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PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS JONES

IndyCar Season Preview: Long Shots Pt. 2

This is the second in a set of articles previewing the 2016 IndyCar season. I recently predicted that the 2016 IndyCar Champion would score between 548 and 561 points and win four races. Based on those predictions, I classified drivers into the following categories based on how I anticipate they’ll perform in 2016: long shots (part one), potential winners, threats for multiple wins, dark horse championship threats, and championship contenders. Here I preview the second half of the long shots. Check back with Slipstream Network regularly for more IndyCar season previews.


CONOR DALY

PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS OWENS
PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS OWENS

Conor Daly must be thrilled to be signed already for a full season in 2016 with Dale Coyne Racing (DCR). Stability has been missing from Daly’s ascent up the racing ladder, so I expect 2016 will be a welcome change of pace. My advice to Daly is to focus on completing laps and logging ‘seat time’ this year. Daly’s  2017 season will be much better if he has a full race’s worth of experience, as opposed to a few laps during the race before crashing out.

Daly made five IndyCar starts in 2015, although his car failed before the green flag dropped in one of those. He finished on the lead lap in three of the other four races. His performance at Long Beach was especially impressive, given that he only had 45 minutes of practice. Daly delivered the first lead lap finish of 2015 for Dale Coyne Racing and set the second fastest lap of the race by a Honda driver.

I don’t want to set expectations too high for Daly this year. The season opener will only be his seventh IndyCar race. Something is undoubtedly better than nothing, but the series still considers him a rookie, which means he lacks experience. He’ll also have the challenge of driving for the small Dale Coyne Racing team. Coyne traditionally fills the seat of his second full season car with drivers who are long on disposable income but much shorter on speed, so if Coyne goes with the traditional ride buyer, Daly is unlikely to receive much support from teammates with setting up Honda’s updated aero-kits. That said, recent reports suggest Coyne might sign an experienced driver to partner with Daly in 2016.

Potential weakness: ovals

Like fellow rookies Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi, the majority of Daly’s experience is with road courses. The good news for Daly is that he has some experience with ovals. Daly completed 198 laps in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, in addition to participating in all practice sessions for two Indianapolis 500s. Daly’s edge in oval experience may be enough to overcome the funding discrepancy between spunky DCR and Chilton’s much better funded Chip Ganassi Racing team in the battle for Rookie of the Year.


LUCA FILIPPI (HOPEFULLY)

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PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER
PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

Filippi ran the 2015 road and street courses in Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing’s #20 car, partnering with oval-only driver Ed Carpenter. CFH encountered sponsorship issues since the end of 2015, but Filippi is evidently a candidate for the second Dale Coyne Racing car in 2016.

I’m not sure how to evaluate Filippi’s 2015 season. The easiest thing to do is to compare him to Mike Conway, who drove the #20 on road and street courses in 2014. Conway’s pair of wins don’t show Filippi in a positive light, but I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. Filippi made only eight IndyCar starts prior to 2015, while Conway has made 72 IndyCar starts in his career.

On the other hand, Filippi’s average 2015 street course finish was 11.8, up from 18.5 in 2014. This average suggests Filippi raced much better on return visits to tracks. His average road course finish in 2015 was 16.0, but he had minimal experience with IndyCar’s road courses. Perhaps he will improve his race pace in 2016 now that he’s familiar with the road courses on the schedule.

Potential weakness: ovals

Filippi has zero oval starts in IndyCar. This isn’t the first time I’ve listed ovals as a driver’s weakness, but it’s a recurring weakness for European drivers. To be a championship contender, a driver must be very good on ovals. It isn’t Filippi’s fault that he lacks experience because he raced only road and street circuits in 2015, but his competitors won’t care about the reason behind his lack of experience.


JACK HAWKSWORTH

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PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE
PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE

It’s tough to spin Hawksworth’s 2015 season as an improvement on his rookie form in 2014. As a rookie, he scored an impressive podium finish at Houston #2. As a sophomore, Hawksworth had no podium finishes. His average starting position on ovals dropped 2.3 spots to 19.7, and his average street course starting spot fell 2.8 positions to 16.8. Unsurprisingly, the poor oval starts translated into poor oval finishes.  His average oval finish was 18.2, down from 15 in 2014. His average road course finish fell from a pretty good 12.5 in 2014 to a disappointing 19.0. Hawksworth crashed in three races this year, compared to two major crashes in 2014. Overall, Hawksworth had nine finishes of 18th or worse in 2015, compared to only five in 2014.

Honda’s slow cars in 2015 may be at least partially to blame for Hawksworth’s disappointing 2015 performance. It’s also fair to point out that while teammates are usually viewed as an advantage, Hawksworth’s new teammate was Takuma Sato, a driver whose IndyCar resume leaves much to be desired.

If there’s a silver lining to Hawksworth’s 2015, it was his average finish of 10.0 on street courses. Three of Hawksworth’s top-eight finishes were on street circuits. Although his average starting position on street circuits wasn’t good, Hawksworth improved an average of 6.8 spots in each race, an especially impressive figure considering that street circuits are traditionally tough to pass on.

2016 will be a critical year for Hawksworth. If 2016 is a good year, 2015 will look like an anomaly. If 2016 is another down year, Hawksworth’s solid rookie year will look like the anomaly.

Potential weakness: anonymous races

Hawksworth had 13 finishes of 13th or worse in 2015. That’s simply too many races where Hawksworth was a non-factor. I wasn’t expecting a bunch of podiums from a second year driver in a Honda, but Hawksworth needs to score more top-10 finishes in 2016 if he wants to prove that he belongs in IndyCar long term.


CHARLIE KIMBALL

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PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS OWENS
PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS OWENS

2016 will be Kimball’s sixth season in IndyCar. He’s finished 12th or worse in four of his IndyCar seasons, and there’s not much reason to think he’ll show much improvement for 2016. It seems unlikely that Honda will be as uncompetitive as last year, given that they were allowed to make updates to their aero-kit over the offseason that Chevrolet was not. Kimball’s rivals will all have another year of experience, while Kimball’s last two finishes in the championship suggest that he may have reached a development plateau.

Expected improvement: street courses

For each of the seasons from 2012 to 2014, Kimball had an average street course finish between 11th and 12th. His average street course finish dropped to 17.8 in 2015. I expect Kimball’s street course performance will rebound this year.


ALEXANDER ROSSI

PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE
PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE

Andretti Autosport/Bryan Herta Autosport’s recent signing of Rossi adds a third driver to the 2016 Rookie of the Year battle. Rossi doesn’t have much experience racing in America, even in ladder series. The good news is that none of the other rookies have much American experience either. On paper, Rossi seems to have the second best team of the three full season rookies. It will be interesting to see if either Rossi or Conor Daly can overcome the apparent disadvantage of racing for a smaller team relative to Max Chilton’s Chip Ganassi Racing.

Potential weakness: desire

Needless to say, Rossi’s lack of oval experience will be a major challenge for him in 2016. However, Rossi is openly using IndyCar as a backup plan after losing a 2016 seat in Formula 1. I wonder if he will be fully focused and committed to IndyCar given that he will probably spend a significant portion of the season talking with F1 teams about seats for 2017.


TAKUMA SATO

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PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE
PHOTO: INDYCAR, TIM HOLLE

I don’t understand why Takuma Sato has a ride for the 2016 season. Sato is the perfect example of a driver with a low ceiling: the ‘high points’ on his resume just don’t seem to be very high. After six seasons of full-time IndyCar racing, Sato has a career best finish of 13th in points, which he earned in 2011. He has one career IndyCar win to his name, which came in 2013, and only five poles and five total podium finishes.

Sato’s ceiling is quite low, but his floor, or poorest performances, are abysmal. On his bad days, Sato sends what’s left of the car back to the paddock on a tow truck with alarming frequency.

Sato’s crashes would be somewhat tolerable if he was blazing fast when he didn’t crash, but that isn’t the case either. In addition to the ‘low ceiling’ stats above, Sato had only one top-five finish in 2015. He finished 13th or worse in 11 races in 2015.

Potential Weakness Identified at Start of 2015: crashes

Crashes continued to be a problem for Sato in 2015. He crashed in four of the 16 races last year.

Sato’s IndyCar career got off to a miserable start in 2010, when he crashed in nine of 17 races (52%). He hasn’t been that bad since, but in the last four years he has crashed out of at least 25% of races three times. His career IndyCar crash rate is 27%.

It’s certainly possible to look at a few of Sato’s crashes and conclude that he wasn’t directly responsible for the accidents. It’s true that there are accidents where a driver had no way to avoid the accident. However, Sato is the only IndyCar driver that consistently maintains such a high crash rate. Among the 16 non-rookie, full season drivers active in 2015, Sato has the highest number of average crashes per year (4.25). The 15th ranked driver is Josef Newgarden, who averaged only 2.75 crashes per year. Tony Kanaan ranked 14th in terms of crashes per year (2.5), and Kanaan was as close to the best driver, Simon Pagenaud with .75 crashes per year, as he was to Sato. Sato is in his own league when it comes to the frequency of his crashes.

Avoiding crashes is a skill. Even if a driver isn’t directly responsible for an accident, he could have decided to concede the position, or decided not to attempt a pass at that moment. Sometimes it’s better to ‘live to fight another day’ instead of going wheel to wheel with another car. Making these conservative decisions may cost Sato a few positions at the checkered flag, but at least he would be on track when the checkered flag waved.

To me, replacing Sato is a no-brainer, even if Honda is paying for his ride as Robin Miller suspects. Both Honda and AJ Foyt Racing would be better off with a replacement. The only difficult decision is whether to put a veteran or a younger driver in the car. If salary isn’t an issue, there are plenty of unemployed IndyCar drivers who could produce results similar or better than Sato without wrecking so many cars. Oriol Servia, Ryan Briscoe, Tristan Vautier, JR Hildebrand, and Alex Tagliani all come to mind. If you don’t want to pay for a veteran, there are also several young drivers looking for a full-time IndyCar ride that would at least have a higher potential ceiling than Sato, including Sage Karam, Jack Harvey, Matthew Brabham, and Spencer Pigot.

Kyle Brown