The McLaren IndyCar deal isn’t dead, some of the series’ biggest names are approaching contract deadlines, and more new tracks could wind up on the 2019 calendar.
The good news is the silly season is far from over, and at its current rate, it will continue well into the offseason.
Starting at the top and recapping on the possibility of McLaren fielding an IndyCar program with Andretti Autosport, McLaren CEO Zak Brown spoke with RACER twice leading into Mid-Ohio and confirmed it is an active and ongoing initiative. It’s worth taking Brown’s assertion at face value.
Brown and McLaren have never offered public guarantees about fielding a full-time IndyCar effort, just some version of “it’s less a question of if, and more a question of when.” It means the initiative could be scuttled, or it could continue being developed until something happens in either 2019 or 2020.
What has appeared to change on the subject is the wave of momentum that emerged in June and early July towards greenlighting the program. If it’s going to happen in 2019, Brown conceded that while they aren’t short on time, there is a growing sense of urgency to reach a decision.
Where this holds specific interest is in the potential signing of drivers for the McLaren-Andretti effort. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who was on the docket to test with Andretti at Portland until those plans were nixed, has said he will use the current Formula 1 summer break to make his decision on whether he’ll choose IndyCar or F1 next season.
Michael Andretti confirmed Alonso is only interested in doing the full IndyCar championship, not a patchwork calendar, which either means all kinds of awesomeness is headed to America, or McLaren needs to lock in another heavyweight to lead its program if it gets approved. Based on opinions of many smart people in the Mid-Ohio paddock, the latter is the most likely scenario, which means the Alonso-to-IndyCar topic could be more of a 2020 thing for the two-time F1 champ.
The greatest revelation to come from Mid-Ohio involves Scott Dixon, the other titan being considered for McLaren’s return to IndyCar. RACER learned a proper bidding war has broken out for the services of four-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, and as many as four parties are said to have weighed in with contracts or incentives.
With Chip Ganassi Racing keen on keeping its leader, McLaren interested in prying the Kiwi away to turn its pending program into an instant contender, and Honda motivated to retain Dixon’s services as its greatest championship threat, the 38-year-old is said to have stood back and watched as both sides – with Honda in the middle – have increased salary offers and added important incentives. The Andretti team was also positioned as having made a direct offer to Dixon.
The duel for Dixon, the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation, is a fine form of validation in the final stages of his open-wheel career. Beyond the boatloads of cash being waved in his direction – Paul Tracy believes it’s $8 million per year from McLaren – post-career enticements, either in the form of an ongoing salary or small ownership stakes in the teams, have been rumored as well.
Even with the back-and-forth volley of offers, Dixon could be forced to make a quick decision based on time rather than desire.
Before McLaren’s senior brass started dragging the brakes on its proposed IndyCar effort, inking someone of Dixon’s caliber could have been done without concerns over rapidly-approaching contract deadlines. But with new delays in place while McLaren tries to improve its fortunes in Formula 1, many weeks have passed and it’s believed Dixon is on the clock to re-sign with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Despite all of the amazing offers and possibilities to lead McLaren, the sliding timeline could play to CGR’s favor to keep its star driver for at least one more year. And if you were Dixon, what would you do?
He’s leading the championship, flirting with a fifth title, and has an energetic new sponsor that wants to keep him in the car. Altogether, CGR’s house is in order with Dixon’s No. 9 Honda.
On the flipside, McLaren has reportedly offered Dixon a supreme salary that would make half the F1 grid jealous. But the real question is whether McLaren will be on the grid next year for that salary to be earned. Now, with CGR looking for a yes or no on a new contract, and McLaren needing more time to figure out its plans, Dixon appears to be contemplating the merits of a sure thing versus a high-stakes gamble.
What would be the smarter play? Stick with CGR on new one-year contract and wait to see if McLaren gets everything together for 2020? Or roll the dice, let the option to stay with CGR for 2019 expire, and hope the Andretti-McLaren deal works itself out in the months ahead?
Barring a rapid change in McLaren’s willingness to confirm a 2019 program, the wise move might be to return to CGR for an 18th season.
As RACER wrote in the first silly season update in June, CGR has been keen on Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist since the kid first tested for the team in 2016. Inquiries were made regarding his contractual availability to partner with Dixon this season in the No. 10 Honda, and with the lucrative world of Formula E keeping Rosenqvist occupied, Ed Jones eventually signed to drive alongside Dixon.
Whether Dixon stays or goes, would CGR look to keep Jones or continue the search for a solid 1-2 punch at every round? And if Jones isn’t retained, where might he land? The 2016 Indy Lights champion is said to bring a few sponsors as part of his package, and if that’s the case, he’ll draw plenty of interest elsewhere.
Rosenqvist remains a hard contractual nut to crack. The same goes for Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais. If either driver were truly available, they’d be in the No. 10 car already.
Rumblings of financial pressure within the Harding Racing team have only grown since the month of May, and with the recent jettisoning of approximately $500,000 in salaries, the rookie entrant could be positioned to witness a drastic uptick in fortunes if Michael Andretti and Mike Harding join forces to field one or more ‘Andretti Junior Team’ entries.
Andretti Indy Lights driver Colton Herta tested Harding’s Chevy-powered cars last week in Portland, and if the Andretti-Harding links becomes a formal thing, keeping the second-generation driver in the family – even at a remote location – would be a smart play.
A second entry has also been mentioned as an option. With a number of drivers looking for rides, including Pato O’Ward, Herta’s championship-leading Lights teammate, Andretti could own a quarter of the full-time grid with ease. Whether Harding would remain in the Bowtie camp, or align with Andretti and use Hondas, is another thread to follow.
Ed Carpenter Racing
The notion of going to two full-time cars and shifting team owner/driver Ed Carpenter to a part-time third entry for ovals was mentioned earlier in the season, and with the championship winding down, it looks like a wise direction forward. If it were to happen, it could create an easy situation for Spencer Pigot to stay in the No. 21 Chevy, allow his road course teammate Jordan King, who wants to go full-time and has an option held by the team, to continue with ECR, and give Carpenter an opportunity to keep racing without continuing to search for someone to share his car.
Of the other rumors, Marco Andretti was said to be on ECR’s radar and King, who has shown prowess in qualifying, is said to be coveted by at least one other team.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan
The emergence of an Andretti-Harding deal could complicate Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s initial plans to draft Colton Herta into its squad as a third driver. If, by chance, the Andretti-Harding alliance does not move forward, a seat at RLL would still be a perfect fit, but the team might not be willing to sit idle and see if he’s available.
A strong rumor during last weekend’s IMSA event at Road America placed CORE autosport’s Colin Braun as someone who might test or possibly race for RLL in one of the two road courses left on the calendar. If the Texan gets the nod to demonstrate his talents, the idea of a fast and technical pilot to pair with Graham Rahal – and Takuma Sato, provided he signs an extension – in 2019 could lift RLL into new competitive territory.