From a new title sponsor to a new-look TV package, and even a couple of long-awaited visits to iconic American tracks, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season just might be one of the most hyped championships in the world this year.
What that hype isn’t lacking, though, is some serious substance behind it.
20 of the world’s best open-wheel racers have signed on to do the full IndyCar season in 2019, including all of last year’s championship favorites and a quartet of impressive rookies: Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist, and America’s Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci. They’ll be joined by four more drivers on the grid for a total of 24 entries in this weekend’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of 17 rounds on the 2019 calendar.
At 1.8 miles, the St. Petersburg course is one of the shorter road and street courses on the IndyCar schedule. It uses both city streets and runways, and like the circuits in downtown Detroit and Toronto, includes a mix of both asphalt and concrete racing surfaces. Last year’s race featured the debut of IndyCar’s new universal aerokit, and series rookie Jordan King promptly set a new track record in the first round of qualifying.
Sebastien Bourdais is the two-time defending winner of this race, and one of four past St. Petersburg winners on the entry list (Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, and Graham Rahal are the other three). The 2018 race was marked by the impressive IndyCar debut of Robert Wickens, who led a race-high 69 of 110 laps before contact with Alexander Rossi on the final restart took both drivers out of winning contention. Rahal and Rossi completed the podium, while Zach Veach was the highest-placed rookie in 16th.
Aside from the rookie contenders, there hasn’t been a lot of driver movement elsewhere on the IndyCar grid. Herta takes over for Gabby Chaves at the rechristened Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Ferrucci takes over as Bourdais’ teammate at Dale Coyne Racing full-time, and Ericsson will run Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ second car alongside Hinchcliffe, with Wickens set to return in a third car as soon as he is physically able to compete after last year’s devastating crash at Pocono Raceway.
Ed Jones, bounced from Chip Ganassi Racing to make room for Rosenqvist, will split time with Ed Carpenter as part of a new partnership between Carpenter and Scuderia Corsa. Charlie Kimball will scale back to a partial schedule for Carlin, running in St. Petersburg but sharing time with RC Enerson later in the year. The split-schedule Carlin car and the part-time Juncos Racing entry may also serve as landing spots for defending Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward, who was initially announced as Herta’s full-time teammate but split with Harding in the offseason over team funding concerns.
IndyCar fans can also look forward to less channel-hopping in 2019, as NBC has taken over as the series’ full-time broadcasting partner. Following a lengthy time share with ABC that dates back to the NBC Sports Network’s previous branding as Versus, the NBC family of networks will play host to all 17 rounds of the season, including the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. Sunday’s race from St. Petersburg will air on NBCSN starting at 12:30PM ET/9:30AM PT.