A New Day: 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Season Preview

For the first time in 2018, it’s race week.

This weekend, the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida will echo the sound of roaring engines to sing in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. While the first race of any season always brings many unknowns, 2018 in particular has fans waiting with baited breath as a highly anticipated new car makes its competition debut.

The car is undoubtedly an attractive new enticement for the series, catching the eyes of drivers and fans from around the world of motorsports. However, having not seen the cars racing for the win as of yet, the upcoming season opener will address a lot of uncertainties.

“There’s a lot of anticipation in the fact that it’s a new car,” Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said, “we haven’t raced with it yet, and no matter where you’ve tested, how much testing, or how little testing you’ve done, St. Pete’s an unknown… The 2018 championship, because of the new car, could very well be won on the front half of the season, and St. Pete is a big part of that.”

While St. Pete can ease some of those concerns, there are a lot of factors that a single street race cannot address in a season that boasts 16 different tracks, and the most diverse schedule in motorsports.

“Areas that might struggle still a little bit are the short ovals, we still need to figure them out,” Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal said, in anticipation of the new car. “I just think it’s still early to tell. But on the roads, street courses, and Indianapolis, I think it’s going to be excellent. I think people are going to see that. I have no doubt that people are going to see that right away.”

There won’t only be new cars in the paddock, but new faces as well, as the series welcomes new teams and drivers to the fold. 2018’s rookie class will be tight, as young drivers such as Zachary Claman DeMelo, Pietro Fittipaldi, Rene Binder, Kyle Kaiser, Jordan King, and Matheus Leist join the fray as series rookies ranging from part-time to full-time seats.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” Team Penske’s Will Power said of this year’s rookie class. “There are a couple of really fast, new young guys who are coming in.”

The rookie class isn’t all fresh faced, as Canadian Robert Wickens joins countryman James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. With the field - young and old - experiencing a new car for the first time, look to see some of those new faces at the front faster than you’d expect.

“I think it helps [new drivers] because it levels the playing field a little bit,” Wickens said upon his IndyCar signing. “IndyCar experience will always be IndyCar experience, and I’m not ruling that out at all, but just that every driver will have to adapt in some way I think helps me.”

The series grows team-wise with the introduction of Juncos Racing and Carlin, as well as Harding Racing stepping up their program to full-time and a collaboration of Michael Shank Racing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The introductions have seen familiar faces jump positions, such as Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton moving from Chip Ganassi Racing to Carlin, and Jack Harvey joining SMP with Michael Shank.

Teams continued to swap drivers, with Tony Kanaan moving to A.J. Foyt Racing, Ed Jones to Ganassi, Zach Veach to a full program with Andretti, and the Andretti seats of Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti being swapped. One of the most eye-catching moves of the offseason was that of 2017 Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato jumping from his Indy winning Andretti drive to the newly acquired second seat at the previously single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“He’s one of the happiest men on the planet,” Graham Rahal says of his new teammate. “I think that influence is really good on our program, on our people. The key to this whole deal is to keep our guys happy, keep our guys enjoying what they do each and every day working their butts off. Takuma will certainly help that.”

Not only excited at the prospect of a new teammate for 2018, Rahal is also looking forward to the addition of a new track to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule with the Grand Prix of Portland.

“I love Portland,” he said. “It’s one of the first places I raced, years ago. I’ve always enjoyed it, going out there and spending time as a kid. It’s just a special racetrack and area. I’m excited to have it back.”

The more some things change, the more others stay the same. The Team Penske trio of champions, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and defending champion Josef Newgarden are all constant favorites for title contention. However, Newgarden will have the added pressure of defending the No. 1 he earned on his car from four-time series champion Scott Dixon in a newly concentrated and refined Ganassi team. The Andretti camp also hopes to make a significant push this year, with a proven driver’s lineup and Rossi’s late-season strength in 2017. Expect to see a new James Hinchcliffe this season, as the addition childhood friend Wickens brings a new dynamic to SPM.

As the first race weekend approaches, the racing world eagerly awaits the debut of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, as each new week will bring a learning experience for drivers, teams, and fans alike. All bets are off for 2018, with the only certainty being that this year’s Indianapolis 500 - already the world’s most sought after racing victory - will signal a new era of IndyCar, immortalizing the winner in the series’ storied past and bright future.