IndyCar Preview: 5 big storylines to watch in 2023

IndyCar Preview: 5 big storylines to watch in 2023

A 27-car field will take to the start as the 2023 IndyCar Series kicks off on the streets of St. Petersburg. 

Although the 2.2-liter engines are unchanged ahead of the adoption of hybrid power for 2024, several noteworthy technical changes have been made including the adoption of Shell’s 100 percent renewable fuel lauded in testing by Josef Newgarden and a flurry of changes designed to improve racing on ovals, including aero tweaks and the requirement to use two different tyre compounds for the first time at World Wide Technology Raceway, Gateway.

But how will all of that impact this year’s title battle? And can anyone interrupt the private duel between Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing that played out last season? 

Here are five of the major talking points to follow in 2023.

1. Who will come out on top in Penske’s team-mate battle?

Newgarden (left) is seeking to end a run of three seasons in a row of finishing second, but has to overcome team-mates McLaughlin and reigning champion Power (right)

Newgarden (left) is seeking to end a run of three seasons in a row of finishing second, but has to overcome team-mates McLaughlin and reigning champion Power (right)

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden has finished three straight years as runner-up in the title race and, in this writer’s opinion, in two of those years he was marginally the best. How does a driver as ruthlessly determined as the 32-year-old Tennessean deal with that? Well, he comes back harder. And, according to the man himself, he has no intention of compromising the way he tackles a race weekend. 

“I don’t know that we need to change anything as far as our approach or process,” says Newgarden, who is entering his seventh year with Team Penske. “I think everything that we’re doing is what we need to be doing. 

“IndyCar just has that intangible side to it where you can’t predict everything. It’s preparation, hard work, maximizing each day, then… the tides need to flow for you.” 

Power still has the devastating qualifying pace, even though there were one or two anomalies last year, and his ability to judge passing opportunities is closer to flawless than it’s ever been

But his team-mate Will Power is the defending champion for a reason. He showed better than anyone last year how to win a title; no matter where he found himself in the early laps of a race, his eyes were on the final prize.

Insight: The new skills Power acquired to end his long IndyCar title wait

Power still has the devastating qualifying pace, even though there were one or two anomalies last year, and his ability to judge passing opportunities is closer to flawless than it’s ever been. He has also learned how to let frustration evaporate rather than seep into his preparations for the next session, the next race, the next lap.  

While both Power and Newgarden are formidable, they now know their colleague Scott McLaughlin is the real deal in open-wheel. The three-time Supercars champion scored three wins last year and was only an Indy 500 shunt and a Detroit error away from a genuine tilt at the title in the finale. In his third season at this level, he should be even stronger.  

2. Can expanded Arrow McLaren take the title?

Rossi will race for an IndyCar team other than Andretti Autosport for the first time this year as he switches to Arrow McLaren - but can he help propel the team into becoming a title contender?

Rossi will race for an IndyCar team other than Andretti Autosport for the first time this year as he switches to Arrow McLaren – but can he help propel the team into becoming a title contender?

Photo by: IndyCar Series

It seems every year we ask a question along the lines of whether Arrow McLaren will join Penske and Ganassi to form IndyCar’s ‘Big Three’. It’s debatable whether the team has now replaced Andretti Autosport as the series’ third best team, but we can say with some certainty that it’s not yet proven in the top rank in terms of race-in/race-out consistency. 

But one gets the feeling that potential is there, and that nothing will deviate the Zak Brown-led team from its course towards the top. Will the arrival of Alexander Rossi in a third full-time car accelerate that progress? Not in itself, no: few if any drivers have the power to do that.

Yet McLaren has been able to retain its best staff and lure similarly strong individuals from rival outfits – at a time when recruitment of top-line team members is difficult due to booming grid numbers in IndyCar and IMSA – thus proving the investment this team is prepared to make.  

Insight: Will changing teams make Alexander Rossi an IndyCar title threat again?

So we can be sure that the three cars of Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist and Rossi will be crewed and engineered by some of the greatest talents in the pitlane. In 2023, Arrow McLaren has no excuse not to arrive at the Laguna Seca finale with at least one driver in contention for the championship. 

3. Will Armstrong and Sato grab their golden Ganassi chances?

F2 convert Armstrong has the right surroundings to thrive as he switches codes to IndyCar

F2 convert Armstrong has the right surroundings to thrive as he switches codes to IndyCar

Photo by: IndyCar Series

A two-day test at Thermal Club in early February can’t tell a team all it has to know about a rookie’s ultimate potential. But 22-year-old New Zealander Marcus Armstrong, a race winner in Formula 2, looks ready to keep his star team-mates on their toes – at least.

In his first year, no one expects Armstrong to devastate the opposition like Alex Palou at Laguna Seca or turn mud into chocolate like Scott Dixon at Nashville. But focusing only on road and street courses will allow him to learn the car, find its limit on hot and worn or fresh but cold tires, and push to the nth degree on alternate compounds in qualifying. So long as Armstrong has swiftly taken advantage of the vast human and technical resources at Chip Ganassi Racing, his talent should soon become clear. 

Will Sato make the team stronger? Will the team make Sato stronger? It could be a great combo

The same applies to veteran Takuma Sato, who will drive Armstrong’s #11 entry in the five oval races on this year’s schedule. Last year, Sato impressed Dale Coyne Racing with his ability to adapt to the team’s oval set-ups, which differed from those that the two-time Indy 500 winner had found and developed at Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Now Sato brings his oval expertise to a team that kicked ass at Indy, in terms of pace, for the last three years.

Insight: Why Sato at Ganassi is a dream scenario for both parties

Will he make the team stronger? Will the team make Sato stronger? It could be a great combo, as Sato gets to enjoy a squad that knows exactly how to find that last scintilla of speed in evolving track conditions. 

4. Can Andretti Autosport get Herta into championship contention? 

Herta's lack of Superlicence points meant he was snubbed for a potential switch to Formula 1 with AlphaTauri. Can he show the F1 world what it's missing?

Herta’s lack of Superlicence points meant he was snubbed for a potential switch to Formula 1 with AlphaTauri. Can he show the F1 world what it’s missing?

Photo by: IndyCar Series

For the umpteenth time we point out that Andretti Autosport was the last team to break the Penske/Ganassi stranglehold on the IndyCar championship. And for the umpteenth time we look to the season ahead and wonder if Michael Andretti’s squad has what it takes to reach that level again.  

Colton Herta has the speed, intelligence and work ethic to be a champion, and Nathan O’Rourke is one of the best race engineers on pitlane. Together they can make a driver-car combo that is a match for anyone. But their worst days need to get much better.

There were some troubling shunts from Herta in 2022, some of them unforced errors, that have to be eliminated if he is to earn the title his talent deserves. And as a whole, Andretti Autosport must make greater progress over a race weekend.

Over the past three seasons, there were too many times when the quartet of AA cars rolled off the trailers on Friday as eighth-placed cars and never evolved into podium contenders by Sunday in the manner that you’d expect from, say, Ganassi. 

5. Can Malukas and Ilott spring underdog surprises? 

After his storming run at Gateway netted a podium, Malukas is a good bet for more underdog results with Coyne in 2023

After his storming run at Gateway netted a podium, Malukas is a good bet for more underdog results with Coyne in 2023

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

In the case of David Malukas, without question. At Gateway last year, the 2021 Indy Lights runner-up was probably only two laps from scoring Dale Coyne Racing’s seventh win, and his blossoming confidence on road and street courses put him in regular contention for the Fast Six in qualifying.

To see Malukas score a couple more podiums this year will require a fit and well-drilled pitcrew, and for him to develop the same relationship with Alex Athanasiadis – the team’s former performance engineer – as he enjoyed with Ross Bunnell, who has joined Chip Ganassi Racing as Dixon’s race engineer.

Despite JHR being the only single-car team on the grid last year, Ilott started six races in the top half of the field, culminating in a front-row slot for the finale at Laguna Seca

Juncos Hollinger Racing, newly expanded to run a second full-time entry for touring car ace but IndyCar rookie Agustin Canapino, is the smallest team in the paddock, but in Callum Ilott it appears to have an unpolished gem. Despite JHR being the only single-car team on the grid last year, the Briton started six races in the top half of the field, culminating in a front-row slot for the finale at Laguna Seca.

Ilott’s speed in testing suggests that momentum has been maintained for 2023. Does the team have the strength in depth to help Ilott embarrass some of his better-established peers? One can only hope.

Ilott has impressed in testing with the expanded Juncos Hollinger team as he prepares to enter his second full IndyCar season.

Ilott has impressed in testing with the expanded Juncos Hollinger team as he prepares to enter his second full IndyCar season.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

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