A cast list of drivers that remain largely the same, and largely in the same places, might lead you to expect the 2023 IndyCar season to be a repeat of 2022. That belief could be exacerbated by the fact that the campaign ahead will be the 12th for Chevrolet and Honda’s 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6, the sixth for the universal aerokit and the fourth for the aero. Even the schedule is largely the same, except the Detroit race has been changed from Belle Isle to a new 1.7-mile course in downtown Motown.
But it’s the very strictness of the formula that from year to year can push the narrative in a different direction, according to mini-discoveries with engine, aerodynamics, dampers and dampers. For example, who would have expected in the twilight of the current engine era that Chevrolet could build such a remarkable advantage for 2022 that it could take 11 wins and 13 poles from 17 races after four consecutive years of losing the constructors’ championship? Did anyone predict that Andretti Autosport would suddenly become a powerhouse on the Indy road circuit – its former bete noire – but lose its former supremacy on the road courses as Penske caught up?
Of course, IndyCar isn’t always about the form entry. Some existing themes were expanded into 2022, including Chip Ganassi Racing’s supremacy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was actually increased. But who would be shocked if Ganassi’s forte in 2023 became temporary tracks and Penske suddenly returned to 2018-19 form at the Speedway? These are, after all, two of the biggest open-wheel teams in the world.
The thing is, in IndyCar the paper should only be considered a guide, not an almanac, even as these cars and this formula near the end of its life cycle. The biggest minds in the paddock are trying to squeeze the last bits of potential out of their cars and have studied the data accumulated from their race weekend notes, simulator, wind tunnel and shakedown rig. Chances are they’ve found plenty of items to investigate in the opening practices during the first quarter of the season.
However, the nature of the specification cars puts a lot of emphasis on the drivers and for some this should be a huge year.
Felix Rosenqvist has the specter of Alex Palou hanging over him as he enters his third season at Arrow McLaren. The team expanded to three full-time cars this year, but Rosenqvist only kept his place after Palou failed to break away from Ganassi and the 31-year-old Swede knows that current team-mate Pato O’Ward and new arrival Alexander Rossi both they have contracts with AM that will end next year as well. So, assuming Palou is committed to McLaren but can’t find a race seat on the Formula 1 team for 2024, then Rosenqvist is fighting for an IndyCar seat for 2024.
Rosenqvist faces a challenge from Palou to keep his place at Arrow McLaren, assuming the Spaniard’s days at Ganassi are numbered
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Rosenqvist gets off topic, says the right things – “I feel like I have good support from the team to go play,” etc. – but he is not naive. He knows he needs to increase his chances of a decent ride next year by shining in direct comparison to O’Ward and Rosenqvist. He can do it;
Well, losing former race engineer Craig Hampson to Rossi is a blow, but Rosenqvist and others speak highly of his replacement Chris Lawrence, who has served as assistant race engineer on the #7 car previously driven by Rosenqvist . And without a doubt, it has untapped potential and remarkable durability.
He only overtook O’Ward four times in 2022, but twice he led from pole position and was rarely too far from the Mexican. More pertinently, there have been several times when Rosenqvist has outplayed him as well, which suggests he can do quite a bit to prove himself to potential new employers.
“We overachieved in some places and underachieved in other places! It’s unfortunate, but I learned so much and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned into this season.” Kyle Kirkwood
Former F1 ace Romain Grosjean is another driver with a lot to prove in 2023, despite having a secure option with Andretti Autosport for 2024. With just one podium to his name from his first season with AA – albeit in a very up-and-down year for Michael Andretti’s team – has frankly been disappointing for much of 2022. The Frenchman could look extremely fast and then make a mistake, or he could fade into mediocrity as the line between pace and prudence often eluded him.
And things aren’t going to get any easier, with the ultra-fast Colton Herta staying with the team and the departing Rossi being replaced by America’s next Boy Wonder, Kyle Kirkwood. Or at least we think Kirkwood is the next big thing. His record in junior formulas is impeccable, but the jury is out because his rookie season at AJ Foyt Racing featured too many incidents – which he readily admits.
“That’s absolutely fair to say,” he agrees. “When you’re in your 20s and you’re stuck, of course you’re not going to just give up, you’re going to push yourself to the limit. In a sense that’s what we did (at Foyt). We overachieved in some areas and succeeded when trying to overachieve in others! It’s sad, but I’ve learned so much and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned into this season.”
If pre-season testing is representative, Kirkwood immediately adapted back to the Andretti Autosport setup he first tested as a reward for winning the 2021 Indy Lights title. The intra-squad battle between him, Herta and Grosjean will she is fascinating.
Grosjean has more in-house competition this year as Kirkwood arrives eager to prove a point after a mixed rookie year at Foyt
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Their semi-teammates at Meyer Shank Racing, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, will need a lot of points help this season after finishing 18th and 15th respectively in 2022. Sure, the alliance with AA is a double-edged sword, but it was a shock that so often this experienced pair – 46 wins and more than 500 starts between them – couldn’t find a setup that suited them or the Firestone tires. Another year like last year, and Michael Shank and Jim Meyer may come to the conclusion that a wholesale change in line-up is needed, especially with IMSA champion Tom Blomqvist in the company and more than willing to switch disciplines…
The IndyCar driver with the most to prove this year is Jack Harvey, who endured a miserable first season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan. While the team also struggled in the first half of 2022, their mid-season turnaround only appeared to benefit Harvey’s team-mates Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard. Sponsor Hy-Vee has switched to Lundgaard’s car this year, which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence for Harvey, but he’s tough enough to do it.
The key to improving his form, the Briton says, is to “become more flexible” when chasing set-pieces, accepting when his car’s handling isn’t ideal and instead adapting his driving to match it which has. Otherwise, he’ll find himself buried in a field that now includes 27 full-time innings.
Of the drivers who ran every round in 2022, Dalton Kellett and Jimmie Johnson are gone, while rookie Marcus Armstrong (roads and road for Chip Ganassi Racing, in an oval-only ride-share with veteran Takuma Sato ). Indy Lights alumni Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen join Foyt and Dale Coyne Racing respectively, and Argentine touring car legend Agustin Canapino increases Juncos Hollinger Racing’s presence from one car to two.
Harvey needs a big season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after a trying 2022 campaign in which he was beaten by his teammates
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