Top 5 NTT INDYCAR Series storylines heading into the 2023 season

Final Year For Current Engine Regulations

This has been said the last few years in the NTT INDYCAR Series but 2023 is really it. This is the final year of this engine formula. While a recent adjustment was made, in December, INDYCAR confirmed that the move is indeed occurring.

With the introduction of the hybrid motor, the 2.4-liter engine that was initially supposed to be introduced, was now paused to allow the innovative hybrid technology to be paired with the proven 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 engines. That’s slated to being next season.

“We are most proud of the many advancements that the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has made in leading the motorsports world toward a more sustainable future”, INDYCAR President Jay Frye said. “The 2.2-liter INDYCAR engines supplied by Honda and Chevrolet have provided the most competitive racing in the world. The 2024 hybrid engine package will provide even more excitement with horsepower increases over the current engine.”

This program is being developed through the collaboration of Ilmor, Chevrolet and Honda Performance Development. Testing of the hybrid motor has commenced and will continue through the upcoming year.

With that said, this being the final year of this engine package is a major storyline moving forward.

Scott Dixon celebrates his Nashville win earlier this month. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Anyone Stop Penske and Ganassi?

With 2023 being the same engine package as 2022 and 2022 being the same as 2021 and 2021…you get the picture. Why would the Penske and Ganassi domination stop now?

Since 2013, they’re the only two organizations that have won championships in this series. Chip Ganassi Racing has titles from Scott Dixon (2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) and Alex Palou (2021) while Team Penske has titles from Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017, 2019).

That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles a piece. Also, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15 year span.

Even further, with this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.

They just went 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the championship last season.

Does anyone buck this trend for the upcoming campaign?

Most years, Andretti Autosport would make the most sense to do so. But, are they truly ready in 2023?

3 of their 4 drivers on a full-time level have just one full season under each of their belts. Romain Grosjean ran part-time in 2021 and full-time in 2022. Both Kyle Krikwood and Devlin DeFranceso were rookies a year ago. Colton Herta is their lead driver. Can he lead them to a title?

Andretti however, is the only other organization to have won a championship outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps since 2003 though.

Which is why I pause to wonder if anyone outside of these three organizations can truly lead a driver to an Astor Cup this Fall.

That trio has combined to have won 38 of the last 46 races now (78%) and each of the last 20 championships.

In 2020, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti combined to have won 13 of the 14 races. A year prior it was 13-for-17. The only 4 that they didn’t win was 2 by Harding Steinbrenner Racing and Colton Herta but they were aligned with Andretti, so it very well could fall under the Andretti umbrella and 2 by Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan and Takuma Sato.

In 2018, they won 5 of the final six races with the exception being RLL and Sato again. If you go back to the second race of the season in 2018, they won 14 of the last 16 races of 2018 factoring in SPM’s Iowa win with James Hinchcliffe.

14-for-16 in 2018, 13-for-17 in 2019, 13-for-14 in 2020. 12-for-16 in 2021. They just went 15-for-17 last season too.

So breaking down the barrier to these three teams is difficult.

However, does Andretti’s youth and F1 dreams cloudy their path back forward?

In wake of that, Arrow McLaren could rise to that challenge instead. In all actuality, they’ve showed more consistent pace than Andretti over the past 2 seasons. They also tied Andretti, 2-2, in wins last season. It was 3-2 in favor of Andretti in 2021.

This offseason, they expanded to a 3rd full-time car and signed Alexander Rossi over from Andretti to their own team. They also retained both Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist and upgraded their engineering and pit box staffs.

McLaren had the best non Penske and Ganassi points finishers in 2022 and with counting Rossi’s 9th place finish from a year ago as well, they have the 7th, 8th and 9th placed finishers in the final standings from 2022. Penske and Ganassi had 1-6. Andretti’s next best was 10th with Herta.

Now, in saying that, can AMSP seriously threaten the “Big 2” or does Andretti steal that thunder back? Maybe it’s someone else?

RLL made a strong end of season push as well. Graham Rahal had 5 top 10 starts in his last 9 starts to the season in comparison to 3 in first 7. The Ohio native also has scored 5 top 10’s in the last 8 races at that. His teammate Christian Lundgaard has 7 top 11 finishes over the last 10 races on the year. He had just 3 in the first 7. He was runner-up in the July 30 Gallagher Grand Prix, 8th in Nashville and 5th in the season finale at Laguna Seca. Also if not for a couple of bad pit stops and a run-in at the end of the race at Portland with Rossi, he would have had at the very least a top 5 there too.

RLL has 2 of the next four in the standings outside of the top 10 and are hoping to build upon that end of season surge. Is the gap from the top 2 from the rest increasing or is there some jockeying in the middle?

Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward chat during last season. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Palou, Rosenqvist and McLaren Saga

I think if 2022 showed us anything is that this saga between Alex Palou and Arrow McLaren is far from over. In fact, it seems like a formality now that Palou will be donning papaya in 2024. The question now remains, when will that announcement come?

Palou and Ganassi reached an agreement to keep him in his seat for 2023. Subsequentially, Felix Rosenqvist remained status quo (minus a number change) as well. Both are operating on the final year of their respective contracts.

The writing on the wall is there that Palou will be within the McLaren camp in 2024. I don’t see it being Formula One because they have a pair of young drivers already established there. They just signed a long-term extension with Lando Norris and went with a similar battle for Oscar Piastri as they did with Palou and ended up winning. They’re not going to go through all of that for a one-year deal. Piastri is at least going to get several seasons in that ride.

Also, Palou isn’t leaving a championship winning ride with Ganassi for a Formula E ride with McLaren. That’s not wise. This is an INDYCAR move with a hopeful future at an F1 opportunity. Simple as that.

With that said, that likely pushes Rosenqvist out the door with McLaren as he has no desire to return to Formula E and has far more talent to land somewhere else in the INDYCAR paddock. Pato O’Ward signed a deal through 2025 and Alexander Rossi will begin the first of a multi-year deal with McLaren too. If Palou comes on board for 2024 and Kyle Larson is in the Indy 500 seat, no way they run four-full time entries plus a fifth at Indy next year.

That’s too much.

Which means Palou is basically pushing Rosenqvist out.

In saying that, what does this do to either of their performances for this upcoming season?

Ganassi now has clarity that he’s not keeping Palou past this year so wouldn’t he get excluded for most things within those walls? Why have him sit in on strategy or R&D meetings? Why would Ganassi and Honda for that matter want Palou taking new details to McLaren and the Chevrolet camps respectively? You know Rossi has some info from Andretti and Honda he took with him, why would Chevy want Palou taking Ganassi’s secrets too?

So what does that do to him?

He struggled with the drama was circulating this past year. Prior to the drama surfacing, Palou had 3 podiums in the opening 4 races of the season. He then had just two Top-5 finishes over the next 12 races. When a settlement was to be had, Palou won by a half-of-a-minute in the season finale at Laguna Seca.

He showed what he is capable of if operating with full resources and also showed what he is made of when he’s not. Which is why I’m curious what that aspect looks like between he, Ganassi and Honda in 2023.

For Palou, he says that the relationship on his side with his current employer is a lot better than it was last year.

“It’s been good since everything was set week after Laguna. The relationship has been back to 100% like it was before from both sides.

“Yeah, I had full access since then. Been at the workshop many, many times before I left for Europe for Christmas, once we’ve been back to prepare all the pre-season and stuff.

“Yeah, I don’t expect anything.

“Then in regards to sharing time between both parties, we set it in the way that will be focused on INDYCAR during the INDYCAR season, then once it’s done and once we try and get to 100%, then I’ll be focused on the other side.”

As far as how hard it was to block out the feelings aspect of this last year?

“Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments where you’re like, Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.

“But there was things that were out of my control obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did. So, yeah, I’m just happy it did.

“I mean, I didn’t have another option, so… Either you’re good or not, that’s what you have to do.”

Likewise for Rosenqvist. They’re not cutting him off on the other end. This split is amicable. He knows it’s coming. This past year when he was driving for his job, he shined. Rosenqvist had 10 Top-10 finishes over the final 13 races of the season. 2023 is an audition for him to land his next gig elsewhere in the paddock and you know he’s going to have a lot to prove to show he belongs.

How does he enter this season knowing that it could look for him, a lot like last year’s in terms of his future.

“I mean, first of all, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. That’s a long time until next year,” he noted on Tuesday morning.

“As I said, I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team, not only in Arrow McLaren but my 6 car I think is going to be strong this year. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team to go and perform.

“I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”

He said what gives him reason for optimism is on how he responded to this exact situation a year ago.

“I think it went pretty well, to be honest,” Rosenqvist said on how he responded to last year’s uncertainty and adversity in his career. “I think I handled it probably as good as I could. That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year.

“I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example.

“I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can going into the season.”

Can Colton Herta compete for a championship this season? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Herta and O’Ward Take The Next Step?

Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward will always have their stats compared against one another. That’s because they’re both as equal as they come in a race car and also have similar paths behind them and similar potential futures ahead.

Each were teammates in 2018 at Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights. O’Ward won 9 times that season. Herta won 4. Herta also had 7 runner-up finishes in that year, 5 of which he had a front row seat to O’Ward’s wins. O’Ward had three runner-up’s himself, two of which were in races that Herta won.

Combined, they had won 13 of the 17 races. They finished 1-2 in 7 of the 17. That allowed them to both graduate to the NTT INDYCAR Series for the 2019 season. Before that, they both made their INDYCAR debuts in the same race in the season finale of the 2018 season in Sonoma. They’d do so as teammates.

However, plans changed in the offseason. Harding didn’t have the funding anymore to run two full-time cars. Even though O’Ward had the scholarship money from his Indy Lights championship, Harding went forward with Herta. O’Ward went overseas but made it back in 2020 to drive for Arrow McLaren.

Now, four years later, Herta enters his fifth full-time season and O’Ward his fourth. Herta has 7 wins, O’Ward with four. Herta leads in the poles category too (9-5). O’Ward leads in podiums (13-11) and Top-5 finishes (23-22) but Herta has him back in Top-10’s (35-32).

Their stats are eerily similar with Herta eclipsing O’Ward in career starts by 10, 65-55.

As they each enter the 2023 season, both have had talks and discussions of a Formula One future. O’Ward drives for a team that has an F1 operation and has gotten some tests in the process. Herta, also has tested for O’Ward’s team, but his current team also has an aspiration to be their own standalone F1 organization too.

Could Colton Herta be in play for an F1 seat still? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The thing is, as things sit at the moment, each need to have a breakout season in 2023 in order for those F1 dreams to remain alive.

Herta lacked the Superlicense points to make a jump in 2023. Andretti lacked the success. For each to be more attractive, they need to be more successful on a consistent basis.

Similar for O’Ward. If he wants to become a future F1 driver, he needs to show Zak Brown that he can win more often here.

Herta had 10 Top-5 finishes in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums among those 10 Top-5 finishes.

2021 was supposed to be that breakout though with 7 Top-5 finishes and 5 of which being on the podium. That gave him more podiums in 16 races that season than in the 32 starts prior. Last year he took a step back in scoring just 4 Top-5 finishes, all podiums. However, he failed to score a single one though in the final seven events.

As he enters 2023 on a backslide from 2022, can he get back to the 2021 level but be more consistent in the process? If he wants to be a champion he better. He knows that.

“Yeah, it’s no secret that last year was not a good one for us,” said Herta. “We need to do better on all fronts. That’s what the main part of the off-season has been. It’s been looking at everything and just trying to improve everything.

“We just need mistake-free weekends, and that’s the goal, one by one.”

2021: The Indy 500 he qualified second but faded to 16th. Belle Isle 1 he was in the top five and going for a podium before a caution flipped the field. He finished 14th. In Belle Isle 2, he was running second but faded to fourth in the closing laps. Mid-Ohio saw him go from a podium to 13th. Nashville saw a dominating weekend end in a crash and 19th. World Wide Technology Raceway saw a top two finish and maybe even a win end in a broken drive shaft and a 18th place result. He was eighth in Portland.

2022: Long Beach Pole (bad 1st pit sequence 1st to 3rd, crash pushing hard to pit lane on 2nd stop), Carb Day flip, Mid-Ohio crew kept him out instead of pitting coming to a yellow, INDY GP in Aug. Gear box while leading.

That’s the difference right now in making him a champion, because he was already there before those problems occurred. The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into more wins too.

Similar for O’Ward. He’s had two wins in each of the last two seasons. The Mexican star also has had 9 podiums in that same two-year span (5 in 2021, 4 in 2022). Out of his 8 Top-5 finishes a year ago, only four of them landed on the podium.

See a theme among these two?

Both qualify extremely well, it’s just they’re not finishing. In O’Ward’s case, he had 13 starts of 7th or better (10 being 5th or better) over the course of the final 14 races in 2022. He only had 4 podiums to show for it.

Also, he has to get better on natural road courses too. On them a year ago, he won Barber, was 19th and 12th respectively at Indy, 26th at Road America, 24th in Mid-Ohio, 4th in Portland and 8th in Laguna Seca. A lot of those finishes were plagued by electrical issues.

“For sure it’s been looked into. We’ve obviously looked for answers,” he said on the opening day of Media Content Days on Tuesday morning. “Have we found them all? I really think, I mean, it’s a hard statement to say because I feel like you can find and analyze reasons of why things might have happened, but you never really know for sure.

“But what I do know is that we want to minimize those. The perfect thing would be to not have those issues, right? It’s possible, for sure. I mean, the first two years I was with the team, I never had a DNF. I had completed almost all the laps all year.

“Last year, I mean, we had the best, like, average qualifying positions that we had during a season. But we had, like, four DNFs. One of those was maybe unlucky, the other ones were just a mishap.

“It’s so hard to say. But for sure it’s possible to make those a lot less than they were last year. Last year was for sure not a fluke, but like I was very surprised because we had never had those issues, at least to that extent.

“So definitely just starting this year with a clean blank, just starting to work off the strong years that we’ve built together.”

McLaren has done their part to help those areas too. They’ve added more than 40 new hires in the process to help leave no stone unturned. They’re trying to match what Penske and Ganassi does, even personnel wise too. 

“A lot of new faces. A lot, a lot of new faces. I’m still in the process of learning all the names,” he says.

“It’s so cool to see, we’re all growing. There’s been big steps each year. I feel like in terms of personnel this year, it has been a very big one. One reason being probably because of the third car, just the team is growing.

“It’s great to see. It’s great to see everybody’s enthusiasm. Everybody’s here for that one goal, right? We all put so much time and sacrifice and energy into making these race cars go quicker.

“I feel like it’s been so hard to find people in all departments I feel like. From talking to not just the people in our team, but from other drivers, other friends, they’re like, Man, it’s hard to find people.

“I trust the team. I think the group of people that are in charge, seeing who joins the team, seeing who comes about, I think they know exactly what we need, and I trust they’re going to make the right decisions.

“Honestly, from what I’ve seen, there’s so much talent. There were already so much talent in the group. I feel like so much more has been added on which is just going to help us to really get us where we want to be.

“We as drivers put it into: how can we maximize it? Just really, really excited to get this season underway.”

Can these two gain in these areas and make a serious run at a championship?

Each are looked upon as leaders of their team even with being the youngest too. O’Ward is 23 but has a teammate in Felix Rosenqvist who’s 32 and a 31-year-old Alexander Rossi. However, O’Ward is the one with the tenure and success at McLaren.

Rossi was Herta and Andretti Autosport’s leader last year and now steps into the role of being only 22, but having teammates aged 23 (Devlin DeFrancesco), 24 (Kyle Kirkwood) and 36 (Romain Grosjean). The thing is, Herta has more starts (65) than that trio combined (64). All three are entering their second full-time seasons in the sport.

Can both lead their teams forward?

“It’s not much of a difference for me,” Herta said. “Maybe they’ll rely a little bit more on my feedback and I might have to do a little bit more, but for me, it’s kind of business as usual.”

His teammates very much see his data and feedback as a positive and even if Herta isn’t vocal, it’s that aspect to what they consider him the leader of the team.

“I’d say it’s a little bit different with Andretti. I think Colton’s way of saying that he’s like kind of brushed off his leadership role is in a sense that he’s not beating on his chest, like I’m a driver; everyone kind of bows down to me. He’s trying to brush that away,” said Kirkwood.

“But at the end of the day, he’s the one with the most experience, and if he does something, we’re kind of going to ask him the questions, be like, hey, Colton, when you tried this, what exactly happened, because he’s the one with the most experience, and he’s been the most successful driver on the team that we’ve had. It’s a sure thing that we’re going to reference off of him, which in a sense makes him kind of the lead driver, yeah.

“It’s definitely a unique situation, but at the end of the day he’s the one with the most experience. He has a right to be kind of in that position. It’s not a — I’ll say it again, it’s not a position that we’re all expecting him to lead us on track or expecting him to lead us off track and lead us with car development. He’s ultimately our main source of contact really.”

DeFrancesco views Herta as a leader to him and one that benefitted his rookie year greatly.

“Very fast. Very, very fast last year, just looking at his data, some of the qualifying laps he was able to put in were very, very impressive, and definitely someone I’ve been able to lean on and learn from for sure in many different ways, and I’m looking forward to putting that to use this year and making a big step forward.”

The other thing is, did their teams close the gap to the “Big 2.” Some of the lack of consistency is due to Penske and Ganassi’s stranglehold on the wins and podiums.

Since 2013, they’re the only two organizations that have won championships in this series. Chip Ganassi Racing has titles from Scott Dixon (2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) and Alex Palou (2021) while Team Penske has titles from Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017, 2019).

That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles a piece. Also, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15 year span.

Even further, with this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.

They just went 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the championship last season.

Arrow McLaren and Andretti have been on a level playing field against each other for the third best team. They tied 2-2 in wins last season and it was 3-2 in favor of Andretti in 2021.

The start of the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

New Show

Penske Entertainment and The CW Network announced on Dec. 8 they are joining forces with VICE Media Group for “100 Days to Indy,” a first-of-its-kind broadcast series about the road to the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the world’s premier motorsports competition.

Produced by Penske Entertainment and VICE Media Group, the six-part series will take fans behind the scenes to chronicle the bold and brash personalities of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as they begin the 2023 season and start their epic quest for racing’s greatest prize. “100 Days to Indy” will air on The CW Network in spring 2023.

“The Indy 500 is the most unique, exhilarating and engaging event on the planet,” Penske Entertainment President and CEO Mark Miles said. “It’s an unrivaled spectacle fueled by ambitious, fearless and captivating personalities. This series will give viewers an unprecedented front row seat as the racing season begins and the countdown to Indy accelerates. Ultimately, through the compelling creative lens and massive reach of both VICE and The CW, we will bring the world-class competition and drama of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES to a newer and more youthful audience.”

The 100-day window is benchmarked by drama, intrigue and fierce competition from the very first race of the season all the way to the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500. For the winner, it is a life-changing experience, etching his or her name into the history books. This year, four-time Indy 500 winner and former “Dancing with the Stars” champion Helio Castroneves is eyeing a record fifth win but will face stiff competition from a rising generation of young talent all eyeing “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and its multimillion-dollar purse.

“100 Days to Indy” will showcase what it takes to compete at the highest levels and at the height of danger, while providing a window into the on- and off-track lives of some of the sport’s most engaging drivers.

“‘100 Days to Indy’ is a high-octane adventure grounded in emotional sports storytelling,” said Brad Schwartz, president, Entertainment, The CW Network. “Alongside our partners at VICE Media Group, Penske Entertainment and NTT INDYCAR SERIES, we have come together to deliver a series that will follow these champions of the racetrack and keep viewers on the edge of their seats.”

The compelling docuseries will be produced by multiple award-winning VICE World News, with Emmy Award-winning Patrick Dimon directing and Bryan Terry executive producing for VICE. The series will have a fast re-air on VICE TV and be supported across VICE’s global social media channels.

“VICE is honored to produce the first sports project with Nexstar and The CW since the acquisition and to bring this series through the checkered flag with everyone at the network,” said Morgan Hertzan, president, Global TV at VICE Media Group. “The team at the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has an incredible journey for the world to join, and VICE is looking forward to being in the driver’s seat with them.”

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