By: Spencer Neff and Tanner Watkins
March 6, 2019 | 1:47 PM
The long offseason is finally over. This weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marks the beginning of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.
While more than five months have passed since Scott Dixon clinched his fifth series title in Sonoma, the offseason has been a busy one. NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) took over as series title sponsor in January. NBC Sports has taken over full television broadcast rights.
On track, there is even more news. Five new rookies will be participating this weekend, with all but DragonSpeed’s Ben Hanley set to run full-time for the championship.
This May will also be exciting for several reasons. Last week, IMS announced a new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500.
NBC will also be broadcasting the race for the first time in any capacity since 1939. This is the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s lone win in the race. Gainbridge also takes over as presenting sponsor of the race.
The schedule will also see two new additions. Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas will have its first IndyCar race on March 24. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will host its first open-wheel race since the 2004 ChampCar season. It will also be the first season finale at the track since 1996.
With so much to talk about, let’s get into our staff predictions for 2019.
2019 NTT IndyCar Series Champion
With the way he ran throughout 2018, Alexander Rossi is one of a few – if not the – championship favorite for 2019. The Andretti Autosport driver made some mistakes that ultimately hurt his title chances late in 2018 that left him in second to Scott Dixon. I think he and the No. 27 team will learn from their 2018 miscues and Rossi will earn his first career championship.
In last year’s predictions article, the only thing I picked correctly was the series champion – so thank you Scott Dixon! Unfortunately, I’m not going with the New Zealander in 2019, or even the favorite in Rossi. I think Josef Newgarden will be back on top as series champion this year. The Team Penske driver had a solid 2018 season and was still 2nd in the points when the IndyCar Series visited Toronto late in the year.
That crew will clean things up a bit for 2019 and finish the season stronger than they did last year, so look for JNew to become a two-time champion in 2019.
103rd Indianapolis 500 Winner
After a rough qualifying effort placed him 32nd on the grid, Alexander Rossi tore his way through the field. With the help of some phenomenal restarts, the 2016 race winner wound up fourth at the checkered flag. I don’t see him struggling in qualifying again. Look for Rossi to cross the Yard of Bricks first once again in 2019.
I really do hate picking the winner of this race, because it is really a crapshoot at this point in the year. But let’s do it anyways. Last year I picked Helio Castroneves to win his fourth Indianapolis 500, and he was in contention before a late race self-spin eliminated the Brazilian.
This year, I’m going for another storyline: Marco Andretti will win the Indianapolis 500 on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s victory in 1969. Each of the three generations of Andretti drivers – Mario, Michael, and Marco – have all said that they would shed a few tears if Marco made his way to victory lane at Indianapolis. What better time than now?
Rookie of the Year
Picking the most accomplished rookie on the best team may seem like too easy of a choice. However, those factors make it hard to argue against Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist for Rookie of the Year. It would not surprise me or many others to see him win multiple races and possibly be a Dark Horse for the title.
Last year’s Rookie of the Year pick seemed like a no-doubter, and if you took the relatively low-risk pick by siding with Robert Wickens, then it turned out to be a smart move. While 2019 has a deeper rookie crop, the exit of Pato O’Ward from a full-time ride makes this selection a little easier for me. I’ll go with Felix Rosenqvist, narrlowly edging out Marcus Ericsson and Colton Herta. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has a ton of experience to back up his perceived talent level, so expect some top fives and a couple podiums out of Rosenqvist.
Looking at the list of drivers, there isn’t one that jumps out with the potential to have a “surprise season”. With that said, I do think Zach Veach will outperform expectations in 2019. Following a disappointing start to his first full-time season, Veach recorded four Top 10 finishes in the final six races. Look for Veach to continue that progress in his sophomore campaign and possibly pick up his first win.
Despite the bad press surrounding Harding Steinbrenner Racing lately, I think this team will show well in 2019 with Colton Herta at the wheel. Andretti Autosport assistance will certainly get them further down the line than if HSR simply operated on their own, and that was evident during the Spring Training test at Circuit of the Americas last month. Will they contend for wins? Not under normal circumstances, but their pace will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018, and that could garner a few more top-10s and maybe a top five.
Since the track opened in October 2012, Circuit of the Americas has quickly become one of racing’s most popular venues. The track has hosted everything from Formula 1 to the X Games, IndyCar will get its turn at the track on March 24. With all the fanfare surrounding COTA’s addition, I do hope I’m wrong on this.
However, I worry that much of the appeal of running there was in other series doing so and Texas Motor Speedway’s Eddie Gossage vehemently opposing IndyCar hold an event at COTA. Hopefully, the venue will be a spectacular addition to the schedule. Until then, I have doubts about a race and an overall event like this living up to the hype.
While there is a lot of excitement surrounding INDYCAR’s move from ABC to NBC – and that was a move I applauded – I think the series took a step back by allowing practices and qualifications to move behind a paywall.
Admittedly, the NBC Sports Gold “IndyCar Pass” is a tremendous value compared to other pay-to-watch packages offered to the PGA Tour, Premier League and other NBC Sports properties, but when you compare the price and features to what IndyCar Series fans have enjoyed in recent years, it is easy to see the negativity. All of these sessions were free to watch previously, and the full race broadcasts were also free to view on YouTube.
The easy access to exposure has diminished greatly for international viewers who can’t subscribe to NBC Sports Gold, and the ease of access for American fans is now worth $50 in the eyes of NBC. Again, I understand why they did this, and I hope it is making the series/NBC money, but there is no debating that it punishes the casual fan. There is always RaceControl.IndyCar.com with timing and scoring plus the voices of Mark Jaynes and Anders Krohn on the IndyCar Radio Network!
IndyCar has not had multiple first-time winners in a season since 2015. I see that changing this year. 2019’s rookie class is one of the deepest in several years, with Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci. Ben Hanley will also be running five races this year.
There are also several veteran drivers looking for their first career victory. Among these drivers are Zach Veach and Ed Carpenter Racing’s new road and street course pilot, Ed Jones. Look for at least two of these drivers to head to victory lane in 2019, possibly multiple times.
I hope I am wrong on this, but I have a bad feeling about McLaren’s 2019 bid to race at the Indianapolis 500. The U.K.-based team is fighting an uphill battle in my opinion by aligning with an inexperienced NTT IndyCar Series team in Carlin, and while McLaren has assembled an experienced group to pair with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, things are going to be tougher for Fred in 2019 than it was in 2017. Maybe that is good for IndyCar, with the assumption being that if he doesn’t win the “500” in 2019, he would be back in 2020. Only time will tell.
Header Image By Chris Owens/INDYCAR Media