising. But the introduction of double points at three of this year’s races makes rather more sense than F1’s horrendously unpopular adoption of a similar but significantly different concept.

Double points will be awarded at IndyCar’s three 500-mile races this year, which are more than twice the length of almost every other race on the calendar. At a time when oval races are arguably under-represented on the calendar, and as the series has done something similar in the past, the idea actually makes a lot of sense. The over-generous allocation of qualifying points for the Indianapolis 500, however, does not.

The 2014 series will remain within the USA and Canada as the race on Sao Paulo’s rather uninspiring street circuit has been dropped. Plans are afoot to return to Brazil next year, potentially in the capital city Brasilia.

In place of this event, as somewhat of a surprise, is a new race on a revised Indianapolis road course at the beginning of May to serve as a warm-up for the main event at the end of the month. This has been the subject of considerable debate but it has the advantage of drawing attention to the versatility of cars and drivers who can compete on a winding road course and a 200mph superspeedway.

Those speeds are set to get even higher, as the series owners have said they want to see Arie Luyendyk’s 382.216kph (237.498mph) record from 1996 to fall within the next three years.

While falling lap speeds and the quality of competition remain major talking points in Formula One, IndyCar seems keen to avoid the same problems. But it’s not like the series hasn’t got enough of its own it needs to work on. Hopefully the condensed 2014 schedule and the arrival of some big name drivers will see it take a step in the right direction.

2014 IndyCar teams and drivers

Team Engine Driver Notes
Foyt Honda Takuma Sato Scored breakthrough victory at Long Beach last year.
Andretti Honda Marco Andretti Still racing for grandfather’s team, now with Honda power.
Andretti Honda James Hinchcliffe Blew hot-and-cold last year with three wins and too many DNFs.
Andretti Honda Ryan Hunter-Reay Slumped in second half of 2013, losing chance to retain crown.
Andretti Honda Carlos Munoz Rookie star of last year’s Indy 500 now has full-time ride.
Herta Honda Jack Hawksworth 2012 Star Mazda champion going it alone in Bryan Herta’s team.
Ganassi Chevrolet Scott Dixon Made late surge to third IndyCar title last year.
Ganassi Chevrolet Tony Kanaan Finally won the Indy 500 last year, now in Franchitti’s place.
Ganassi Chevrolet Charlie Kimball The most surprising of the ten different drivers to win last year.
Ganassi Chevrolet Ryan Briscoe Back to a full time seat after losing place his at Penske.
Dale Coyne Honda Justin Wilson Couldn’t repeat 2012 win last year but took four podiums.
Ed Carpenter Chevrolet Ed Carpenter / Mike Conway Carpenter for ovals, Conway for road and street tracks.
KV Chevrolet Sebastien Bourdais Still striving to recapture pre-F1 high, now in Kanaan’s place.
KV Chevrolet Sebastian Saavedra Yet to finish higher than eighth in 40 appearances.
Penske Chevrolet Helio Castroneves Three times Indy 500 winner, three times series runner-up.
Penske Chevrolet Juan Pablo Montoya Won 2000 Indy 500 and 1999 Champ Car title (on points tie).
Penske Chevrolet Will Power Penske’s other three-times championship runner-up.
RLL Honda Graham Rahal Yet to emerge from father’s shadow or follow up on 2008 race win.
RLL Honda Oriol Servia Hugely experienced at this level but just one (Champ Car) win.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Honda Josef Newgarden Fast but occasoinally error-prone, now in his third year.
Schmidt Peterson Honda Simon Pagenaud A stealthy third in the points last year after two wins.
Schmidt Peterson Honda Mikhail Aleshin Rookie treaded water in Formula Renault 3.5 after 2010 title win.

Among those confirmed for the Indianapolis 500 are Jacques Villeneuve, Kurt Busch, JR Hildebrand, Alex Tagliani, Martin Plowman

2014 IndyCar calendar

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