It’s time for another run through the latest silly season developments as we embark on a three-week stretch that will decide the NTT IndyCar Series championship on September 26 in Long Beach.
Look for a flurry of driver confirmations – those coming and going – as we get deeper into September, which will finally bring some calm to a crazy driver market. Since we’re already up to our fourth silly season update, let’s bring all we’ve written since July forward into a compilation of what we know and all we think will happen in the coming weeks.
A.J. Foyt Racing
Not much to report here other than team president Larry Foyt continues to work on solidifying the budget for next season, and with that ongoing process, Sebastien Bourdais continues to wait and see if his name will remain on the No. 14 Chevy. Teammate Dalton Kellett is also unsigned for 2022, but says he’s interested in remaining with the team.
Questions of interest: Does Rokit, sponsor of the No. 14 entry, have plans for Tatiana Calderon to go beyond the test she did with the Foyt team a few months ago? And could Dan Ticktum, England’s one-man controversy generator, find a new American opportunity through Rokit?
The biggest piece of the silly season puzzle finally fell into place with Andretti’s signing of Romain Grosjean to drive the No. 28 Honda for next year and beyond. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who initially hoped to stay with the team in a part-time program, will not return.
Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi are set to remain on, leaving the No. 29 currently piloted by James Hinchcliffe as the only question mark. We’ve been consistent in saying Andretti Indy Lights talent Devlin DeFrancesco is expected to be in the car next year as part of a multi-year deal.
Hinch wants to continue in IndyCar if a competitive seat can be found, but with COVID taking a toll on some sponsorship deals, he’d need to be hired to drive. Is the Mayor of Hinchtown headed for a smaller team in need of a veteran wheelman, or to the NBC Sports commentary booth?
For those who read our story about Michael Andretti doing his best to land a Formula 1 team – with Sauber/Alfa Romeo positioned as the top target – I can say that since the piece appeared on RACER, more indicators have come in to paint a very clear portrait that he is serious about the initiative and has one or more partners who are committed to try and turn long odds into a real shot at F1 team ownership. It’s by no means a done deal, and there’s more to the story, but I’ll save that for another day.
Arrow McLaren SP
Hopes were high for a third full-time car to enter the fray next season, but I’m told Arrow McLaren SP will ride with championship leader Pato O’Ward and teammate Felix Rosenqvist next year. And while full-time expansion does not appear to be on the cards, be on the lookout for that third entry to do part-time duty that goes beyond the month of May on the Indy road course and the Indy 500. Tough to say how many races it will enter, but it sounds like 2022 will be used as a warmup to ready the team for three full-season cars in 2023.
Even better: Let the speculation begin on which driver(s) will get the nod to give the third car – and team – a taste of their skills as the hunt begins for the right person to complement AMSP’s young stars.
We know team veteran Max Chilton has taken a look around the paddock to see if and what might be found with a bigger team – including Rahal Letterman Lanigan – but I’ve not heard of serious openings waiting to be filled. If Max isn’t back for a fifth season with Carlin, it’s hard to say where else he’d land. With that in mind, a Carlin return would appear to make the most sense for Chilton.
The team has been clear on its intent to become a two-car program, and is there a better fit than Conor Daly? He’s loved by the Florida-based squad, and while there’s still a possibility Daly could remain as a part-timer at Ed Carpenter Racing, I’ve heard too many names mentioned as replacements for Daly at ECR to inspire much confidence.
Chip Ganassi Racing
Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Kanaan are all under contract for 2022. The only outlier is Marcus Ericsson, who holds fifth in the championship. Although some took umbrage with a previous silly season update where the Swede was described as being out of contract after 2021 – pointing to stories on other outlets that said otherwise – Ericsson is indeed unsigned for 2022 at the moment. This, however, is expected to be resolved ASAP with a new multi-year agreement.
One bit of housekeeping to clear up in the near future is how CGR would handle Johnson taking part in the Indy 500 or other ovals where Kanaan is signed to drive the No. 48 Honda. The obvious answer would be to field a fifth car for Kanaan – sponsorship permitting – using CGR’s sports car crew, but the team says it has yet to map out the contingencies for any Johnson/Kanaan oval conflicts that might arise.
Dale Coyne Racing
Dale Coyne and his co-entrant partners can’t be enthused about a third consecutive season on the horizon where they’ll have 100-percent driver turnover. Grosjean is off to Andretti which leaves a vacancy in the No. 51 DCR with Rick Ware Racing Honda, Ed Jones isn’t expected to return to the No. 18 DCR with Vasser Sullivan Honda, and so for now, TBD is where we’re at with both entries for 2022.
It seemed like Alex Albon was going to be the easy replacement for Romain Grosjean in the No. 51 DCR with Rick Ware Racing Honda, but he’s been locked in at the Williams F1 team. So with the No. 51 car, it’s anybody’s call on who Coyne and Ware could place in the machine, but the pool of options might not be too hard to assemble.
Take Coyne’s history of being enamored with European drivers, apply his genuine passion for trying to find the next big thing, and then start combing through the last few years of Formula 1 to find those who are headed to or already on the sidelines. Once that list is assembled, move to F2 to look at those who finished outside the top two or three in recent years to add more to the list. And finally, don’t forget an outlier series like the Japanese Super Formula, where Palou was found. While there’s no guarantee the next DCRwRWR driver will come from that Euro-centric group, the odds are certainly favorable.
Among the current IndyCar drivers searching for work, Hinch has been mentioned as a worthy consideration for the No. 51, and could a return by Conor Daly be the right play by DCR? Indy Lights championship leader David Malukas – from the team’s home state of Illinois – is also part of the rumored assembly of domestic solutions. Wherever Malukas winds up, I’d expect it to be as a co-entry with his father’s HMD Motorsports team.
The absurdist within me loves the idea of a double co-entry, giving us Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing with HMD Motorsports, or DCRwRWRwHMDM.
On the DCRwVS side, Vasser and Sullivan just might have a magical solution for the No. 18 Honda with Kyle Kirkwood. We know the Indy Lights driver is highly coveted by his team owner Michael Andretti, but it’s hard to see where Kirkwood would fit into the team’s IndyCar operation next year. If there’s nothing at Andretti’s big team for the American who has six wins and holds second in the Lights standings, you can expect DCRwVS to take a hard look at how they might secure his services.
Vasser and Sullivan are more than familiar with Kirkwood’s talents after adding him to their Lexus RC F GT3 IMSA program last season, and he’s been a rocket in the V8-powered GT cars since his arrival in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series.
A perfect scenario would have Kirkwood representing Vasser and Sullivan in IndyCar and IMSA, and with the co-entrants having declared their intent to step away from Coyne and form their own IndyCar program in the near future, getting a head start with a next-generation talent like Kirkwood sounds like a smart plan if it can be arranged.
As a slight aside, bear in mind that Andretti is involved in many series, and if it isn’t IndyCar, could IMSA, Formula E, or other Andretti-related opportunities keep Kirkwood from being snapped up by a DCRwVS?