By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – With new drivers, new teams, new circuits, a new title sponsor and broadcast deal it is a new dawn for the IndyCar Series as it speeds towards a future that could again include international races.
These are bullish times at IndyCar headquarters with Japanese tech giant NTT signing on as series title sponsor and NBC taking over as U.S. broadcasting partner.
IndyCar currently only stages races in the U.S. and one in Canada but with a diverse driver lineup that would rival Formula One has attracted television deals in 100 countries sparking talks of taking the series international again.
Prior to a downturn in the economy and interest IndyCars ran in Europe, Asia, South America and Australia but have not staged a race overseas since 2007.
That could soon change with reports IndyCar is looking into returning to Surfers Paradise in Australia and also considering races in Brazil, Mexico and Japan.
“It’s not like we’re trying to create the ‘Back To The Future’ series by going back to places we once raced, but it has worked in some cases; not in all of them,” IndyCar CEO Mark Miles told Racer.com. “And we’ll see whether this is the right time to try it again in Australia.”
The 17-race 2019 season starts on Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg followed by a first ever stop at the Circuit of the Americas, built to host the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix, before concluding on Sept. 22 in Laguna Seca.
But as always IndyCar’s Super Bowl comes on May 26 when the Indianapolis 500 takes the spotlight for what is unapologetically hyped as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
To be fair few, if any, sporting events can match the Indy 500 for pure high-octane excitement and this year will be no exception.
Fernando Alonso and McLaren return to the Brickyard with the dashing Spaniard looking to join Graham Hill as just the second driver to claim motor racing’s Triple Crown winning the Monaco Grand Prix, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Indy 500.
The double world champion has already ticked two boxes with wins at Monte Carlo and the famed Sarthe circuit and for the second time will try to reach Victory Lane at the Brickyard after his first attempt in 2017 ended with a blown engine. That was after leading the race for 27 laps.
“I’ve made clear for some time my desire to achieve the Triple Crown,” said Alonso in a statement last year after confirming his participation. “I had an incredible experience at Indianapolis in 2017 and I knew in my heart of hearts I had to go back if the opportunity was there.”
Alonso will not be the only Formula One runaway on the IndyCar starting grid this season as more drivers look to the North American open wheel series to rev up stalled careers.
Swede Marcus Ericsson, who laboured for five seasons with a string of Formula One tailenders making 97 starts without reaching the podium, makes the jump this season after losing his seat with Alfa Romeo to Kimi Raikkonen.
Ericsson will have a chance every weekend to battle for a podium driving for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports where he will team with Canadian James Hinchcliffe.
The Swede to watch, however, could be Felix Rosenqvist who will partner New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, IndyCar’s reigning drivers champion, at powerhouse outfit Chip Ganassi Racing.
Rosenqvist, who won the Formula 3 championship in 2015 and has raced Formula E, is considered a rising talent capable of immediately challenging for wins.
While IndyCar is seen as more competitive racing like Formula One, the series has its own ‘Big Three” of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.
Since 2003 drivers for those three teams have been crowned series champion, Dixon topping the standings on five occasions.
Only three times since 1999 has a driver outside the ‘Big Three’ won the Indianapolis 500, the last of those being Brazilian Tony Kanaan six years ago.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)