Who’s flying the flag for the Brits in IndyCar this year?

By Andy Darley

CalendarFriday, March 19th, 2010

 
 

As American fans bemoan the lack of home-grown racers in the IndyCar Series this year, British fans will have an embarrassment of riches when deciding who to cheer on.

A list headed by defending champion Dario Franchitti also includes proven race-winners like Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson, alongside the returning Mike Conway and several drivers running partial or unconfirmed schedules.

Here’s a guide to who’s who and what their prospects are.

This story was intended for publication last week but was delayed by illness.

Dario Franchitti, Target Chip Ganassi Racing

Dario Franchitti

Dario Franchitti

Fast, reliable and charismatic, with a celebrity wife (actress Ashley Judd) and a media-friendly manner, Franchitti is one of the big names of North American open wheel racing – for all his relative obscurity back home in the UK. The defending IndyCar champion has won the title in the final race of each of the last two seasons he’s competed in, 2007 with Andretti and last year with his current team after taking a year out to try his luck in NASCAR.

It might seem that he has little left to prove – but critics will point out that the Scot won both his titles thanks to fuel management tactics that will prove considerably harder to repeat this year thanks to changes in the regulations. With team-mate Scott Dixon – the runner-up in both Franchitti’s championship seasons – again breathing down his neck and rivals Team Penske looking strongest in testing, a third title is likely to only come after another nail-biting battle. But he’s already won two of them – so why not another?

Testing at the Barber Motorsport Park did not go quite as hoped, as one session was disrupted after he crashed heavily, but the team felt he had run respectably despite the incident.

He said: “This year is going to be harder than last year. We know the competition is going to be tougher. There will be the usual suspects who were in the title fight last year and I think you’ll add a couple more. We’ll have to work harder if we want to come home with another championship.

“If we do our best, we’ll see if we can repeat. Right now, we’re just going to with the same attitude as last year, which was let’s do our best and hopefully that will put us in contention.”

Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing

Dan Wheldon

Dan Wheldon

The former champion stepped down to Panther last year after falling out with previous employers Ganassi when they appeared to be headhunting Tony Kanaan, and it’s fair to say the new relationship was not as successful as either driver or team had expected. Wheldon produced some strong results in the early oval races – particularly a runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 – but the road courses later in the season were one long dismal slog of backmarkerdom as the team struggled in an area of acknowledged weakness.

Off-track, the Buckinghamshire native has settled in Florida with his young family and embraced the American lifestyle, diligently promoting Panther’s primary sponsor, the US National Guard, and cultivating a gleaming photogenic smile. On-track his results have shone a little less brightly with each passing year. He needs to reverse that trend if he is to retain his status – and earning potential – as one of the big names of IndyCars. The chances of the one-car Panther operation mounting a full-season title challenge are slim, so look for them to strike hard at selected ovals – especially Indy, where another Wheldon victory is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

The team saw the unseasonably cold weather at the pre-season open test in Alabama coming and instead chose to hold a private test at Sebring. Wheldon said afterwards: “It’s definitively good coming back to a team when you had a year to work together, I think everything in the second year works more smoothly. The time that we did was relatively good. We had a nice baseline to start the test with and I think we will try to evolve that.”

Team boss John Barnes said: “I really feel like we’ve done all the things we need to do to improve our performance this year. The entire attitude of the team has improved and I think you can expect some good things from the National Guard team this year.”

Justin Wilson, Dreyer & Reinbold

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson

One of the few drivers outside the ‘big two’ teams of Ganassi and Penske to win a race in the last couple of seasons, the ex-Formula One pilot from Sheffield takes his experience (and his car’s primary sponsor, Z-Line Designs) to Dreyer & Reinbold for the 2010 campaign. Highly-regarded up and down pit road for both his driving skills and his likeable personality, Wilson’s victory at Watkins Glen last year – the first in 25 years of competition for former team Dale Coyne Racing – was one of the season’s biggest feel-good moments.

At Dreyer & Reinbold he is joining an outfit with ambitions to move beyond its perennial midfield position. Frequently the haunt of pay drivers in the past, the team is bullish about its chances now it has what it considers to be two top-notch drivers locked down for an entire season. Wilson is not yet the full deal on ovals – and this late in his career he may never catch up with rivals who spent their learning years on them – but he’s capable of scoring solid points on them and any time his team gives him a decent car on a road course he’s likely to be up there, challenging the Penskes and Ganassis for the win.

After testing in Alabama he said: “The test went quite well. We were quick early on and we just continued to work through a few changes. Right at the end of the day we set our quickest lap, which was on the end lap, and finally I got what I was looking for. It’s a shame that the lap times aren’t shown on the results sheet, but we ended up pretty quick and I am pleased. I’m looking forward to our next test and then onto Brazil.”

Mike Conway, Dreyer & Reinbold

Mike Conway

Mike Conway

Conway was not universally expected to return for a second season at D&R after a debut year that mixed some fine road course performances – including a podium – with some avoidable errors and plenty of crashes. The rough-edged Canadian veteran Paul Tracy, eyeing his red hair and the unreliability of being anywhere near him on the race track, even took to referring to him as ‘Conweasel’. But the team clearly believes that a year’s experience on the ovals will make all the difference, and his raw talent has never been in doubt.

A former Honda development driver, Conway retains his links with the Brackley outfit and took part in the recent F1 rookie driver tests for Mercedes. The Kent native crossed the Atlantic last year after a moderately successful 2008 with faltering GP2 team Trident failed to develop his career in Europe. His 2009 IndyCar season was summed up by his toils at the Indy 500, where a practice crash and hospitalisation almost cost him his place in the race, but he rallied to record a highly-respectable ninth-place finish.

Conway made the most of pre-season testing at the Barber Motorsport Park and Sebring, logging a high number of laps despite a minor accident in Alabama. He said: “We learned a lot from some things that we tried and from Justin and as a result we came away with a proper set-up. We just need to keep working on it and I think we are in a good position when we come back to race.”

Alex Lloyd, Dale Coyne Racing

Alex Lloyd at last year's Indianapolis 500

Alex Lloyd at last year's Indianapolis 500

Lloyd was the runaway champion of the 2007 Indy Pro support series (now known as Indy Lights), winning the first five races and eight in total. After that he settled into a development contract with Ganassi, waiting for a race seat that never came – bar outings in the 2008 and 2009 Indianapolis 500s. Cutting free late last year he worked hard to put together a deal with Newman/Haas/Lanigan and the energy drink company that sponsored his second Indy run, but when it fell through his chances of a 2010 drive looked slim. He was not present at the pre-season testing where the league’s driver PR photos were taken, for example.

But Dale Coyne Racing’s problems in finding drivers worked in Lloyd’s favour – although his #19 car has sponsorship from the Boy Scouts of America, both Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal passed on the chance to drive for the team because Coyne was offering a two-year deal but had lost legendary race engineer Bill Pappas. While American fans were, for obvious reasons, hoping a US native would eventually get the seat, there is general agreement that Lloyd featured high on everyone’s list of drivers too good not to be racing in the IndyCar Series.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Sao Paulo was a one-off, though – the team intends an announcement about its plans for the full season at the next race, St Pete.

Jay Howard, Sarah Fisher Racing – partial season

Jay Howard

Jay Howard

The 2006 Indy Pro champion will run in five of this season’s races as Sarah Fisher’s team-mate after the popular owner/driver was gifted a second race chassis by her sponsors, allowing her to expand her team. It’s unlikely Howard will be challenging at the front of the field, but his handful of Indy Lights outings last year suggest that he can find whatever speed is available from a car without much warm-up.

While Fisher will, not unnaturally, be using the newer car he will be stuck with her previous machine, one of the heaviest and oldest on the track. Nevertheless, Howard demonstrated an ability to squeeze the most from unpromising circumstances during his partial 2008 IndyCar season with Canadian businessman Marty Roth’s vanity team during which he comprehensively outperformed both his boss and the limitations of an outfit that suffered from less-than-professional leadership.

The 29-year-old from Basildon will face no such problems with Fisher, who is generally regarded to be providing a textbook example of how to slowly and sensibly build up a sustainable team with a long-term future, and who employed Howard based on her positive memories of his performance during the period with Roth Racing, when she was based next door to the team and saw it in operation.

The team ran a private test at Sebring and then joined the IndyCar open test at Barber in Alabama. After the latter, Howard said: “Completing as many laps as I did here was a great opportunity. We were hoping to do a little better but, as long as we learned something as a team, the test was beneficial. Overall it was a good day for myself and Sarah Fisher Racing.”

James Rossiter, KV Racing – not confirmed

James Rossiter

James Rossiter

A former Honda F1 tester, Rossiter disappeared off the radar during the team’s recent tumultuous years and it was something of a surprise when he reappeared as a possible candidate for a race seat with USF1. Later well-sourced reports suggested he’d agreed terms with the team but backed away when he saw the condition it was in.

Immediately after the USF1 rumours subsided he appeared in Indianapolis and secured a test with KV. He was assigned a race number and ran with respectable mid-field success in a fully-sponsored car – the retro black and gold livery sparked stories that he was the means by which Lotus was planning its return to the Indianapolis 500, but the Norfolk company eventually partnered with Takuma Sato.

Logging more than 100 laps and setting the 11th-best time, he said; “I learned a lot. We did a bit of a qualifying simulation with three sets of new tyres as well as a couple of long runs, running from full fuel tanks to empty so I could understand how the car reacts in these situations. We have made some good progress in set-up changes and hopefully the team have learned enough to have a good first race in Brazil.”

His plans to run a full season have not come to fruition. According to his Twitter postings, he is back in England trying to nail down his funding: “Boarding a plane back to London. Unfortunately couldn’t put the deal together for the first race, hopefully be at St. Pete. Meetings today and tonight to make sure I’m on the grid ASAP.”

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