Despite some of the storm clouds around the IndyCar Series at present, the championship opener in Brazil this weekend has an expanded grid, the highest quality top half of the field in several years and a gaggle of improving teams in great shape to interfere with Ganassi and Penske's dominance.
Foremost among the underdog contenders is Justin Wilson, who has moved to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing after giving Dale Coyne Racing its first ever victory in 2009. AUTOSPORT asked Wilson to share his views on his rivals' prospects as they prepare for battle.
#10 Dario Franchitti
The double champion starts his title defence at the head of an unchanged Ganassi line-up.
Justin Wilson's view: He has to start as a favourite - he's just so strong, in fact both Ganassi drivers are. Last year Scott was faster at Mid-Ohio, and Dario at Sonoma, but other than that there was no more than about half a tenth between them everywhere.
I always expected Dario would be quick when he came back from NASCAR, but what surprised me was how quickly he gelled with Ganassi. I thought it would take a few races, but he just seemed to fit in and get straight on with it, and he'll be even more comfortable there this year.
#9 Scott Dixon
Dixon remains a Ganassi lynchpin, and having come so close to a third title last year, starts among the favourites as ever.
Justin Wilson's view: Just like Dario, he will be very fast, they are extremely closely-matched. Scott is like ice. You just can't pressure him, he's totally unflappable. The only way to beat him is to be quicker.
Ganassi looked like they were having to try hard in the Barber test - Penske seemed a tenth or so quicker at that track, but that was all and it's just one circuit. No reason for Ganassi to worry.
#6 Ryan Briscoe
Castroneves' early absence meant Briscoe led Penske's title challenge last year, and came within a Motegi pit crash of beating the Ganassi pair to the crown. He stays put for another chance in 2010.
Justin Wilson's view: At times he was slightly quicker than the Ganassi drivers last year, just not as unflappable as Scott. The mistake at Motegi stands out - he had the race and championship in the bag there. I'm sure he'll be thinking about that and determined to put it behind him.
That's the kind of mistake where if he had already won a championship he probably would've done something different and not had that incident. Once he gets a title he'll be more relaxed in his driving and not so eager with the car.
#3 Helio Castroneves
Castroneves starts his 11th season with Penske keen to get back on form, as having to start the 2009 campaign late while he was exonerated on tax evasion charges left him at an early disadvantage last year.
Justin Wilson's view: I just can't believe he hasn't won a title. The guy's won Indy three times - or twice if you ask PT - so he's won the big races and always seems so strong. He's a polished act, he's got every element of being a racing driver down so well, but he's just not quite as consistent as the others.
He put the court case behind him last year but he was always having to catch up after that. And sometimes everything bad comes at you at once and it's hard to get out of that lull, even when you're not really doing anything wrong. It doesn't take much at this level to lose touch - just one problem in a practice session like his suspension breaking at Homestead and that was the weekend ruined.
But he's got the right approach: he doesn't dwell on not having won a title, but neither is he laid back and thinking he's already done it all.
#12 Will Power
Called up by Penske to substitute for Castroneves during his trial, Power impressed so much he was rewarded with a half-season of outings. Back injuries at Sears Point curtailed his campaign, but he's back for a full championship bid this year.
Justin Wilson's view: Will having a full-time Penske drive means there will be five cars not four at the front in every race - which is disappointing for the rest of us! He was quickest at Barber and we saw his pace last year. There was never any doubt about his speed, and once he was with Penske he was up there showing how it should be done on the ovals too.
Maybe he won't quite be in the championship fight though, because at some ovals the other Penske and Ganassi drivers have the experience of what to do in those last few laps. But on the road courses he'll be right in the hunt.
#7 Danica Patrick
While trying NASCAR before, after and around the IndyCar season - to the delight of the US media - Patrick stays on with Michael Andretti's new-look Andretti Autosport team.
Justin Wilson's view: I believe Juan Pablo Montoya said it first - trying to do both IndyCar and NASCAR at this level is going to be very tough. I like Danica and hopefully she can pull it off, but the two cars are polar extremes, and there's a good chance she's going to compromise both her programmes.
In IndyCar, she's not quite the quickest driver but she keeps out of trouble, avoids the mess, plugs away and at the end of the race she's in the top four and you think 'how did that happen?'
She's an ambassador for IndyCar because she's so well known, she's a trailblazer for female drivers, and now there's the NASCAR spotlight as well. The most impressive thing about her is how she deals with all that and the PR that comes with it. It's so much more than the rest of us have. My head would be spinning.
#11 Tony Kanaan
Just one win in two years for Andretti's lead driver, who everyone believes should be right up with the Ganassi and Penske crowd, fighting for the title.
Justin Wilson's view: I really rate TK. He's the complete package and very polished with the media. He's a cool guy to hang out with too. So it says something about Andetti Autosport that he's not up there fighting for the championship.
The team has slipped in the last few years and it looked at Barber like it's still in the same position. I would love to understand why they can't find a balance, because they've got good people there.
Michael Andretti must really be scratching his head. They still have the ability, so you can never count them out and I can't help but think they are one adjustment away from finding the answer, which will put them right back in the game.
#26 Marco Andretti
Andretti starts his fifth season in IndyCar and with his father's team, still hunting for a second career win.
Justin Wilson's view: It's not really progressed for him since his rookie year. He needs to get his head down. It doesn't take much momentum to change things - one good result and it could all pick up for him. But Marco looked strong at Barber at first and then as everyone stepped it up it turned out Andretti Autosport was already at its limit.
He's a classic young driver - he has holes in his armour that other drivers exploit. He can be rattled, you can bait him into doing too much. He needs to stop trying to force situations. That's what Danica does well - she lets it all come to her.
#37 Ryan Hunter-Reay
A difficult, cash-strapped 2009 season saw Hunter-Reay start at Vision and end up at Foyt, showing great road course form along the way. Now backer IZOD has helped him into an Andretti Autosport car - hopefully for the full year, although more funding is required.
Justin Wilson's view: I thought he would've helped TK to get a direction with the set-up, but he might not be there enough to get stuck in - it will be hard if he's got no continuity and no flow.
There are times when I think he's capable of winning a championship. Then there are times when it seems he's not quite there yet. He needs more experience at the top. He has good races here and there, but not consistently. It's difficult to say how good he is until he has a full year in a quick car.
#06 Hideki Mutoh
Mutoh moves over to NHLR after two low-key years with Andretti Green, and sponsor departures mean he is the multiple Champ Car champion squad's sole representative.
Justin Wilson's view: It's sad to see how the team has changed over the last 18 months. It still had the speed last year - and Hideki did okay at Barber - but really the team is a shadow of its former self.
I think Hideki is very capable, and he had a good education at Andretti Green - even though the car wasn't always up there, the way they work is good. He's a good solid driver, although he didn't seem to get stuck in and get up front much last year.
Dreyer & Reinbold
#22 Justin Wilson
After leading Dale Coyne Racing to its first victory in 25 years of trying last season, Wilson has been enticed by Dreyer & Reinbold's efforts to become a regular victory threat - and was right up with Penske and Ganassi in the pre-season test.
Justin Wilson's view: Life's all about timing - sometimes you don't get to take charge, sometimes you have to make a big decision. I saw Dreyer & Reinbold as a team on the rise and I want to go up with them.
The car is already very well developed, and the team is getting better and better. Larry Curry is running things as general manager now, and he knew the changes he wanted to make and the people he wanted to hire. It already seemed like they had a very good oval car last year and Mike Conway was always very quick on the road courses.
The aim is to win the championship but it will be tough. I'd be really happy if we were next in line after Ganassi and Penske, that would be satisfying. The Barber test was already even better than I'd hoped for. I didn't have the car quite where I wanted it and we were still quick - if we could have got rid of a bit of oversteer we could easily have been where Will Power was.
#24 Mike Conway
Conway was very quick but quite destructive in his rookie year, but stays on with Dreyer & Reinbold to try and develop that promise.
Justin Wilson's view: I expect him to be just as quick as he was last year, if not quicker. He'll push me all the way. He's getting more comfortable with IndyCar, settling in, and not feeling like he's got to prove himself on every lap of every race - that's what it comes down to, relaxing and letting it come to you.
I'll help Mike in any way I can. He's a good guy and he's got a lot of potential. It's not like in Formula 1 where your first priority is to beat your team-mate, in IndyCar you need your team-mate to help you get the best from the car and working together is essential.
#23 Ana Beatriz
A race winner in Indy Lights, Beatriz has a one-off chance with DRR in Brazil - that could become a longer deal if she impresses.
Justin Wilson's view: She can definitely get results. Within half a day of testing at Sebring she was doing good lap times. I think Ana's got her head screwed on and will approach Brazil the right way.
But with just one race confirmed, with it being her home race, and with all the sponsor bigwigs there to impress and try and get funding for the full year, Brazil is going to be harder than the rest of her career put together. It would be very easy to try too hard and end up in the wall, or if she's too cautious everyone will be critical. It's almost an impossible job. But I hope she gets a break.
Dale Coyne Racing
#19 Alex Lloyd
Former Ganassi protege, 2007 Indy Lights and Indy 500 regular Lloyd has secured Coyne's second seat for round one in Brazil at least.
Justin Wilson's view: I understand it was down to JR Hildebrand or Alex Lloyd for that drive and Dale tested both recently. They're two talented guys and it would be fun to watch either of them in that car.
Dale's team is going to be quick at times like last year - my car was certainly great at many races last season. It will be interesting to see how they cope with going back up to two cars, I know they've had to bring more people in.
#18 Milka Duno
Duno has been a long way off the pace throughout her IndyCar career. She hopes running a full season with Coyne will change that. Few share her optimism.
Justin Wilson's view: Dale's going to be working very hard with Milka. It will be interesting to see how she can develop. I know she did her quickest time ever in testing at Sebring the other day. The team's just trying to make her comfortable and help her make progress.
#4 Dan Wheldon
Wheldon stays on with Panther for a second consecutive year, having had a promising but often frustrating time on his return to the squad in 2009.
Justin Wilson's view: He had a tough time last year but this year I'm expecting him to settle in more with Panther. They've got data from last year with each other so know more about working together and can hopefully have a stronger season. From the outside it looked like Dan started to get frustrated last year, and that doesn't help.
But they can be right at the front on ovals and he looked good in testing at Sebring. It's strange that he hasn't had the results on road courses - especially when he was at Ganassi. It's like he hasn't found a set-up to suit his road course driving style. He still jumps in a go-kart and does well so it's not like he's forgotten how to drive. I'd love to understand why it hasn't been working out for him.
KV Racing Technology
#5 Takuma Sato
Former Formula 1 driver Sato is a hugely exciting addition to the field with the expanding KV team.
Justin Wilson's view: Having Sato come over is going to make the quality in IndyCar even higher - but it's also going to show that people can't just come in from Formula 1 and dominate.
I think the KV car is very good and he'll learn the tracks fast. He'll be very quick on road courses but the ovals will be interesting. There are two philosophies when you start on ovals: either go flat-out until you crash, or edge up towards the limit and understand it. You can't help but think with Sato it will be flat-out... The first 95 per cent on the ovals is so easy you think you're missing something, but that last five per cent is very hard. When it goes loose on you, you wonder 'am I going to know what happens next or will I not wake up till tomorrow?'
He's also going to have to understand IndyCar races. They're big, heavy cars, some of the tracks are bumpy like English back roads, it's very easy to get carried away and get it wrong, there's no run-off and a full course yellow can change the entire race. It's very different, but it will be fun to watch him over here.
#8 EJ Viso
Viso showed a lot of promise - and scared a few people - in his rookie year in 2008, but barely finished any races last year. He switches from HVM to KV for 2010.
Justin Wilson's view: At first you just wanted to stay well away from him, but last year he seemed to calm down when the team was having more problems. He seemed to accept his car's limits last year - it wasn't that he gave in, but he didn't crash so much. I don't know if that means he'll crash more this year now he's got a good chance! He can certainly be wild, you only have to look at his Twitter feed to see that...
He can be a contender for race wins now and then, but even in a KV car you feel he needs another few years to settle in and calm down before he'll be a title threat.
#32 Mario Moraes
As the teams were already arriving in Brazil, Moraes pulled off a last-minute deal to ensure he could retain his KV Racing spot for a second year, when he will hope to build on the promising form that earned him a front row start and podium finish by the end of 2010.
*Moraes' deal was made too late for us to get Justin's view on him
#tba James Rossiter
Former Honda Formula 1 test driver Rossiter has tested for KV but has yet to confirm a deal for an additional car. Amid rumours that the Lotus brand could have an Indy role, KV boss Jimmy Vasser described the black and gold livery on Rossiter's car at Barber as a JPS Lotus tribute...
Justin Wilson's view: I'll be really excited for him if the deal comes off. Once he gets used to his new surroundings, he could be a more consistent contender than his team-mates.
It might take him a few races to get in the swing of things as he hasn't done much racing recently, but he's a professional and he won't have a problem. I remember him coming straight in and winning in the American Le Mans Series - if you can do that, you're capable.
#tba Paul Tracy
Legendary hard-charger and entertainer Tracy is expected to appear in at least a few races for KV, as he did last year, when he challenged for victory in Toronto.
Justin Wilson's view: He's just Paul - it's always going to be all or nothing. He's either going to be challenging for the win or in the wall. It's how he is, and it's great fun to watch. He can get frustrated very easily and he's not the kind of guy to settle for fourth. But he came straight in and was quick last year. His Tweets are hilarious too!
I think one of his best races was that one-off at Edmonton in 2008 where he was fourth. He didn't get frustrated, he kept his nose clean and did everything that was possible. Then the following year there his one instruction was not to collide with his team-mate Mario Moraes at Turn 1... He waited till Turn 4! After that he was the best non-Ganassi/Penske driver, so he still delivered, but I think his team had left by then to try to catch the earlier flight home...
De Ferran/Luczo Dragon
#2 Raphael Matos
Former Formula Dodge, Star Mazda, Atlantic and Indy Lights champion Matos added the IndyCar rookie title to his bulging CV last year. Now his team has Gil de Ferran on hand too as he becomes a partner in Steve Luczo and Jay Penske's squad.
Justin Wilson's view: Some people say that team's been a bit unstable over the winter, that it's a bit of a mess under the surface and maybe isn't as slick as it comes across.
Matos has been a bit erratic, he was definitely not a guy you wanted to be too close to on ovals last year. He was always trying to make something happen when maybe the opportunity wasn't really there. It's so easy to try and be a superstar all the time, but he did things he didn't need to and didn't really help himself. I think this year could be more of the same, maybe some desperation will set in because he's won in Lights and Atlantic and wants to do it in IndyCar. You get the impression he feels to got to prove himself here.
Gil is now involved with the team and I'm sure he will bring a lot to the table - he will have a calming and focusing effect.
AJ Foyt Racing
#14 Vitor Meira
Foyt's team has held the seat for Meira after his 2009 season was violently curtailed by back injuries from an Indianapolis crash.
Justin Wilson's view: He had a big shunt last year so it's good to see him back. He's a pretty good driver, although he hasn't had the best circumstances to show it.
The team is erratic - sometimes it's quick and other times you just don't think about them at all. It's like they haven't found a decent base set-up and are still scratching around, and they haven't had much continuity. It looks like it gets pretty interesting over there when AJ takes control - you don't want to stand too close in case the laptops are flying...
#78 Simona de Silvestro
Until she was taken out at the last round, de Silvestro was set to become Atlantic champion last year. Now she gets an IndyCar break with the under-rated HVM squad.
Justin Wilson's view: I think she's the real deal. The Atlantic field wasn't big but those were very good guys she was beating until she was taken out at the final round. We need to see more before we can tell if she's going to be the best female driver yet, but she's definitely very good.
HVM's a very capable team, Michael Cannon is a very good engineer, and my damper guy from 2009 is there now - and I rate him as one of the best in the business. Put it this way, I wouldn't have a problem with driving for that team.
#34 Mario Romancini
Conquest had to juggle drivers and sponsors last year and missed several rounds - but now it's back full-time with Indy Lights graduate Romancini, who performed well in testing.
Justin Wilson's view: Conquest is one of my old teams and it was great to see them doing well at Barber. Mario put his best time in quite early and for a while he was second. He slipped back as other people put new tyres on, but it was still impressive for someone stepping up from Indy Lights.
They've had a difficult off-season but that's still a quick car. I hope they can keep their momentum up.
Fazzt Race Team
#77 Alex Tagliani
Canadian businessman Andre Azzi, ex team owner Jim Freudenberg, actor Jason Priestley and veteran driver Alex Tagliani have joined forces for this new team, which has purchased Roth Racing's assets.
Justin Wilson's view: We've not seen Fazzt at the track yet so I'm not sure what to make of them. They've hired some good people, so there's potential there if they can gel. Sometimes you can employ great people with lots of experience, and the difficulty is deciding whose information to go with.
Tagliani is an ex-team-mate of mine - he's talented and can definitely do the job. Sometimes you can do everything right and it still doesn't work out. People seem to like to jump on his back, but when I was his team-mate he really was doing everything right, you just wouldn't know it from his results.
Sarah Fisher Racing
#67 Sarah Fisher
Hard-working owner/driver Fisher is expanding her programme this year - and was set to venture away from her oval comfort zone before recruiting Rahal.
Justin Wilson's view: She's a good oval driver but road courses are not her forte, although she was originally going to do a few for her sponsors this year. It's great to have an owner/driver in the series, and she's worked very hard to grow that team.
It's always tough if you're only doing a part-season, it's never easy to get momentum in that situation. Having Jay Howard come in is a cool thing for the team, but they were a bit off the pace at the test.
#67 Graham Rahal
After losing his Newman/Haas/Lanigan seat and decided against joining Dale Coyne, Rahal has a two-round deal with SFR - but is it just a stop-gap before another opportunity turns up?
Justin Wilson's view: Graham is without a full-time ride but I think he will find something for later in the year. He must have something up his sleeve if he is turning down teams that are offering a full season deal.
I think Graham is fast but your career is defined during the difficult times. You don't always go from top ride to top ride, so his next step and how he deals with it will be critical.
#66 Jay Howard
Former Indy Lights champion Howard gets another IndyCar chance two years after his unhappy Roth stint. He will drive six races for Fisher, mostly on ovals.
Justin Wilson's view: Jay is no slouch, so if he's a couple of seconds off the back of the field like he was at the test, it shows the team is missing something on the road courses.
He's a very capable driver and only doing a few rounds means it could be explosive. There can be a mentality of 'this is my one and only opportunity', and sometimes when you've only got a limited chance to prove yourself you do things that you wouldn't normally.
*All stats are combined Champ Car and IndyCar, and include non-championship events.
To continue reading this feature, subscribe to Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus subscription includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.