Top 5 early storylines for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season

Final Season With Engine Regulations

2022 was supposed to be the first year that the series moved to hybrid engine regulations. But, due to a pandemic starting in 2020, everything was pushed back a year. That means the 2022 season now will be the last under this current form. In 2023, we move to a new hybrid technology with more horsepower.

So far, we’ve only had one test in trying to find 2023 configurations but more are coming. Back in this past spring, Jay Frye said that when we get to the 2023 season, the new 2.4-liter engine will produce 100 more horsepower than we already have now. When the hybrid kicks in, that’s an additional 100 horsepower on top of that too.

The new engine formula will push 900 horsepower as is. But, he doesn’t think the addition of 200 additional horsepower from 2022 to 2023 is smart.

“It’s pushing 900. So even in the hybrid system, it has potential to have 100 more right out of the box. That doesn’t mean that we’ll do that,” Frye said. “We might do that over a period of time. The new 2.4-liter will have 100 right out of the box. Probably going into 2023 with 200 more is a little bit too much. So you just look at the hybrid system to look at how to limit that and then in a period of time, we’ll increase the power for the hybrid.”

How much does that change 2022 when you know a new engine is coming out in 2023?

Also, another possibility coming is the addition of push to pass for ovals. That was another bullet point they tested back in March.

Frye, said that the drivers all had their moments during that test due to the cornering speed being vastly higher with this formula than the current one.

“I think today we’ve got a lot of data off the car in a direction on what approach to go with,” he said. “In the way that we have push to pass, with the hybrid system that would kind of be obsolete. You’ll have a bank of energy that you have with the hybrid system that once it will go away, that you will be able to recharge it so it will be on all the time basically. With push to pass there’s an amount of time or there’s an amount of pushes. That’s what we looked at today. We just gave the drivers for every 200 seconds, you’re going to go do a 20 lap run. Use it as you want it. Most used about half, so 100 seconds. It was interesting to see how it played out.”

Frye said that they did get some interesting data in that one of the interesting things they had a 20 lap run without it and a 20 lap run where it was 10 seconds in duration and one with 5 seconds. The drivers actually liked the shorter one.

“We learned that. We thought that was interesting,” Frye said. “We thought they would have liked that for a longer time. This is new. We’ve never done this on an oval. We’ve tested it at Pocono, Texas and Phoenix before but that was with the old package. For this new one, it definitely is much better than it was before which is cool.”

Scott Dixon said that the test then was loads of differences between the current car that he’s running in comparison to the direction that INDYCAR could end up in 2023.

“Obviously there’s a lot of power and some of the durations are quite long,” Dixon said. “10 seconds at 70-80 horsepower, especially in a car that’s trimmed out. Your average lap speed could jump by several mph. There’s some good changes to see how you can apply that and to what effect or not effect on the tire and in regards to running in traffic.”

2016 Indianapolis 500 champion, Alexander Rossi, agreed.

“Yes it’s a pretty big horsepower boost with the push to pass,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “We’re going to have to look at it to see if it changed anything for the better or worse. It’s definitely different. We got that test accomplished and have some hard data to look at for the future.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said that it was a good day from his perspective and that he came into the test without any expectations on what to expect.

“I came into today with no expectations just because it’s a mission gathering day for all of us,” the Team Penske driver said. “We were here all four cars to help INDYCAR. We do these tests periodically. Whether new components for the future or new thoughts processes for the future. INDYCAR wanted to gather some data on push to pass and I understand that for some future engine regulations in the future in terms of usage.

“I thought it went well. When you learn something in testing you’re happy about it. I thought we learned some stuff today on our cars on how things works and how they could potentially work in use scenario.

“The horsepower bump was tunable. You could definitely raise the horsepower increase up or down so that jump in the performance off the corner could be bigger or smaller. The length of it is all adjustable. We ran through a couple of scenarios and a couple of configurations. It’s definitely noticeable. A couple of configurations were noticeable. If you want to run a system like that, it’s really what’s the right configuration to give to the field. I think that’s the type of info we were trying to arm INDYCAR with and now it’s on to them to see what we do in the future.”

Pato O’Ward tests on the IMS oval last year – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Both Dixon and Rossi felt like some changes could definitely be made still and that the 2.5-mile oval here on the west side of Indianapolis may have an averse effect in the sense that you can still get a large tow on the long straightaways.

“The tow is still very strong here,” Dixon said. “We’re trying to figure out what areas need to be worked on. I necessarily don’t think it’s the acceleration of the car on the straights. I think this car, even in comparison to the last car, the tow is probably double of what we used to have. For me I think it’s more of a function of how close you can run in the corner and how the dirty air affects the front of the car. I think that’s the standout. It was good to just run through those options and to see how we can apply it. I think it’s an easy application on road and street once we get to hybrid. It’s just trying to figure out on what it applies especially for a superspeedway. I think a short course won’t be much drama.”

Dixon said that one frustration with the current use of push to pass is that drivers use it to defend also. With getting a tow on the straights here, does push to pass counter that for the lead car?

“Most of the time you have push to defend on the road course races which becomes very, very frustrating when you’re trying to overtake lapped cars. Then you get manufacturers fighting when you’re trying to get the lapped car in trying to defend the opposite manufacturer,” Dixon said. “On the oval, you could definitely push to defend but then again the tow is pretty big and it affected the cars more two, three and four in line than the first two. There was some difference in some different options.”

Both Dixon and Rossi both said that the speeds entering the corners were definitely higher which obviously changed their approach to corner entry.

“It just upped the speeds, so the tire got hurt more,” Dixon said. “It’s an interesting situation when you have lots of overtake.”

Rossi, said that you had to go slower in the corners to make up for that.

“The faster you go the more load that goes into the tire,” he said.

Another part of the data that some changes could occur in are for how long the push to passes are used and if the button locks you out.

“Say you have 10 seconds of use but once you use the 10 seconds how long does it lock you out for,” Dixon said. “So that can be a problem too. Then you also have the factor if you get 10 seconds and it locks you out for 30 once you got off the throttle, that’s not really fair if you’re only going to use 5. So you should be able to turn it off and on depending on use that full 10. Today was trying to understand how it applies.”

Rossi fully agreed.

“That was a conversation that was actually brought up with Scott (Dixon),” he told me. “With the way that it was currently setup, when you push it, you were then locked out for a period of time. So, if you pushed it, the last thing you want to do is not make the most of it. So, you have that dynamic that comes into play, especially on starts and restarts. A lot of guys have it and some guys don’t, it could create a big effect.”

Rossi, was the most outspoken of the four about the push to pass as he doesn’t necessarily think that they need it here. He said that they tested different iterations on how long the push to passes were active for. It was a little bit better in one configuration than another but he didn’t think it ultimately changed much.”

“I do not,” Rossi said on if this would be helpful for 2023.

“I think that there’s always areas to improve the oval package and I think those areas are pretty clear and understood from all of us and we’ve all kind of had the same balance shifts. This is attempting to be a solution to the problem but I think there always is a long list of suggestions of solutions and this is just one of them.”

Part of his concerns are that Indy is a fuel mileage place. If you’re leading, you’re burning more fuel. The more horsepower boosts you also use, you’re burning even more fuel. So, he feels like most won’t use it much until the end anyways.

“It’s hard to say because ultimately we had the same amount (of push to passes),” Rossi said on Friday. “Everybody is doing the same thing. I think you can get in a situation where you have a guy who’s used them all against a guy who hasn’t and that’s going to make a huge difference. But, Indianapolis for the most part is a fuel race. You don’t want to lead and burn fuel. So, using push to pass liberally doesn’t seem like a reality. When you get to the end of the race everyone will probably have the same amount which would be a moot point in that respect. I think with the way that our current system works that it won’t change anything. But this is all for view to 2023 where push to pass could have different applications on how you use the energy and restore the energy and so forth.”

Rossi did like the fact that you could feel the power activate but not necessarily feel it go away when it ends.

Is 2022 Herta’s Year?

Colton Herta told me entering this past season that he wanted to turn those top fives into more podiums. That was the difference he felt. He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.

Through 16 races run this season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races this season than in 32 starts prior.

The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into wins. Three of his four podiums were victories including two straight to close out the year. He equaled his number of wins this season compared to his career wins entering.

That has to make Herta the one to watch next year and also has to make him wonder “what might have been.”

He was collected in a first lap crash in the season opener at Barber. He had pit road troubles in Mid-Ohio. He crashed while pursuing the lead in Nashville after leading a race-high 39 laps that day. He had a driveshaft break while leading in Gateway.

Take those three instances out and Herta very likely has three more wins.

On top of that, he had a front row starting spot in exactly half the races run this season. That gives him high hopes for 2022. Is he now the championship favorite after winning the final two races of 2021?

Is It The Big 5 Now Or Did AMSP Surpass Andretti and Rahal Already?

Heading into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, one could make a strong case that the “Big 3” very much remained in tact. Penske, Ganassi and Andretti were really separating themselves from the rest of the field. We even made a case that Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing could have been closing the gap to those three if not making it a “Big 4.”

RLL won the Indy 500 last August and put two cars in the top three that day. But, as we sit here entering the final weekend of the season at Long Beach, who are the “Big 3” anymore? Is it a “Big 5?”

Last year, Ganassi, Penske and Andretti won 13 of the 14 races. RLL won the other. If you go back to 2019, the same three teams won 15 of the 17 events. The only two they didn’t win was by Harding Steinbrenner Racing and Colton Herta but they were aligned with Andretti, so it very well could fall under the Andretti umbrella.

In 2018, they won the final six races. If you go back to the second race of the season in 2018, they won 15 of the last 16 races of 2018. Combined that with 15 of the 17 in 2019 and all 14 in 2020 and that’s 44 of the last 47 races won by the “Big 3” teams entering the 2021 season. The only three races they didn’t win were Iowa (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2018) and COTA/Laguna Seca (HSR in 2019).

3 of the top young drivers in the sport at Road America back in June – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

That’s it.

But, as we sit here today after just putting a bow on the 2021 season, Penske has won 3 times, Ganassi 6 and Andretti just three. RLL has been shutout while Arrow McLaren SP has won two races themselves and was the only team not of Penske and Ganassi vying for a championship last Sunday.

Can we still call this a “Big 3?”

RLL was closing that gap but they’ve won three times since the start of the 2018 season, all by Takuma Sato. Andretti has won nine times. Ganassi and Penske trump both. So I can see the case of the “Big 3” and everyone else but are we really there anymore?

The “Big 3” have combined to win every championship in the series since 2003 but AMSP was close to ending that reign this season with a now bright future ahead. Does that put them in the third spot over Andretti and RLL or do they just add themselves to the conversation?

I mean if you look at the Aeroscreen era, one can make a case that it’s more open now. Since the start of last season, Ganassi has won 11 times with Penske having won 10 times. Andretti has four wins with Arrow McLaren SP two. Meanwhile RLL, Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing each have one win apiece.

It’s really a “Big 2” now but can we really classify that if one someone else wins the title? Has Arrow McLaren SP truly closed the gap to the “Big 3” and in fact passed both RLL and Andretti? One could say, yes.

So, who is the “Big 3” or is it a “Big 2?” Is it a “Big 5?” Does it have to be anything?

Is Youth Movement Here To Stay?

The long awaited youth movement has come and by the looks of things, I think it’s here to stay. We had a 21 year old and 24 year old going for this past year’s title. We also had a 30 year old in that mix too. That doesn’t even count the likes of Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and others.

It’s safe to say, the future is still very bright for this series.

In fact, the youth showed up early and often this season. 24 year old Alex Palou earned his first career win in the season opener in Barber. A week later, 21 year old Colton Herta led 97 of 100 laps on the streets of St. Pete. A week after that, a then 20 year old Pato O’Ward won the second race of the doubleheader weekend in Texas. He’d win again in June at Belle Isle, a day after a then 30 year old Marcus Ericsson scored his first career Indy Car win there as well in the first race of the doubleheader weekend. That came almost a month after 20 year old sophomore sensation Rinus VeeKay won the GMR Grand Prix.

For Palou, O’Ward, Ericsson and VeeKay, each were their maiden INDYCAR wins. Then, throw in 40 year old Scott Dixon winning a race at Texas and Helio Castroneves joining the four win club for the Indy 500 and you get a season to what has lived up to its billing as the best one yet.

Barber was thrilling. St. Pete saw Herta dominate but Newgarden made it a fun battle in the end. The first Texas race left more to be desired but the second one was nothing short of amazing during the second half of the race. The GMR Grand Prix was another fun show while the Indy 500 and both races in Belle Isle far exceeded expectations and were arguably the top three races of the season so far.

In just 2 seasons, Palou is already a champion – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like. Just look at the points this year. 24 year old Palou won the title. 21 year old O’Ward was third with 30 year old Newgarden in second. 40 year Scott Dixon led 21 year old Colton Herta in fifth. 31 year old Marcus Ericsson was sixth with 32 year old Graham Rahal in seventh. 21 year old Rinus VeeKay was in a tie for 12th.

Is the future now?

“I think over the years in INDYCAR we saw some really young drivers that are really good one or two years and then the veterans are always there, so we’ve got to keep the consistency up,” Palou told me. “That’s how you can run up front in the championships. I’m trying to learn as much as possible from the man Scott. Hopefully I can make it happen, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy.”

Rookie of the Year Scott McLaughlin agreed.

“I think it’s exciting for the category,” he said of the youth movement in the series. “You look at Alex, who just won the championship. Big congrats to him. A second-year guy just made it all happen and the most of his opportunity at Ganassi. Pato and Rinus. Both won this year. Pato nearly won the championship. It’s exciting. Colton obviously winning today.

“INDYCAR is in such a good set right now, it’s getting ready to go. I’m excited for these young guys to come through. I certainly believe that someone like Pato or Colton, they’re good enough for Formula 1. They’re good enough to take it to the very top. I’m not saying this isn’t it, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find them wanting to leave.

“INDYCAR is so good right now, it’s such a good category. I can’t see it getting any smaller. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger. The fan base as well. I think that’s exciting.”

We know that next season isn’t going to be easy to win either. O’Ward now has had a top four finish in the final standings in each of the last two years (4th, 3rd). Newgarden has finished in the top five for six straight years, five of which in the top four and four of the last five in the top two. Dixon has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years.

Go ahead and pencil them into the top four again next year.

What about Palou? I don’t see him dropping off much. That’s four drivers already. What about a fifth and how do you break into those four?

This was Will Power’s first season he didn’t have a top five points finish in the last 13 years. He won the 2014 championship. Was runner-up in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He was third twice (2015 and 2018) and fourth once in 2013. He’s been fifth in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2017, 2019, 2020).

Colton Herta was seventh, third and fifth respectively himself. I don’t see his stats declining either.

Graham Rahal has seven straight top 10 points finishes. Marcus Ericsson went from 17th to 12th to 6th in his three seasons.

There’s eight drivers that all are pretty much a top 10 lock in points for 2022. I didn’t even mention Alexander Rossi who has to come out of his slump sometime. What about Rinus VeeKay? There’s 10 drivers already.

That’s why next season should be just as good if not tougher to win in than this one.

Helio Castroneves won his 4th Indy 500 this past May – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

5th Indy 500 For Helio Castroneves? Dixon 7th Championship? Power Pole Record?

The big storyline entering next season has to be Helio Castroneves’ pursuit of a fifth Indianapolis 500 crown. That’s something that has never been done in the past 105 years of this race. AJ Foyt was the first to accomplish the feat of the four win club in 1977. He made 15 attempts after to score his fifth win. He’d never do so with only scoring two top fives after including a runner-up finish in 1979.

Al Unser was the next to join the four win club in 1987. He’d try five more times to earn a fifth ‘500 triumph with finishes of 3rd, 24th, 13th, 3rd and 12th respectively.

Rick Mears joined in 1991. A 26th place finish in 1992’s race was his final shot.

Now, Castroneves is in the club. Can he get his fifth crown in May? That’s going to be a huge storyline that month.

Also, can Scott Dixon earn his seventh series championship next year too? That’s another big one. He, Castroneves and Power are generational drivers. I think we’ll look back on this era and one could argue that this was the Foyt vs. Andretti vs. Unser rivalries of the 21st century.

When looking at the top of all the major statistical categories for the series, Dixon, Castroneves and Power’s names are found near the top of them all. How much closer to the top can each get in them in 2022?

Dixon has six championships. Only AJ Foyt has more at seven. Can Dixon tie him for that mark next year?

Dixon, has 51 wins to go along with those six titles. That’s one shy of Mario Andretti’s 52 for second most all-time. AJ Foyt’s 67 wins may be out of reach, but he can at the very least get to second. Out of the last 19 seasons, Dixon has had at the very least two victories in 16 of them including 14 of the last 16 years. Safe to say he at least ties Andretti in 2022 for second most wins ever.

He’s also scored 49 runner-up finishes over the course of his career. Only Andretti (56) has more. Dixon has had nine runner-up finishes the last three years combined. So, he has a great shot of getting passed Andretti very soon.

Combine those, Dixon has 100 top two finishes in INDYCAR history. Andretti has 108 but it took him 407 starts to do so. Sunday, was Dixon’s 351st career start. Foyt, has 97 career top two finishes but has done so in 369 starts.

As you can see, Dixon has a better percentage of all starts landing him a top two finish. Unser, has a 27-percent mark with Foyt holding a 26-percent rate. The next best is Bobby Unser (25%) with 65 top two finishes. The next most top two finishes overall? Michael Andretti with 76.

Dixon, is 24 clear of that and still has more years left in him.

Dixon also has 127 podiums, second most. Andretti has 144. Dixon has had 30 podiums in the last three years, so that’s attainable too. In terms of top fives, Dixon has 183. Andretti has 194.

Top three in literally every major statistical category. Championships (2nd), wins (3rd), second place finishes (2nd), podiums (2nd) and top five’s (2nd).

You can’t discredit Dixon as a generational talent.

He can tie Foyt for championships and move past Andretti for wins in 2022.

Power, can rise too. He has 40 wins, which is fifth most ever. Power, has had at least one win for 15 straight years now. Can he get at least two wins next season and tie or move past Michael Andretti for fourth? Since 2010, he’s won at least two races in every year minus two. He won two races both in 2019 and 2020 but had won three times in 2017 and 2018 too. I think he can threaten Andretti’s fourth place ranking in career wins next year.

Can he get to Mario Andretti’s pole mark? He’s four shy right now. He won five poles in 2020, three in 2019 and four more in 2017. He won six poles in 2016. Power, may not get to the top spot in pole rankings next year but he can make it close.

Castroneves has 31 wins now which is tied for 10th most. His 50 poles is fourth most, three shy of Foyt. His 41 runner-up’s rank third best. His 94 podiums are four shy of  Unser for fifth most.  His 142 top fives are fourth most with seven shy of Foyt for third.

By the end of next season, Castroneves could be alone in with five Indy 500 wins, Dixon could tie Foyt for most championship and Power could be the pole king.

For wins, they rank 2-4-10 right now. For runner-ups, it’s 2-3-12. For podiums, it’s 2-6-10. For top fives, it’s 2-4-12.

These three are wildly underrated for this era.

  • Honorable Mention – next breakout star? We had 4 first time winners in 2021, how many do we see in 2022? Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin, Jack Harvey and Felix Rosenqvist should headline the list. Conor Daly should too if he can find a ride or stay with ECR. So could any of the new drivers that are moving up from Indy Lights. Also, can Graham Rahal (73 races), Ryan Hunter-Reay (47 races), Alexander Rossi (37 races) and Simon Pagenaud (25 races) end a winless drought as well?

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