The Silly Season is getting an early start this year.
Leading the charge into 2019, McLaren serves as the most tantalizing thread to follow. As you’ve read by now, McLaren’s expected participation is likely to be facilitated by an existing IndyCar team, most likely through an alliance with Andretti Autosport or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. And who would drive the McLaren entry? Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, right?
Not so fast. Try four-time IndyCar title winner Scott Dixon.
RACER has confirmed the championship-leading New Zealander – IndyCar’s top free agent – has been approached to represent the team founded by his hero and countryman, the late Bruce McLaren. But would Dixon, currently in his 18th season driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, actually jump ship to a quasi-works McLaren deal run on its behalf by Andretti or RLLR?
It’s hard to put odds on the move at this stage, and whether he stays or goes, the soon-to-be 38-year-old is at a place in his open-wheel journey where many drivers begin to contemplate how they want the final years of their IndyCar career to play out. Would crossing the IndyCar finish line with CGR be the most rewarding feeling for Dixon, or with a finite number of championship attempts ahead, could a change of scenery at McLaren provide a fresh final chapter to author? Would Dixon enjoy closing out his career continuing to fight as a one-man army against the likes of Andretti, Team Penske, and other multi-car teams that pack the top 10 with title rivals? Or would he like to say he’s lived the McLaren dream under the Andretti or Rahal umbrella, where multi-car strength and driver consistency is on offer? Only the man himself can answer those questions.
Rumors of Dixon-to-McLaren started in April and came while CGR was in the midst of another slow (by its standards) start to the season. Since May, the Kiwi has taken two of the last three wins and heads to Road America this weekend as the defending winner. Provided the team holds its current form and Dixon remains in contention for his fifth IndyCar championship, reasons to leave for another team would seemingly be reduced.
Whether it’s Dixon, Alonso, or another high-profile star in the seat, McLaren appears to be doing more than simply evaluating a future IndyCar campaign. Multiple sources say McLaren-to-IndyCar will happen; it’s just a matter of pinning down the partner team and driver. And with rumors of a recent visit to Andretti by the Kiwi, has the proud Honda-powered squad taken the lead in landing the deal?
Among the other interesting layers to the story, according to other sources, is the potential funding for the program. McLaren CEO Zak Brown recently acknowledged he’s spoken with Chevy and Honda regarding an engine supply contract, and it’s believed that like McLaren’s run at the 2017 Indy 500, corporate support from Honda Japan has been sought to offset some of the operating costs and at least one significant driver salary. This little nugget, provided it’s accurate, could be another reason behind the interest in Dixon.
After a few seasons of cutting comments by Alonso aimed at the brand’s Formula 1 engines (which only worsened after his appearance at the Indy 500), Honda’s willingness to bankroll the Spaniard’s full-time move to IndyCar is said to be mighty low.
Factor in his full-time FIA World Endurance Championship drive with Honda’s direct rival Toyota, plus Alonso’s win on Sunday for the Japanese brand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to question Honda’s involvement – beyond engines – in a Alonso-McLaren-IndyCar program.
It positions Dixon, who ranks as one of Honda’s favorite sons, in an enviable position to continue his affiliation with the brand at CGR or McLaren. It also casts a bigger question mark over Alonso’s role in McLaren’s immediate IndyCar future. With the final leg of racing’s Triple Crown left to complete at Indy, returning for another crack at the 500 seems inevitable, but will he be on the grid to start a yearlong campaign at the St. Petersburg race in March? It’s not an impossibility, but the road to making it happen looks far from linear.
A final angle to consider is whether a small portion of the $270 million McLaren investment made last month by Canada’s Michael Latifi could be earmarked for the brand’s IndyCar expansion. Sources in Canada have suggested Latifi, whose son Nicolas races in F2, is interested in Formula and IndyCar, which could quiet the need for Honda funding. And with the Japanese marque taken out of the budget conversation, it still wouldn’t necessarily clear an automatic path for Alonso in 2019.
Even with internal funding for the McLaren IndyCar effort, Dixon – who only trails A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti on the all-time win list – is said to be the primary target due to his ability to immediately vie for a championship across the series’ diverse set of tracks.
McLaren. Andretti. RLLR. Alonso. Dixon. The potential combinations are fascinating. And whether it’s one of these two or a driver we’ve yet to identify, IndyCar fans are destined to be the winners if and when McLaren finalizes its plans.
With McLaren positioned as the greatest influence in the silly season, the championship-winning Scuderia Corsa sports car team is also primed to impact the market as an option that could deliver a destination outside of the familiar teams with vacancies.
During its Indy 500 debut last month (in partnership with RLLR), team owner Giacomo Mattioli told RACER the outfit was 50/50 on expanding to a full-time effort in 2019, and the team is rumored to have an interest in Swedish ace Felix Rosenqvist.
The three-time Indy Lights race winner has plied his trade in Formula E with the Mahindra team since 2016, and with his manager Stefan Johansson – who also serves as Scuderia Corsa’s sporting director – looking after his career arc, IndyCar could be the best fit. Johansson, coincidentally, also manages Dixon (and Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo).
Bound to Mahindra, it’s unclear whether Rosenqvist will return to free agency at the end of the season. If that’s the case, he will be on the shortlist for every IndyCar team with a vacancy to fill. It’s believed the Scuderia Corsa opportunity would require a driver to bring some funding, and as a driver who is accustomed to being paid, Rosenqvist’s services might end up being a better fit elsewhere in the paddock.
Looking at the different scenarios, CGR has openly been a fan of the Swede since he completed a couple of highly impressive tests with the team, and it’s believed inquiries were made last summer to see if he could join Dixon in 2018.
Despite Scuderia Corsa’s rumored interest, if Johansson’s oldest client moves across to McLaren, would Rosenqvist – assuming that he’s untethered from Mahinda – become Dixon’s logical successor at CGR?
Like the McLaren situation, there are strong indications that something positive is happening with Scuderia Corsa. Mattioli has already confirmed its entry for next year’s Indy 500 at minimum, and with a variety of semi-funded drivers on the lookout for seats, it could become a player throughout the silly season.
Before leaving the general sphere of CGR and options, it’s also worth mentioning the interest in Sebastien Bourdais. In his third season as a member of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing sports car outfit, Bourdais’ value is well-known throughout the company. If Dixon doesn’t return, would CGR and Honda search for ways to acquire Bourdais from Dale Coyne Racing?
Continuing the new-team thread, Indy Lights championship contender Colton Herta and his Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing team co-owner George Steinbrenner IV might be in the hunt for a partner to field the teenager next year. The general assumption was that Herta and Steinbrenner would move up to occupy a fifth Andretti IndyCar seat, but that scenario is looking more remote with McLaren in mind.
Herta recently told RACER he’s been contacted by other teams regarding 2019, and if RLLR does not move ahead with McLaren, a good fit could exist with the team where his father spent the 1996-1999 CART seasons. Considering the family history at RLLR, its engineering depth, and the fact that Colton is the test and reserve driver for the BMW factory through its BMW Team RLL sports car outfit, the concept of a Rahal-Steinbrenner partnership, as a part- or full-time IndyCar entry, is worth tracking in the months to come. An organization like Ed Carpenter Racing, which boasts similar engineering strength and a strong culture of driver development, is another avenue that could be explored for Herta on the road and street courses.
The last silly season rumor to explore (for now) involves Team Penske and the suggestion that it could be searching for the next Josef Newgarden – a younger driver with championship potential. Among Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud, only Newgarden is said to have a contract that extends beyond 2018.
It’s believed the team intends to keep the same lineup next season, which would put an end to any speculation regarding its roster. Talks with at least one non-Penske driver are known to have taken place prior to the decision, so for the sake of chronicling a few other drivers, let’s look at the options The Captain might have pursued.
Going strictly by the next-Newgarden criteria, all those who might fit have been taken off the board. James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi, and Robert Wickens are locked into multi-year contracts, and unless RP wanted to pay a premium (which he’s obviously capable of doing, but wouldn’t seem to fit the team’s recent culture), a search outside of IndyCar would have been required.
Taking nothing away from an Ed Jones or Spencer Pigot, only a handful of youngish IndyCar drivers have demonstrated title-winning potential, and outside of Hinchcliffe/Rahal/Rossi/Wickens, signing anyone else would have involve a giant leap of faith. Penske, as we know, isn’t the type to roll the dice on IndyCar talent. If Team Penske is in the market in 2020 or beyond, some of the coveted names above might be on the menu.
We could be in for a wild silly season filled with big moves and big additions, and we could also have little to report if the status quo is maintained at CGR. But with the McLaren angle, Scuderia Corsa, and Herta/Steinbrenner on the prowl, we know there are new things to follow. It’s going to be a fun summer of silly season activity.