With Pietro Fittipaldi sidelined for the foreseeable future due to leg and ankle injuries suffered in qualifying for the Spa FIA WEC race, his Dale Coyne Racing IndyCar team could find itself with a small pool of suitable replacements for the Indy 500.
Scheduled to race the No. 19 Honda on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for the Indy GP and again for his maiden run in the Indy 500, Fittipaldi was expected to play an important role in DCR’s line-up for the month of May.
Slotting fellow rookie Zachary Claman De Melo, who shares the No. 19 with Fittipaldi, into the car for the GP would be relatively easy, but a driver with more oval experience – and funding to replace the sponsors that won’t be part of Fittipaldi’s effort – for the Indy 500 is where DCR could struggle.
Despite his status as an IndyCar rookie, Fittipaldi’s previous stock car oval experience, not to mention the promise he showed with DCR in testing at the one-mile Phoenix oval, put the team at ease with his Indy 500 ambitions. Claman De Melo, who has yet to turn a lap on an oval in the No. 19, is not expected to be in the frame for the 500.
And, with 35 entries received for the Indy 500, there aren’t many drivers with Indy 500 experience that are both available and capable of bringing a budget to drive the No. 19 in IndyCar’s biggest event.
The leading candidate is believed to be six-time Indy 500 starter Sebastian Saavedra, who was looking at an entry with his longtime backer AFS Racing before all the decent opportunities and engine leases were taken. The Colombian, who is racing full-time in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the support of AFS owner Gary Peterson, spent two seasons racing as teammate to DCR’s Sebastien Bourdais at the former Dragon Racing and KV Racing IndyCar programs. As the only apparent driver with solid Indy 500 experience and a willing backer in AFS/Peterson, not to mention his familiarity in working with Bourdais, the 27-year-old could find himself in pole position for a prized Indy 500 seat.
DCR was also quite keen on Tristan Vautier’s performance on the Texas oval last year as a substitute for the injured Sebastien Bourdais, and he does have Indy 500 experience, but a lack of funding could complicate matters for the Frenchman.
Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya would be the logical option to consider, but his boss Roger Penske has been unwilling to farm his IMSA sports car ace out to other teams. Former Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver and Indy 500 veteran Mikhail Aleshin shopped a sponsored deal to a number of teams in recent months, but was unable to come to terms. It’s unclear whether his sponsors are still engaged in the idea of making another Indy 500 run.
Looking back to the 2016 Indy 500, names like Townsend Bell, Matty Brabham, Jack Hawksworth, and Alex Tagliani stand out, and moving back to 2015, Ryan Briscoe is another proven driver who could deputize for Fittipaldi if his Chip Ganassi Racing sports car team opens the door for DCR. Funding, with all but Tagliani and possibly Bell, would not be part of their offerings.
Dale Coyne can expect to hear from dozens of drivers in the coming days for the Indy GP, Indy 500, and next month’s Texas oval race where Fittipaldi was also scheduled to race.
Until he nominates Fittipaldi’s replacement for the 500, only 34 confirmed entries will be in place.