It’s race week at Mid-Ohio, which also means it’s time for our first look at the upcoming IndyCar silly season, and the findings have been surprisingly plentiful.
Provided the myriad of expansion plans are successful throughout the paddock, the NTT IndyCar Series stands to return in 2021 with 26 to 27 cars at many rounds, a healthy increase from the 23 full-timers on the current grid.
Completing all of the new deals and contract extensions won’t be fast or easy, not with the IndyCar season running to the end of October, and certainly not while a number of sponsors take their time to commit while evaluating the state of the economy.
“The tough part is also negotiating without knowing the exact length of the calendar,” a prominent free-agent IndyCar driver added.
With a healthy dose of caveats in mind for our first silly season installment, here’s a look at how the full-time teams are approaching 2021:
A.J. Foyt Racing: What will the Foyt team look like when the new season begins? It’s one of the few big curiosities at this point in time, but we can say there’s no need for another major overhaul within the program. The engineering base is solid and from there, brighter days are a possibility. Four drivers have strapped into Foyt’s two-car program this season, but only three — Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Dalton Kellett — have gotten the opportunity to race. The fourth, Sebastien Bourdais, was the first victim of IndyCar’s COVID-related calendar changes and as a result, his absence on road and street courses has limited the team’s potential. By missing out on having a top-tier road racer, 2020’s been a case of ‘what could have been.’
The team has said it would be open to building a long-term relationship with part-timer Kellett; Kimball is also keen to continue with the Foyt team for a second, full season, and interest in working with Bourdais at some point is said to remain. The only piece of the current rotation that might not fit is Kanaan, who wants a proper farewell oval tour and could find it elsewhere. If sponsors can be found to rope in one of the veterans hunting for work — from Indy 500 winners to IndyCar champions — there’s every reason to believe Foyt will move forward in the paddock. At this time last year, I doubt stars would have inquired. Having shown glimpses of real potential at certain points in 2020, look for Foyt’s phone to be ringing on a daily basis.
So, would it be two cars under the existing routine with one full-timer and a second with two or more drivers rotating in and out, or could the team put three cars on the grid and ditch the sharing program? Some pivotal decisions on whom and how many await Super Tex and company.
Andretti Autosport: As we wrote on Thursday, there’s a lot of work for the Andretti team to complete before three of its five drivers can be retained. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach are out of contract at the end of the season and funding for the entries driven by Hunter-Reay and Veach needs to be confirmed.
Team owner Michael Andretti said it’s too early to confirm its line-up for 2021, but he does want to keep five full-time cars. By sheer coincidence, the two IndyCar teams at the top of the alphabet have the greatest amount of work to complete leading into the offseason.
Arrow McLaren SP: Team founder and co-owner Sam Schmidt says Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew will be back next year, and there’s a strong likelihood a third, part-time entry will join the young challengers.
Carlin Racing: Look for the Florida-based team to enter its fourth season of IndyCar with Max Chilton returning in the No. 59 Chevy for road and street courses, and possibly a new partner to handle the ovals if Ed Carpenter Racing’s desire to upgrade Conor Daly’s deal is achieved.
While the No. 59 has been Carlin’s lone entry for the year, the best news to come from the team is found with the significant interest shown by drivers wanting to pilot the second car, all based off the outfit’s rise in competitiveness. It’s too early to pencil in a second Carlin Chevy as a sure thing, but confidence is high on returning to a two-car operation in 2021.
Chip Ganassi Racing: We know Scott Dixon has a decent chance of being invited back to CGR, but according to Ganassi, the rest of the puzzle awaits confirmation. All kidding aside on Dixon, the team leader’s No. 9 Honda is in great shape, and with Felix Rosenqvist’s first win for the team in hand, the Swedish sophomore continues to grow into the role his boss has wanted for the No. 10 Honda. Assuming the funding is solid for Rosenqvist and countryman Marcus Ericsson in the No. 8 Honda, the three-car CGR unit deserves another season to develop its potential. That being said, Ganassi wasn’t quite ready to confirm the trio’s return.
With Dixon leading the championship, his teammates would do themselves many favors by delivering quality results in September and October; with Rosenqvist clinging to 10th in the standings and Ericsson in 12th, there’s no reason to panic, but if they want to remain in Chip’s good graces, tightening the points gap to Dixon before the final race is over is a perfect way to stay employed.
Where things get interesting is with retiring NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, who is working to bring a budget to become CGR’s newest IndyCar driver. Considering Johnson’s passion for open-wheel racing and his considerable profile in the sport, there’s every reason to believe he’ll land the sponsors to pay for his road and street course racing. It would be a shock if this doesn’t happen. Better still, CGR isn’t interested in running 3.5 cars next year; they’re searching for an oval driver to complement Johnson and create a new full-time entry.
And wouldn’t Tony Kanaan be a perfect fit to share the car with a fellow champion and good friend like Johnson? Ganassi, Johnson, and a returning Kanaan, together in a fourth Honda-powered car? Make it so.