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Five themes to follow in IndyCar 2024

The new IndyCar season commences on Sunday with its traditional St. Petersburg season-opener. And all eyes will be on Alex Palou, as he seeks to defend the title he won in imperious fashion last year with Chip Ganassi Racing

The Spaniard had been expected to line up this season with Arrow McLaren SP, but a U-turn on that planned switch to remain with Ganassi will ensure it has the champion driver from three of the last four years in its ranks. With Palou's contractual saga now a thing of the past, there's plenty for keen IndyCar observers to keep track of this year as the championship approaches the dawn of a new hybrid age.

Here are five of the key themes to follow in 2024.

1. Palou versus everybody

Can Palou continue where he left off in 2023? (Photo by: Penske Entertainment)

Alex Palou was in a class of his own in 2023, locking up the IndyCar title at the penultimate round – which last happened in Champ Car days in 2007 with Sebastien Bourdais – after putting together a historic run with Chip Ganassi Racing that featured an average finish of 3.7 courtesy of five wins, five further podiums and no finish worse than eighth in 17 races.

Now the Spaniard, who has hoisted the Astor Cup Trophy twice over the past three seasons, is hoping to replicate a different type of history by becoming the first driver to successfully defend his crown and go back to back since Dario Franchitti pulled off his wondrous hat-trick from 2009-11. With rivals lurking around every corner, though, it’s obviously easier said than done.

It’s impossible to ignore Team Penske, which as ever is firmly set to make a run with two-time champion and 2023 Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden, another two-time series title winner and Indy 500 victor in the form of Will Power, and last year’s third-place points man Scott McLaughlin. Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward has been relentlessly chipping away in the ‘best of the rest’ category the past few years, and is poised for a breakthrough after a winless 2023 that ended with a career-best seven podiums (second only to Palou).

After breaking out with two wins in his first year with the Andretti team in 2023, Kyle Kirkwood is among those who are poised to take another step forward. Colton Herta, Kirkwood’s team-mate, will be hungry to bounce back after an underwhelming year with no wins and only one podium. Similarly, Andretti newcomer and 2022 Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson will be out to prove that Chip Ganassi Racing made a mistake by letting him walk.

Although Palou will have a watchful eye on everyone, his biggest threat is likely within his own Ganassi stable in six-time series champion Scott Dixon, who surged with three wins in the final four races to finish runner-up in last year’s title race.

“Even on the worst days [Dixon’s] always there,” says 26-year-old Palou. “It will be tough. I think he found something towards the end of the season as we saw with the results they got. Hopefully, he forgot about that stuff… Then outside [Ganassi], Newgarden. He’s the same as Dixon, that even on the bad days he’s able to get the maximum out of the car. I think he was a bit unlucky during last season, but he’s always a threat.”

2. Shake-up to the schedule

IndyCar will stage its first race at the Thermal Club venue which hosted pre-season Spring Training last year, but it won't count for points (Photo by: IndyCar Series)

The schedule for the IndyCar Series has a dramatically different look compared to last year. There is a non-points made-for-television event later this month with the $1Million Challenge at The Thermal Club, a facility near Palm Springs, California that hosted 2023 Spring Training on its 19-turn, three-mile layout. The Milwaukee Mile is back for the first time since 2015 and will be the penultimate round of the 17-race championship.

The 2024 season finale was originally supposed to take place on the streets of downtown Nashville. But the impact of construction surrounding the area due to the new stadium being built for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans forced a switch to nearby Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete oval the series competed on from 2001-08. The last time that IndyCar finished the season on an oval was 2014 at Fontana.

Laguna Seca, which held the season finale for three of the past five years, has been moved to June. Additionally, the series will only run once around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, in May, after dropping its summer date that was shared with NASCAR.

With these changes comes a cost, though, and one of the more significant is the loss of Texas Motor Speedway, which had been a pillar of the schedule since 1997. The combination of the Summer Olympics matched with NASCAR shifting its date created a conflict that led to TMS being dropped, but leaving the door open for a return in 2025.

3. Impact from the hybrid delay

Only four teams have so far been part of IndyCar's hybrid testing programme (Photo by: IndyCar Series)

The introduction of a new hybrid power unit was going to deliver a number of factors to the 2024 championship, but now the drivers and teams of the IndyCar Series face unprecedented circumstances with it scheduled for a mid-season release some time after the Indianapolis 500 on 26 May.

The hybrid power unit, which is a collaboration between Chevrolet and Honda, is a system that is being added to the current 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engine. The system consists of a motor generator unit and energy storage system, which are both placed inside the bellhousing. While push-to-pass will still be available on road and street circuits with the hybrid, the strategy of automatic or manual deployment following regeneration of power, which has been tested on ovals and road courses, remains unknown.

Team Penske’s Will Power, who has been the workhorse of the testing effort, believes that having the new unit integrated in the midst of a season will have an impact on the title race.

“It will be very interesting,” says the Australian. “There’s no question that it’s going to be a factor in the championship. Obviously, the weight distribution changes, the weight of the car goes up. You have this hybrid system that you have to use as efficiently as possible. So people will be learning through those races how to extract the most out of the system, which is a good thing. It’ll make for a very interesting championship.”

Through the end of February, only Arrow McLaren, Andretti Global, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have been part of the hybrid testing programme. They combined for 2656 miles logged in a recent two-day test in February, along with another 15,256 miles during the final three months at multiple tracks last year.

The rest of the teams – AJ Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing, Meyer Shank Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – are tentatively scheduled for their first taste of the new power unit on 28-29 March at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

4. Fresh faces in new places

Former Arrow McLaren driver Rosenqvist has joined Meyer Shank Racing (Photo by: Penske Entertainment)

There have been several off-season changes to the driver rosters up and down the grid. Marcus Ericsson was among the big names to move elsewhere, opting for a switch from Chip Ganassi Racing to an Andretti Global programme that has scaled down from four cars to three. In turn, Romain Grosjean parted ways from Andretti in favour of Juncos Hollinger Racing, replacing Callum Ilott.

Although CGR lost out on retaining Ericsson, the squad will run five cars full-time, including two rookies: 2022 Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist, and Kyffin Simpson. Meanwhile, Marcus Armstrong is elevated after a partial 2023 IndyCar campaign that ended with top rookie honours.

Speaking of rookies, Tom Blomqvist will compete full-time with Meyer Shank Racing. He will be alongside Felix Rosenqvist, who vacated his seat at Arrow McLaren at the end of 2023 that has now been filled by David Malukas following two years at Dale Coyne Racing. Malukas’s former team-mate, Sting Ray Robb, also left DCR, opting to spend his sophomore year with AJ Foyt Racing.

Christian Rasmussen, the 2023 Indy NXT champion, is set for a partial season with Ed Carpenter Racing, which includes a road and street course programme and a shot at the Indianapolis 500. And the legendary Fittipaldi name returns to the sport with Pietro – grandson of two-time Indy 500 winner and Indycar champion Emerson – driving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s third entry.

5. Larson’s double quest

Kyle Larson has been logging the testing miles with Arrow McLaren SP ahead of his IndyCar debut at the Indy 500 (Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP)

Kyle Larson has been regarded by many, including several motorsports legends, as a generational talent. Combine that with opportunity, and history could potentially be rewritten when he makes his IndyCar debut at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Even more than that, the California native is also participating in NASCAR’s 600-mile Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day in what is known as ‘The Double’ on Memorial Day Weekend.

Larson, 31, has spent the past year getting up to speed with an IndyCar courtesy of Arrow McLaren, with which he will race a fourth entry in the 500 in partnership with his NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. He will become the fifth driver to attempt the feat, but first since Kurt Busch in 2014. John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart also made runs. Stewart’s 2001 effort remains the most successful to date, finishing sixth in the Indy 500 and third at Charlotte, and he remains the only driver to complete all 1100 miles.

“I think everybody is really excited about it,” says 2021 Cup champion Larson. “It’s a rare thing. I think that brings a lot of eyes and stuff to what’s going on. I feel like I’m a grassroots type of racer. Even though I race on Sunday in the Cup Series, I still feel like I resonate with the local short track fans. That’s what gets people liking me.

“I know I’ve got a lot of support on the fan side of things. I’m sure the whole NASCAR garage will be paying attention to how my couple weeks is going there. That’s all fun. Yeah, I look forward to it.”

Will Larson shine or sink when he attempts the double? (Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP)
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