The race to land one of the few remaining IndyCar Series seats is officially on.
Among the regular entries that completed the 2018 season, only Carlin Racing, Juncos Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have full-time rides to fill. And after the full-timers, Ed Carpenter Racing is sitting on its prime part-time road and street course opportunity. That’s a modest 3.5 unassigned drives to secure.
And who’s trying to get into those seats? From those who competed last season, it’s Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones, Jordan King, Gabby Chaves, Conor Daly, Pietro Fittipaldi, Zachary Claman De Melo, Stefan Wilson, Carlos Munoz, Kyle Kaiser, Rene Binder, and Alfonso Celis Jr. That’s 12 for 3.5.
From Indy Lights, add in Santiago Urrutia, Dalton Kellett, and Aaron Telitz, which bumps the tally up to 15 drivers. And don’t discount the part- or full-time interests of IMSA stars Felipe Nasr and Colin Braun. Both of the endurance racing stars have received steady interest from IndyCar teams since the offseason began, and are holding talks to be involved in some capacity.
It leaves IndyCar with something close to a 5:1 ratio of interest to availability, and after Sauber Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson professed his interest in the series (with Carlin’s vacant seat, in particular) there’s no telling how many current or recent F1 and Formula 2 drivers could be looking to North America in 2019. If only there were enough rides to accommodate all those who want to be on the grid.
Relief, in some small measure, could come in the form of extra entries from Carlin and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. If expansion from two cars to three comes to fruition for both, the drivers above would have 5.5 shots at being in the field when the season opens in March at St. Petersburg.
Carlin is working towards placing a full-time driver in its second car, and with so many drivers holding half-budgets, the third car could be a 50-50 split similar to what Dale Coyne Racing crafted this year for Fittipaldi and De Melo.
Ricardo Juncos has said he envisions an ECR-like situation where his primary entry is split between oval and road course drivers, and if the demand and budget is met, he would expand to two cars, taking the number to 6.5 potential opportunities.
If there’s a growth potential for IndyCar teams, it could be in the Carlin/Carpenter/Coyne/Juncos direction of intentionally creating ride-share scenarios. While their respective budgets are far from identical, almost half of the 12 IndyCar drivers looking to continue are only capable of bringing half of the necessary funding to a team.
In many cases, teams are only interested in full-time drivers who can fund an entire season and, hopefully, provide an acceptable level of competitiveness to help the team in the championship standings. Some, however, are also on a never-ending hunt for more income to support their primary entries – or to simply stay afloat. As IndyCar faces a modern dynamic where there are more drivers with half budgets to offer than the full $6-8 million being sought, tailoring part-time programs could become an accepted norm.
Of the new teams eyeing an IndyCar bid, an update from DragonSpeed team owner Elton Julian this week painted a positive shade on where the WEC/ELMS sports car team might be headed.
“We’re ready to go and working on an engine,” he said. “We’re not just thinking about it. We’re not just talking about it. We’re ready to pull the trigger on a new car. We have the team and the transporters and the shop and the equipment. We’re ready to go once the engine side gets done.”
Julian has backed England’s Ben Hanley to drive a DragonSpeed entry if it comes to fruition, and the former GP2 standout is said to have started adding muscle mass to prepare for the power steering-free rigors found inside the cockpit of an IndyCar.
Scuderia Corsa sporting director Stefan Johansson, who also manages Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist, De Melo, and recently added Ed Jones, acknowledged the IMSA sports car champions receive regular inquiries from drivers, but no decision has been made on whether it will go forward with a car of its own.
The odds could be somewhat long in the case of Scuderia Corsa, but if team owner Giacomo Mattioli decides to turn his IndyCar ownership desire into reality, the number of vacant seats could reach 7.5. Factor in the ride share possibilities, and the entry point to IndyCar might not be so slim.