Thursday’s news of Dario Franchitti’s health-related enforced retirement caught the world of racing by surprise, sparking a wave of speculation regarding who will replace the Scot at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
The 2013 IndyCar Series champions, owners of four of the last five title and three of the last six Indy 500 victories, hold the keys to the most coveted seat in the series. Franchitti’s departure not only leaves a vacancy in the newly Chevrolet-powered No. 10 for 2014, but also leaves the team with an incredibly high standard to maintain on behalf of its primary sponsor.
The Target team is known for its advanced planning, and it’s safe to assume its leadership group was working on contingency plans ” well in advance of Thursday’s announcement ” with Franchitti’s possible retirement having been one of many scenarios that could play out next season. The free agent market has seen a lot of transactions at an incredibly early point in the off-season, leaving TCGR with few championship-caliber drivers sitting idle waiting for the phone to ring.
It’s believed 2011 Indy 500 polesitter Alex Tagliani, who impressed the team while filling in for the injured Franchitti at Fontana (LEFT), could be in the No. 10 for off-season testing as the TCGR program switches from Honda to Chevy twin-turbo power, but it’s unclear whether the French-Canadian will figure in the team’s long-term IndyCar plans. If the No. 10 drive goes to another driver, Tagliani would be a perfect candidate for a second Ford EcoBoost Daytona Prototype, provided Ganassi’s goal of expanding to a two-car TUDOR United SportsCar Championship program comes to fruition.
It’s far too early to place odds on which driver will complete the TCGR roster, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the developments surrounding former Ganassi driver Ryan Briscoe. The Aussie spent the 2005 season in Target colors as teammate to Scott Dixon, making a favorable a favorable impression on Target during an admittedly tough and fiery rookie IndyCar season.
He returned to pilot a fourth Ganassi entry at this year’s Indy 500 (RIGHT), and once again left the team and sponsor NTT Data with nothing but positive opinions regarding his talent and ability to represent the various brands involved with the program.
The situation is far from simple, however, owing to the contract Briscoe signed with Panther Racing for 2014.
As RACER recently chronicled about the team, Panther is waiting to learn whether it will hold onto its National Guard sponsorship which, if it carries forward, would see the team and Briscoe march into next season without interruption. If the National Guard funding goes elsewhere, the team would likely need to sever its ties with Briscoe in favor of signing a skilled, funded driver to supplement their budget.
An answer of some sorts regarding Panther’s future direction is expected to come before the end of the month, at which point Briscoe’s availability for 2014, either in a Panther car or as a free agent capable of piloting the No. 10, should be clarified.
Although Briscoe is believed to be at the top of the list, Ganassi also has some young talent to consider for a seat. Second-generation IndyCar driver Conor Daly is without a ride after placing third in Europe’s GP3 series. GP2 runner-up Sam Bird (LEFT), who revealed his interest in switching to the IndyCar Series in an interview last month, could be a an interesting proposition ” a throwback to when Ganassi signed the best drivers from Formula 1’s feeder series, and there are many other drivers who’ve let the team know they want a shot in the No. 10.