Marshall Pruett's IndyCar silly season update

Marshall Pruett's IndyCar silly season update


Marshall Pruett's IndyCar silly season update


Who goes where and for how much and with which engineer? Marshall Pruett tries to find the facts among the half-truths and rumors.

(All photos: LAT)

The IndyCar Silly Season had become a snooze-fest by the end of October. Tony Kanaan had inked a deal to become Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest charge, Sebastien Bourdais was signed to replace him at KV Racing, options had been taken up on a number of other drivers, and other than the indefinite healing period required Dario Franchitti’s injuries, there wasn’t much in the way of intrigue left to explore.

And then Dario goes and retires. So much for the quiet off-season!

We’re now into December, and in addition to the stampede for Franchitti’s former seat, some drivers that were once a lock to return might be searching elsewhere to continue their careers, and others that appeared to be on their way out after Fontana are close to signing new deals. Here’s what we know so far:

A.J. Foyt Racing
According to team director Larry Foyt, the Waller, Texas-based Takuma Sato Experiment is set to continue in 2014. Foyt’s father, A.J., the four-time Indy 500 winner, wasn’t so sure he wanted to risk any more torn up equipment, but the open-wheel legend’s temper has cooled since venting on multiple occasions in the latter stages of the season.

“I think everything will stay status quo on the 14; everything should stay pretty much the same,” Larry told RACER last month. “It isn’t done yet, but I think we’ll have it done here pretty soon.”

Notes: The team had hoped to field a second full-time entry in 2014, but Foyt also said those plans have not progressed into anything solid, making a single-car entry for Sato (LEFT) the most likely scenarioat this point, at leastwith a second car for the Indy 500 another strong possibility. The team has recently spoken to at least two current IndyCar drivers about the second seat, however, which could be an indicator the second car is finally gaining traction.

Andretti Autosport
The move to Honda power has benefited the 2012 IndyCar champs, elevating the squad to the top of HPD’s depth chart for talent and potential within any one team. Replacing Viso with Munoz will give the team the strongest multi-car effort in the series. Although the door remains open for Viso to return, it seems rather unlikely as the price to play has significantly increased from 2013. Moving Craig Hampson from engineering James Hinchcliffe’s car into a lead R&D role should pay big dividends for a team that had the best handling cars of early 2013 and lost that edge once Ganassi and Penske caught up by mid-season. Provided Honda’s new twin-turbo engine is a match for the new Chevy, Andretti Autosport could be a nightmare to deal with in 2014.

Carlos Munoz (RIGHT) If you’re wondering how much faith Andretti has in young Carlos, the team signed him before having all of the necessary sponsors in place. That flotilla of backers will be announced in the near future, but when was the last time a powerhouse team took a flyer on a rookie who wasn’t bringing a major championship or carrying bags of money to the party? Despite his three races in 2013, the Colombian will be an IndyCar Series rookie next year, but look for him to be far more polished than some of the veterans he’ll compete against.

Marco Andretti will return with Dr. Pepper sponsorship after signing a multi-year extension with his father’s team.

James Hinchcliffe will have a new engineer in Nathan O’Rourke overlooking the United Fiber & Data entry. It will be interesting to see how one of the strongest young engineers in the paddock will fare in a frontline role. One thing is certain: Hinchcliffe needs to raise his game to become a legitimate title contender and can’t afford to waste any time getting up to speed with O’Rourke.

2012 series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay will return to the No. 28 next season, and with his trusted engineer (and Andretti technical director) Ray Gosselin working his usual magic, RHR should be in the title hunt once again. Like Scott Dixon, RHR’s breadth of talent is rarely appreciated to the level and degree that is deserved.

Notes: As one team representative recently told RACER, “We’re still pretty far away on a fifth car, and it needs to happen by the end of December or it won’t happen. A fifth car for Indy is very likely.”

(All photos: LAT)

Barracuda Racing-BHA
Team co-owner Bryan Herta told RACER last week that their plans are progressing ahead of schedule for 2014, and that sponsors and personnel will likely be unchanged from last season. The question at the moment involves who might drive. Luca Filippi and JR Hildebrand were meant to be clamoring for the drive, but as Herta confirmed, it has become more than a two-horse race. Among the interesting prospects for the Honda-powered entry is former Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver James Jakes, who is in need of a new home and could add to the team’s bottom line, which would be an added benefit and one that Filippi and Hildebrand can’t match. If the team goes with Jakes, it’s very possible Filippi will find work elsewhere in the paddock, and Hildebrand is also of interest to other team owners.

Chip Ganassi Racing
The reigning IndyCar Series champs have been a vision of consistency in recent years especially since Dario Franchitti joined the Target program in 2009, but with the Scot’s retirement, the addition of Tony Kanaan, the loss of Mitch Davis, the addition of Chevy and need to find a new teammate for Scott Dixon, the Mike Hull-led operation has plenty of new elements to incorporate as it looks to retain the Kiwi’s title. With three drivers in place, the search for a fourth has become the dominant piece in the off-season puzzle. There’s been plenty of analysis on which drivers hold the best chance of scoring Franchitti’s seat, and there now appears to be a possible ending in sight to the process.

Tony Kanaan has signed a multi-year deal to drive an entry backed by NTT Data, TNT Energy, and lots of other associate sponsors the Brazilian has brought to the table. The Indy 500 winner will have his trusty engineer Eric Cowdin at his side, and continues with Chevy, making for a rather seamless transition from KV Racing. Kanaan has been mentioned as a possible solution to take over the No. 10 Target car, but the complexity of the funding involved with the No. 8 throws a big spanner into the works. TK has not only brought TNT and others to complete the funding for the No. 8, but also draws a salary from those sponsorships just as he’s done in recent years with KV. Unless Target wants to give up half the space on the No. 10 for TK to honor his contracts and commitments, which seems highly unlikely, he’ll remain in the No. 8 as planned.

Charlie Kimball and his engineer Brad Goldberg will be back with Ganassi Racing in 2014, and looking to improve upon the breakout season the two just completed. #GoCharlieMurphy

Scott Dixon and engineer Eric Bretzman will be back for their millionth year with the team. Looking at what they just accomplished with half a good season, imagine what they could do if 2014 starts off as 2013 ended.

The team has spoken with at least “50 legitimate” drivers about the No. 10, as Hull told RACER, but the driver who seems to have the golden ticket in hand is Ryan Briscoe (RIGHT).  The former Ganassi and Team Penske driver signed to drive for Panther Racing in 2014, but it’s believed he recently received a release from the team, paving the way for re-joining Ganassi. It’s also believed the Aussie either has or could have a contract in place to formalize the relationship before the end of the month. Anything could happen in the interim, but at the moment, Briscoe could be preparing to have his second go as Dixie’s teammate.

Notes: Franchitti recently confirmed his interest in maintaining a team-based role with the Ganassi operation. The four-time series champion has been making great progress while at home in Scotland, and is also preparing to fly back to Indianapolis for his latest medical check-up.


Dale Coyne Racing
With greater results comes greater expectations, leaving Dale Coyne to make another leap in competitiveness if he wants to capitalize on the momentum DCR established last season. Coyne lost to RLLR Bill Pappas, DCR’s lead engineer/team manager/guy working 15 jobs, and has back-filled the position with Michael Cannon, who was signed to engineer Justin Wilson and help with building out the team’s infrastructure.

The second DCR car has undergone the biggest year-to-year image makeover in quality and interest of any entry in the paddock, thanks to the good work done by driver Mike Conway and engineer John Dick. The No. 18 had five drivers share the cockpit in 2013, but Coyne recently told RACER he’s aiming to have a single, full-time driver in place next season. Conversations have been held with numerous drivers, and of those who could benefit from working with Dick, Wilson and Cannon, Simona de Silvestro stands above the other free agents. De Silvestro-to-DCR has been mentioned for months, but if it happens and it isn’t on the front burner for either side it wouldn’t take place until next year. The team has tested Arie Luyendyk Jr. recently, and now has former Conquest Racing part-timer Francesco Dracone testing at Sebring. One tantalizing prospect is 2013 GP2 runner-up Sam Bird, who is said to be on Coyne’s radar.

As we chronicled in our driver reviews, Justin Wilson and engineer Bill Pappas worked miracles with limited resources last season, placing the No. 19 sixth in the championship. Coyne took up his option on Wilson for 2014, obligating the Brit to his fourth season with the team. One of the better questions to explore is whether Wilson, who has drawn interest from a few different teams, wants to return. Losing Pappas was a big blow, but the relative disorganization of the team has long been an overarching concern. Without putting words in his mouth, there’s a reason Pappas wanted out, and it had nothing to do with Wilson. Cannon is capable of continuing the good engineering work Pappas established, but at 35, would you put Wilson’s chances of winning a championship with DCR any closer in 2014, or does it appear more rebuilding would be required? If Wilson is freed from his contract, it’s doubtful he’ll be on the market for very long. If he can’t part ways with DCR, it’s hard to say how the relationship plays out.

Dragon Racing
The team has lost Sebastien Bourdais to KVSH Racing, although the Frenchman will return to pilot one of its Formula E entries at the end of the 2014 IndyCar season. Barring an infusion of sponsorship, the team is looking at a single-car IndyCar campaign, beginning with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and ending with the Indy 500, with Sebastian Saavedra at the wheel both times.

Ed Carpenter Racing
Carpenter made the tough call to turn over the car on road and street courses next year, concentrating on the ovals, which gives the team its first chance to win on all three types of tracks. From a competitive standpoint, it was a brilliant call and he will share the Chevy-powered car with two-time street course winner Mike Conway.

KV Racing
First, let’s clarify the naming situation: KV Racing Technology remains as the parent company, KVSH Racing is the name of Sebastien Bourdais‘ entry, and SH Racing owner James Sulli’ Sullivan is referred to as a partner, and does not have an ownership stake in KVRT. That bit of housekeeping aside, the team is coming off a less than fun season, with highlights at Indy and the first Houston race serving as big blips on an otherwise stormy year. Enter Bourdais, a breath of fresh air, and decent interest in the second car. Mark KV as another team on the rise.

Team co-owner Jimmy Vasser mentioned a few different drivers as options for its second entry, including Alex Tagliani, who might emerge as the best fit, and 2013 KV driver Simona de Silvestro. The Swiss driver recently aided the Swiss Sauber F1 team (RIGHT with Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn) with a promotional endeavor at the Austin Formula 1 round, re-igniting speculation she could be in the frame for something involving F1. Her manager continues to talk with IndyCar teams, including KV, about a seat in 2014, but the lack of recent news or clear plans on the topic certainly gives rise to mounting speculation that she could be headed elsewhere. IndyCar needs a top-line female driver, as does F1 even in a testing role. She’d be an absolute home run in the second Target car, but with limited interest from Ganassi, we could be waiting and watching to see which series wants de Silvestro the most.

Tony Kanaan was an impressive fifth in the 2011 standings with KV, the team’s best result since joining the IndyCar Series in 2008, and with Bourdais on board, there’s a strong chance they could mirror that result, or come close to it. They need to find a new engineer who can match what the Champ Car champion brings to the team, which will likely involve bringing a new employee into the fold.

Panther Racing
The team’s sponsorship with the National Guard concluded at the end of last season, and as RACER’s Robin Miller reported, the contract was awarded to RLLR. The topic has been kept quiet by both sides, but there’s no reason for Panther to miss next season if the Guard money is gone. Strong support from a number of associate sponsors would make up a decent portion of the budget, a $1m Leader Circle contract from the series would add to it and the signing of a skilled/funded driver would be more than enough for the team to continue operating on a dollar amount that teams like Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have done quite well on.

With Ryan Briscoe’s release, it’s believed Panther will look for a paying driver to occupy the Chevy-powered No. 4, unless additional sponsorship can be secured. The recent layoffs would require a thorough re-staffing, as some of the more recognizable faces have moved on to other opportunities.
Notes: The team recently announced a partnership with Charter Media to promote its efforts

(All photos: LAT)

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan have made smart upgrades to their team heading into the new season, with Bill Pappas coming in to engineer Graham Rahal, Mitch Davis handling a lot of the responsibilities that were pushing the team’s management structure beyond its limits and, with Pappas’ assistance, a proper damper development program is now in progress. Funding for Graham’s car is believed to be in place, and now the team is searching for the budget to hire a second driver, rather than take on another paying customer.

The team has spoken with a number of drivers, and both Rahals are known fans of Justin Wilson. If there’s a way for Wilson to split with DCR, he’d be the clear favorite to partner with Graham, his former teammate at Newman/Haas Racing. Oriol Servia is another respected veteran, the elder Rahal first introduced Luca Filippi to the series in 2012 and could be open to working with the Italian if Barracuda Racing goes with another driver, and there are others said to be on RLLR’s short list.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Josef Newgarden
(RIGHT) will be back for his third season with SFHR, and showed signs he was ready to hang with the big boys late last season. The only concern for 2014 is the loss of his engineer Nathan O’Rourke to Andretti, which will require the team to either promote from within or hire someone to take his place. If they can fill the vacancy with another skilled engineer, and new chemistry can be established during pre-season testing, there’s hope Newgarden and the team can continue to progress.

Notes: Hopes for a second full-time entry, according to Fisher, have been all but abandoned at this point.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Changes include the loss of sponsor Hewlett-Packard and, in an unrelated departure, driver Tristan Vautier, who needed to find a full budget to hold onto his seat. The Russian SMP Racing outfit and Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin, the 2010 World Series by Renault 3.5 champion, have joined the outfit, and Aleshin could be an almighty surprise. Every track will be new to him, and he’s never seen an oval, but his methodical nature, many years of training in top ladder series cars and Allan McDonald as engineer should arm Aleshin with the tools to shorten his learning curve. The SMP folks bring real money to the team, which is a first for the Schmidt organization, and it should help on all fronts. We know Simon Pagenaud will be a beast, but SPM has the potential to become a series two-car threat on the road and street courses

Notes: Davey Hamilton tells RACER he and Schmidt are still sorting out their working relationship, along with the naming for the No. 77 and whether it will continue to run under the SHM banner, or will switch to SPM.

Team Penske
Funny how adding a single driver to the team has changed the complexity of the entire championship. Will Power now has a fellow high-energy gunner alongside him with the incoming Juan Pablo Montoya, giving Team Penske a dual threat to win at every track. With championship runner-up Helio Castroneves also fired up and capable of winning, it’s hard not to put the team at the top of those who’ve made the biggest competitive gains heading into 2014. An engineer has yet to be nominated for Montoya, who has reportedly lost 35 pounds in preparation for his new role.
Reigning Indy Lights champion Sage Karam (RIGHT) has an advancement prize burning a hole in his pocket and his representatives have met with a few different teams about options for 2014. Without a full budget, there aren’t many opportunities for a rookie at the moment. Add Freedom 100 race winner Peter Dempsey to that list of talented and underfunded Lights drivers, along with Jack Hawksworth. Hawksworth would benefit from another season of Lights, and despite winning the title as a rookie, Karam would also add more polish to his reputation by logging more miles in the top training series before making the leap to IndyCar.

E.J. Viso (LEFT) told many people late in the season that he was looking at a move to sports cars possibly full-time with some IndyCar rounds added in and that option could still be under consideration.

James Davison impressed on his two outings for Dale Coyne Racing, signed a deal to drive for The Racer’s Group in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship in 2014, but could be in for a run at the Indy 500 with an existing IndyCar team. Conor Daly continues to search for opportunities, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see occasional IndyCar drivers Ana Beatriz, Stefan Wilson (BELOW) and Pippa Mann in a car for various durations next season.

Former F1 drivers Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan continue to express an interest in IndyCar, although it’s unclear whether either driver will make something happen.

Dennis Reinbold, who now maintains total control of the DRR team, continues to work on returning with his team to the grid. Discussions with a few notable IndyCar drivers have taken place, and hopefully, one of IndyCar’s high-character team owners will be back in the paddock

(All photos: LAT)