INSIGHT: IndyCar silly season update

INSIGHT: IndyCar silly season update

IndyCar

INSIGHT: IndyCar silly season update

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Coming off of a 2012 season that felt like a motorized soap opera without an end, the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series has been nearly free of drama and scandal. The focus so far has been on the unpredictable racing that has dominated the headlines, with the bigger fish being challenged and occasionally beaten by the minnows. Stability has been the dominant theme through 13 races, but with a number of major developments in the works for 2014, the silly season should add some spice to a somewhat normal season.

A week of calls to IndyCar teams and drivers has produced some interesting results, with an overall theme of growth coming to light throughout the paddock. Provided most of those additional cars come to fruition, the driver market could be bustling with activity.

Between the long list of free agents searching for a home, young prospects looking for a way in and winning drivers seeking new contracts, all signs point to a busy off-season of negotiating and deal-making.

TEAMS AND DRIVERS

AJ Foyt Enterprises: The Texas-based team tells RACER it wants to keep the current program intact. ABC is signed as the primary sponsor for the No. 14 car, and adding a second full-time entry is a priority, but will only happen if additional sponsorship can be found. Rookie driver Conor Daly made his series debut with the team at the Indy 500, and had been mentioned as a possible addition for the team’s home race at Houston, but team director Larry Foyt says the necessary funding has fallen through.

  • Takuma Sato: The Long Beach race winner is on a one-year contract, but the team is keen to continue with Taku and build on what he and engineer Don Halliday have established in 2013.

Andretti Autosport: After returning to four full-time cars this year, Andretti Autosport has had its best overall season as a team in quite a while. Team owner Michael Andretti says he intends to keep the existing teams/drivers intact, hopes to have those details finalized in the next 30 days, and is very confident a fifth full-time entry for Carlos Munoz will be added for 2014.

  • E.J. Viso: The Venezuelan driver is currently 12th in points his best since joining the series in 2008 and looks nothing like his former self. He’s on a one-year contract and needs to sign Andretti’s offer because he won’t find a more supportive environment in the series.
  • James Hinchcliffe: One of the most influential players in the silly season. The Canadian, with three wins to his credit since March, is in the final year of his contract with Andretti and is drawing serious interest from the team’s main rivals.
  • Marco Andretti: Presently fourth in the drivers’ standings, Andretti’s having his strongest season to date and, obviously, has a secure home with the team.
  •  Ryan Hunter-Reay: One point ahead of Andretti in the championship, RHR’s future was solidified when he signed a multi-year deal with the team last September.

Barracuda Racing: Team owner Bryan Herta would like to expand to two cars, with the caveat being that the primary No. 98 entry is in good enough shape to warrant the added workload. 2014 would mark the team’s third season as a single-car team, and with the constant increase in competition throughout the series, becoming a
two-car team is a requirement if BHA wants to move up the grid. The days of one-car teams mingling deep inside the top 10 on a regular basis are all but gone.

BHA’s painful season has reached a turning point with driver Alex Tagliani. And with the team said to be exploring its options, this is one program that can’t wait for a do-over next year.

  • Alex Tagliani: It’s very likely Tagliani’s career as a team-paid, full-time IndyCar driver has run its course.
Chip Ganassi Racing: Reducing to three cars after Graham Rahal departed the team was never in the team’s plans, and RACER has confirmed a blueprint is in place to return to four cars next season. Its current roster is either signed for 2014 or expected to return, and the fourth driver could, depending on who they settle on, be a long-term solution.

* Charlie Kimball: The Novo Nordisk-sponsored driver finished 19th in points during his freshman and sophomore seasons, yet has improved to 11th in the standings heading into Mid-Ohio. He’s in a contract year with the team, and like Viso at Andretti Autosport, would be challenged to find a better situation elsewhere.

* Dario Franchitti: The four-time champion is in a contract year and has been quiet on his plans beyond 2013. He’s coming off a pole and podium at Toronto and clearly has plenty of fire in his belly. It’s hard to predict how long he’ll continue, but it’s also hard to envision the Scot stepping away without taking another crack at a title. Barring an epic meltdown by the six drivers ahead of him in the standings, it might have to wait for 2014.

* Scott Dixon: The ageless Kiwi is trying to secure his third title with TCGR and also announced he’s signed an extension with the team. We can’t say how long the Dixie & Dario show will go on, but the 33-year-old will likely retire at TCGR, and will have a few more Target teammates before that day comes.

Dale Coyne Racing: Team owner Dale Coyne, who could easily be mistaken for someone with telephonophobia, has not declared his intentions for next season, but with a track record of running a pair of full-time entries and an innate ability to find at least one paying driver to fill the second seat, it would be reasonable to assume the same trend will continue.

  • No. 18: A driver with a complete budget to drive the car at every round has eluded Coyne since James Jakes left for the Rahal team prior to the season, but with a win to its credit at Detroit, the seat should command more interest than usual provided engineer John Dick is there to work his magic.
  • Justin Wilson: Coyne holds an option on for Wilson for 2014, but it’s believed to be performance-based. He and engineer Bill Pappas make a formidable combination, but once again find themselves as a de facto one-car program due to the constant changes to the No. 18’s lineup. Wilson would be a strong candidate at some of the teams with openings or expansions on the horizon if he and Coyne fail to come to terms. Wilson and Pappas make the DCR team a contender, but with a short supply of race-winning engineers on the market, Pappas is also a sought-after commodity. Watch this space.
Dragon Racing: Team owner Jay Penske told RACER he intends on fielding two cars in 2014 and with the same drivers at the controls. The team continues to need more funding and for a deeper management structure to be established. If more senior staff can be added to lighten the load on its crew, and a proper R&D budget can be secured, Dragon Racing could become an every-round contender.

  • Sebastien Bourdais: Bourdais is in a contract year, earns a good salary, and in the current market, could struggle to find anyone other than Penske to pay that retainer. Penske needs an elite driver to sell to his sponsors and Bourdais fits the bill. The switch to Tom Brown as Bourdais’ engineer resulted in a pair of podiums at Toronto, and if the two can keep the mojo flowing, Seb will surely be motivated to return. He’s also said that if a new deal isn’t reached, a move to sports car racing is a solid fallback position.
  • Sebastian Saavedra: The Colombian’s season has contained flashes of optimism, but too many mechanical problems, too many issues in the pits and too many crashes or mistakes on his part have left the 23-year-old last among the full-time drivers in the standings. He has a new crew chief which should solve any car-related issues, leaving his driving as the determining factor in how his season ends. He brings backing from his homeland, which Penske needs, and provided he can look back at the final six races and see significant progress has been made, his enthusiasm to return could improve.
Ed Carpenter Racing: ECR says it will continue without change in 2014, but like every single-car team in the series, is working to add a second car to the mix.

  • Ed Carpenter: Carpenter is in a contract year and hopes to earn an extension from himself.
KV Racing Technology: The Indy 500 winners have two goals for 2014: to re-sign Tony Kanaan and to secure a contract extension with Simona De Silvestro’s primary sponsor. While the team’s drivers and mechanics get along incredibly well, a rift between the engineering camps has limited the effectiveness of the two-car team. In addition to finding the sponsorship necessary to retain Kanaan and getting De Silvestro’s cadre of Nuclear Energy sponsors to continue their financial support, KV’s team owners must find a way to build cohesion throughout the program.

  • Tony Kanaan: The Brazilian’s stock, which was already quite high, shot through the roof after winning Indy. He’s in a contract year and commands one of the healthiest salaries in the series. He’s receiving interest from at least one rival, but his sticker price could be the determining factor. KV says they want to pay it; Kanaan’s the selling point for the team to potential sponsors, creating a situation where it’s mutually beneficial to put a multi-year contract in front of the 38-year-old. RACER is told that should happen within the next month.
  • Simona De Silvestro: The Swiss driver’s management team confirmed a return with KV in 2014 is in the works.

 

Panther Racing: The John Barnes-led team has been trying to add a second car for quite a while, and says it’s closer than ever to making it happen. Its primary program will continue in 2014 with one of a few drivers under consideration.

  • No. 4: Tryouts for the seat have narrowed down the list of drivers the team is interested in signing, with Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servia continuing to hold the greatest chance of getting the nod.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Moving ahead with both entries for 2014 is the current plan for the RLLR squad. Its recent changes in the engineering department and addition of Mitch Davis to the management side will only bolster the program. The acquisition of more engineering talent is a priority for the Indianapolis-based outfit.

  • Graham Rahal: Rahal and his sponsors will be back next year.
  • James Jakes: The Englishman is in the midst of a breakout season, but doesn’t have a lot of results to show how far he’s come with engineer Eddie Jones. Jakes is on a one-year contract with RLLR and like Viso and Kimball, would be wise to stay and build on what’s been established in 2013.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Sarah Fisher told RACER she and co-owner Wink Hartman will continue with the No. 67 program without any changes, and is at an confident SFHR will have a second car on the grid next season with the involvement of RW Motorsports owner Steve Weirich.

  • Josef Newgarden: The IndyCar sophomore is 15th in points, ranked third among the single-car entries and, most importantly, left his crash-happy ways behind in 2012. His contract with the team runs through 2014. Of all the drivers in the IndyCar Series, Newgarden would benefit the most from having a veteran teammate to learn from. He’s fast and smart, but needs to make a significant leap in overall performance and consistency next year, and that won’t happen without a second SFHR car.

    Nathan O’Rourke, Newgarden’s engineer, is also a star in the making and would benefit from having two sets of data and setup options to work with. His name has been mentioned among the coveted engineers in the paddock, but SFHR’s family-run outfit is a unique environment a lot of potential waiting to be realized. It would be hard to see him leave with Newgarden on the cusp of becoming a regular contender.

Schmidt Peterson Hamilton HP Motorsports: Both drivers are under contract for 2014, and team co-owner Sam Schmidt says he will not, under any circumstances, expand to three cars after dealing with the growing pains of adding Tristan Vautier alongside Simon Pagenaud this year. The team, as always, needs more sponsorship, although Ric Peterson’s investment in the program has certainly helped in that department. But burning Peterson’s cash isn’t a feasible business strategy, making the need to recruit a larger cache of sponsors the biggest priority for the team. Vautier’s No. 55 car has been a prime example of the issue at hand as a rotating cast of race-by-race primary sponsorship has appeared on the car.

  • Simon Pagenaud: The Detroit Race 2 winner’s contract with Schmidt runs through 2014, but he’s on the short list of a few teams in need of a long-term solution. He and engineer Ben Bretzman are inseparable, and showed what they are capable of by winning at Belle Isle, yet it’s worth asking if the two will be able to topple Andretti, Ganassi and Penske in their quest for a championship while at SPM. It is possible, but will require a massive amount of finances to do so.

    Pagenaud, now in his second full season in the series, can hardly afford to spend another year hovering around the top five without any hope of challenging for a title. Despite his newcomer status in IndyCar, the 29-year-old doesn’t have many years to waste while waiting for the right opportunity. As one of the most self-aware drivers in the paddock, I’m sure he’s looking at 2014 as the most pivotal year of his career.

  • Tristan Vautier: The only rookie in the series signed a multi-year deal, and Schmidt also made similar commitments to its staff and engineering team. He hit the rookie wall earlier than expected and has yet to peel himself off of it, but with a welcome two-week break in the schedule, he should return at Mid-Ohio in a more productive mindset.

    Allen McDonald, Vautier’s engineer and the team’s technical director, hasn’t smiled much lately, and for the litany of teams seeking an upgrade on the technical side, the Englishman’s talents are known to be profound and impactful. Vautier would suffer without McDonald’s influence, and between the two, the engineer is the one with the greater market value at the moment which could influence his future employment plans.

Team Penske: The legendary team is set to continue with two cars in 2014, but as Penske Racing president Tim Cindric has said more than once, returning to three cars would require proper sponsorship to fund that program. AJ Allmendinger, whose limited outings with the team have been inconclusive, could be in a car for the season finale at Fontana, but Cindric insists it will take someone other than Roger Penske to foot the bill for ‘Dinger (or any other driver) to receive a full-time gig.

  • Helio Castroneves: He’s leading the points, in a contract year, and is a lock to sign an extension with the team he’s driven for since 2000. At 38, he’s finally found the answer to dealing with his teammates foreboding presence and has his first IndyCar title in sight. Everything is looking good on Team Helio.
  • Will Power: The Aussie hasn’t had the year he or anyone else expected, but will be back and looking to recapture his old form at Penske in 2014.

Next page: Manufacturer prospects, and  possible team scenarios.


MANUFACTURERS

  • Chevy: Multiple contracts expire at the end of 2013, and at least one team has expressed a desire to switch to Honda for 2014.
  • Honda: Multiple contracts expire at the end of 2013, and at least one team has expressed a desire to switch to Chevy for 2014. Of the two brands, Honda continues to trail behind Chevy in its roster of multi-car teams. Its quest to turn its three single-car teams into two-car operations will continue throughout the off-season.

POSSIBLE SCENARIOS

The fourth Ganassi car is likely to be the center of attention for a number of drivers, and should also dictate how the driver market shakes out.

It’s believed NTT Data, which sponsored Ryan Briscoe’s entry at the Indy 500, is part of the funding solution for the car, but like the Ganassi G2 cars for Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal (through 2012), some degree of additional sponsorship will be required to add the car to Ganassi’s stable.

Whether the team settles on a driver who brings existing funding or opts for a “name” driver the team can seek and sell sponsorship against won’t be known for a little while, but they have some tantalizing options to explore.

To start, Go Daddy-sponsored James Hinchcliffe is the most fascinating proposition to enter the picture. He’s part of a merry and successful band of drivers at Andretti Autosport, but with the possibility of driving one of the Target cars in the near future, how hard should he press to make that happen, and would driving the fourth Ganassi car come with a guarantee he’d eventually graduate to one of the red cars?

Should he push Andretti for a lucrative new contract, or seriously consider what’s been proposed for the fourth Ganassi seat?

Between Hinch, TK and Briscoe, Ganassi has the three biggest free agents on its radar and plenty of others, including Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson, who would love to drive for the team.

Briscoe is also said to be a top choice for the fourth Ganassi car, but has made quite an impression on the Panther team. Coming off of a stint at Team Penske where it was tough to displace his teammates, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Briscoe sign with Panther and have all of the team’s resources dedicated to his effort.

Tony Kanaan is also under consideration at Ganassi. He’s been drafted into one of the team’s Daytona Prototype this weekend to race on the Indy road course, and RACER has confirmed it wasn’t a coincidence. Rather than sign a veteran sports car ace to pilot the car, putting TK in the seat gives the team a chance to evaluate his working style in a neutral environment. Whether the team can afford his retainer or provide the real estate on the car he usually needs for his Brazilian sponsors  is an unknown, but both items will surely factor into whether he changes teams.

Despite his age, he’s worth every penny and looks like he has at least one more championship in him. But he’s also the heart of the KV team, and has an entire team built around him. Kanaan has nearly driven for Ganassi on three occasions, but the odds on KV coming through with a contract for TK are also high.

Just as Hinchcliffe must decide whether he wants to stay within Andretti’s comfy collective of championship contenders or roll the dice on becoming Ganassi’s man of the future, Kanaan will have to pick between being top dog at KV a team that still has some growing to do before it can vie for a title or go to Ganassi and deal with stiff opposition from Dixie & Dario.

Hinch and TK clearly have a lot to ponder over the next month or so.

If Andretti fails to keep Hinchcliffe, it’s unclear whether the team would look to fill the vacancy and add Carlos Munoz to the program, or simply have Munoz’s entry keep the team at four cars. Either way, the talented Colombian (RIGHT, in his spectacular debut at Indy) appears to be destined for a full-time drive.

Panther Racing and Barracuda Racing have expressed an interest in Oriol Servia, with the Catalonian serving as a perfect option in a second Panther car (if Briscoe is signed to drive the No. 4), and to lead the Barracuda team if that comes to fruition. Barracuda is also known to be keen on Justin Wilson, along with a few younger drivers including JR Hildebrand who have tremendous upside.

If Sarah Fisher’s second car materializes, Servia and Wilson would also be prime solutions to mentor Josef Newgarden and help the team move up the running order. The announcement of a second SFHR car for Sonoma with Pickett Racing Muscle Milk driver Lucas Luhr at the wheel is a good sign that the second car efforts are moving forward.

WILD CARDS

There’s no shortage of open-wheel talent looking for a way into the 2014 championship, and based on the conversations RACER has had with those hopefuls, a few new faces could be seen in the IndyCar Series next year.

Conor Daly: Daly says his focus will remain on Europe, but needs to finish first or second in the GP3 championship to trigger support for a move upward on the ladder to F1. (He’s fifth in points heading into this weekend’s double-header in Hungary.)

Alexander Rossi: Rossi is also fixed on making his way to F1, but has had at least one IndyCar team owner express an interest in testing him.

Luca Filippi: The Italian is expected to contest a few IndyCar events this year and, if he performs well, could be in the frame for a full-time drive in 2014.

Jack Hawksworth: Hawksworth’s management team tells RACER they are confident the 2012 Star Mazda champion and most recent Firestone Indy Lights race winner will be on the IndyCar grid in 2014, and with Honda power.

Peter Dempsey: The rapid Irishman is working on finding the budget to graduate from Firestone Indy Lights to IndyCar next year. With his all-time-best-ever-oh-my-God win at the Freedom 100 in May, he should have an easier time drawing sponsor interest than some of his rivals, but…

Stefan Wilson: Justin Wilson’s younger brother was supposed to do all the road courses for Coyne, but the sponsor fell through just prior to St. Pete. He’ll be in a DCR car for Baltimore, and his 2014 plans could hinge on how well that outing goes.

Pippa Mann: Mann is continuing to search for funding to keep her IndyCar career moving forward.

James Davison: Davison will do a one-off for Dale Coyne at Mid-Ohio and hopes to use that outing to sell sponsors on a 2014 program.

Ricky Taylor: The young Grand-Am star is in discussion with a few teams about testing opportunities and possible a limited race schedule to fit within Daytona Prototype duties.

Townsend Bell: The driver/broadcaster could be in a car for Fontana, and expects to do another Indy-only program along with a full-time USCR campaign.

Wade Cunningham: The hilarious Kiwi says he has nothing going on in IndyCar for 2014, but is working on being part of a new Daytona Prototype team that’s in the works.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

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