PRUETT: Midseason IndyCar 2021 silly season update

Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Midseason IndyCar 2021 silly season update

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Midseason IndyCar 2021 silly season update

By

Provided you’re not among the drivers who will be on the outside looking in once it’s over, this year’s edition of the IndyCar silly season could be fun to follow.

Before we get into the first round of rumors with our traditional pre-Mid-Ohio column, let’s step back and ponder the age and staying power of some NTT IndyCar Series drivers, and then look at where IMSA’s new-for-2023 LMDh prototype class is headed.

At present, at least five major auto manufacturers will be fielding factory endurance racing programs, and in a few instances, they’ll be supporting customer teams with drivers and technical information. That means a lot of pro-grade cars and plenty of multi-driver rosters to fill.

Why does that matter for IndyCar? With its biggest names near or over the age of 40, a lot of hiring will be taking place at Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche, not to mention a few other brands that are likely to join the LMDh stampede in either 2023 or 2024, and they’ll be looking for stars to be part of their programs.

To varying degrees, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, and Takuma Sato have all been involved with sports car racing as a secondary form of competition and income. Dixon, Bourdais, and Pagenaud are currently active in IMSA’s top prototype class, and with LMDh right around the corner, they — plus Will Power and possibly a few others — could be prized acquisitions in the coming years.

As our tenured Indy 500 winners and IndyCar champions venture into the twilights of their open-wheel careers, would it be wise to try and squeeze a few more years out of IndyCar and miss out on long-term openings with LMDh factory roles? Or, for those who aren’t ready to retire altogether, would it be smarter to get a head start on the next chapter in their careers and move across to LMDh when it debuts in January of 2023 at the Rolex 24 At Daytona?

It’s all a matter of timing. And for those who forego IMSA’s new prototype formula when it launches, there’s no guarantee the LMDh doors will open afterwards. In most cases, this won’t be an issue as we head into 2022, but for many of IndyCar’s finest, there’s a tipping point on the horizon to consider as they plot their next contracts and moves. Don’t be surprised if one or more IndyCar farewell tours emerge next year.

Returning to the present, if I had to position one driver as the most coveted prospect among free agents, it’s Dale Coyne Racing’s Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman has performed like a cagey veteran, despite having everything to learn on his new American adventure. He’s ranked fourth on average starting position for the year and 12th in finishing position, which is remarkable.

And with a serious lack of fresh drivers to consider for prized openings, Grosjean (pictured above) could be in the crosshairs of Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren SP, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Team Penske. That is, of course, if he doesn’t opt to return to DCR. Of all the aforementioned teams, Andretti is where I hear Grosjean’s name most frequently mentioned.

With team owner Michael Andretti confirming changes are expected, I’ve heard Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 Honda and James Hinchcliffe’s No. 29 Honda could have new-full time drivers in 2022. Of the two friends and team veterans, Hunter-Reay is said to be up for a new part-time role in a fifth car with a Grosjean or similar taking over the DHL-sponsored ride, and a funded driver — possibly from Indy Lights — headed for the No. 29. Keep in mind that these are rumors, not facts, but change is coming according to the man in charge.

Inspired by Grosjean’s competitiveness in IndyCar, I’ve also heard former Red Bull F1 driver Alex Albon has been looking into an American reboot. After losing his F1 seat, he’s currently racing in the DTM series on behalf of Red Bull. Andretti once again serves as the leading team mentioned for a potential move by the British-born Thai driver.

Grosjean has done wonders for Coyne’s reputation, and whether it’s an Albon, or an undeniable talent with a recent F2 title, or a star who’s been dispatched to an unrewarding reality in sports cars or electric racing, DCR could have some quality callers inquiring about Grosjean’s ride if he departs for a bigger team.

Will Simon Pagenaud be the odd man out at Penske? Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

After Grosjean, and assuming RHR remains with Andretti in some capacity, the fate of the out-of-contract Pagenaud at Penske is another giant domino to fall. If he’s kept on the IndyCar roster for 2022, that closes a fascinating topic on who Penske might sign to backfill his fourth entry. Penske’s said he’ll continue with four cars on the grid, so if, by chance, it’s not Pagenaud, where does he look for immediate answers?

IndyCar’s best young drivers are locked into multi-year deals, so that takes Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay, and Colton Herta off the board. And since cloning Josef Newgarden would be illegal, and given that Alexander Rossi has another year left on his Andretti contract, parting ways with Pagenaud might not be in The Captain’s best short-term interests. Get through 2022, however, and some compelling free agent conversations can be held.

It seems like a move to Penske’s upcoming Porsche LMDh program is inevitable for Pagenaud, but if that’s not something he wants, could a return to Arrow McLaren SP be on the cards?

Coming back to DCR, rookie Ryan Norman has expressed his interest in doing more races with DCRwRWR this year as a possible precursor to a full-time bid next season. And although he’s been driving like a wild animal of late, is Ed Jones viewed as a long-term solution by Coyne, Jimmy Vasser, and James “Sulli” Sullivan? There’s a lot of moving parts here, but there’s a decent chance DCR’s line-up will look rather different after the championship concludes in September.

Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey is up for a new deal. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the Briton returning to the team.

Amid questions of its long-term commitment to IndyCar, Carlin Racing says it plans to continue next season and beyond, and has been working hard to develop its engineering group. According to the team, Max Chilton also remains dedicated to the series. Rebuilding its Indy Lights team was done with the hope of having its talented Road to Indy drivers move upwards, and while it’s hard to say if talented Australian Alex Peroni is ready to do so in 2022, he does look like someone who will be on his way to IndyCar by 2023, at the latest.

Of the current crop of Indy Lights drivers, I’d say Linus Lundqvist is drawing the most interest from the team owners and managers I’ve spoken with. The Swede is also said to have solid backing from sponsors, which makes him a bit of a unicorn. His HMD/GRG teammate David Malukas is also doing big things this season, and Kyle Kirkwood is on the same path to reaching IndyCar sooner than later. Kirkwood’s Andretti teammate Devlin DeFrancesco is another young talent who, with another year of Indy Lights experience, would be a solid addition to the IndyCar field.

And we can’t forget young IndyCar veterans Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, and RC Enerson, who are fighting to earn more starts and opportunities.

Grosjean, Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay, and Hinchcliffe hold the keys to the silly season. There are more teams and drivers to explore, which we’ll do in our next installment, and who knows what might be announced by then.

 

More RACER