We’ve covered a lot of ground since our first silly season installment in July, with Romain Grosjean dominating the free agent market, Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay being on the move, Jack Harvey’s surprise switch, Simon Pagenaud’s fresh start, question marks for Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe, and a bevy of other developments that are in the works.
With the first race of 2022 just 118 days away (as of Nov. 1), it might come as a surprise to learn that only three NTT IndyCar Series teams have fully completed rosters. The rest, which range from having wide-open seats, to only needing to button down one or two items, to those who’ve signed drivers but are waiting to make public confirmations, are keeping the silly season alive and thriving during the off-season.
So as we move into the last two months of 2021, which driver has taken the baton from Grosjean and risen to become IndyCar’s top free agent? Say hello to your reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood, whose professional life has been on an epic roller coaster ride in recent weeks.
The oft-rumored plan for Andretti Autosport’s Lights title winner had his promotion to IndyCar tied to Michael Andretti’s desired takeover of the Sauber Formula 1 team. If the dominoes fell as intended, Andretti would have assumed control of Sauber, Colton Herta – in whatever capacity – would have been attached to the Andretti F1 program, and Kirkwood would have backfilled Herta’s No. 26 Honda in 2022.
But with Andretti’s F1 aspirations going sideways, Kirkwood’s elevation to a championship-caliber IndyCar seat has been derailed. It’s believed Andretti held an option for the 23-year-old from Florida through 11:59 p.m. Sunday night, and with nothing to offer in IndyCar, Kirkwood was free to sign and spend his $1.3 million Indy Lights advancement prize with any team as of 12:00 a.m. this morning.
We’ll get into where he might land and what’s going on with the other full-time teams and drivers in the run-through below.
DECISIONS TO BE MADE
A.J. Foyt Racing
No. 4 Chevy: Dalton Kellett
No. 14 Chevy: TBD
No. 41 Chevy: TBD
We aren’t quite at the stage where there’s no hope for Sebastien Bourdais to return to the No. 14, but the odds grow less favorable with each passing week where the team does not confirm the four-time champion’s continuation in the car.
Signing ROKIT to carry on as the primary sponsor of the No. 14 is the first order of business, and we know there’s an interest in possibly adding a second ROKIT-funded entry to the field.
ROKIT-affiliated Colombian Tatiana Calderon, who spent time on the Road To Indy with Juncos Racing before turning her attention to European and Japanese open-wheel racing, is a top contender for the seat, having tested for Foyt in July at Mid-Ohio.
And while the 28-year-old Calderon is in the mix, Kirkwood has also emerged as a strong contender for the No. 14. We’ve mentioned Hunter-Reay in the past as another driver that could land at Foyt, but his recent test with Ed Carpenter Racing (main image) would suggest that ECR is where he’s focusing his energies.
It’s far too early to say who will lay claim to the No. 14, or if the No. 41 will materialize with a driver, but don’t sleep on Kirkwood as a solution for one of the vacancies.
Arrow McLaren SP
No. 5 Chevy: Pato O’Ward
No. 7 Chevy: Felix Rosenqvist
No. 86 Chevy: TBD
We know AMSP intends to run its third car for a partial season, but the identity of its driver(s) is subject to ongoing exploration. Nico Hulkenberg recently tested for the team, but I’ve heard nothing to suggest a return engagement is planned. Former McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne is meant to test at some point in the near future, and while that could lead to some form of IndyCar opportunity, I’m not sure the Belgian brings the kind of fire and excitement AMSP is looking for. The test is his chance to prove otherwise. It’s believed Kirkwood was close to something with the team for its third car, but negotiations are rumored to have fallen through.
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has been consistent in saying the team intends to go full-time with the third car in 2023, and while we should have one or more drivers evaluated next season, I wonder if it’s too early – not until we get to summer – for the team to make a harder push to secure a big name when more high-power free agents hit the open market.
AMSP likes young or mid-career drivers, so that rules out a Bourdais or Hunter-Reay. The team wants the next Pato or Felix for the third car, and if that person isn’t currently available or doesn’t arise in 2022, we might not see the No. 86 do much outside of the month of May.
No. 59 Chevy: TBD
What does the future hold for Carlin Racing and Max Chilton? The section below on Juncos Hollinger Racing is the best I can offer.
Chip Ganassi Racing
No. 8 Honda: Marcus Ericsson
No. 9 Honda: Scott Dixon
No. 10 Honda: Alex Palou
No. 48 Honda: Jimmie Johnson/Tony Kanaan
The Ganassi team barely fits in this category, but it does have the matter of its No. 48 Honda and its oval drivers to resolve. With Johnson’s recent Brickyard test and the chance that he’ll want to remain in the car for next year’s Indy 500, it leaves 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan – who signed a two-year oval contract that runs through 2022 – in a position to wait and see what his friend and teammate decides to do.
If Johnson elects to enter the 500, CGR is expected to utilize its IMSA DPi team to run a fifth car for Kanaan. And if Johnson wants to do more ovals, there might be a bigger conversation to be held as it seems unlikely that CGR would want to field five cars at Texas, Iowa, and Gateway. If Johnson sticks with his road and street course program, everything remains simplified for CGR and Kanaan, and even with Johnson and Kanaan in their own cars at Indy, it’s a familiar routine for the team after using its sports car crew to run an extra Speedway car for many years.
Until Johnson answers the oval question, we won’t know what TK’s Last Last Last Ride looks like.
Ed Carpenter Racing
No. 20 Chevy: Ed Carpenter/TBD
No. 21 Chevy Rinus VeeKay
ECR’s test outing at Barber Motorsports Park with Hunter-Reay in the No. 20 erased any doubt as to whether change might be on the horizon with the car. It’s a sensitive subject, which hinges on the Air Force returning and selecting an American driver to represent the military branch on road and street courses. Until we hear the Air Force will be back, which is said to be a solid possibility, we’re left in a holding pattern to learn if Conor Daly, RHR, or another driver will get the nod.
Juncos Hollinger Racing
No. 77 Chevy: Callum Ilott
Thing we know: Callum Ilott will be in the primary JHR car for the full season. Thing we don’t know: If or how Carlin Racing might factor into the fielding of a second entry. We do know they’re talking, but can’t say what an alliance might look like. Ricardo Juncos is understood to want an IndyCar veteran to pair with Ilott to make his rookie campaign an easier and more productive thing, so could that fit a Carlin/Max Chilton arrangement, Daly, RHR, or similar?
A second driver with some form of a budget is wanted, so I doubt it would be a straight hire, but I also don’t think JHR would be opposed to shouldering some of the budgetary needs if the right driver appears. Lots to be sorted out in a short amount of time here.
AWAITING FORMAL CONFIRMATION
No. 26 Honda: Colton Herta
No. 27 Honda: Alexander Rossi
No. 28 Honda: Romain Grosjean
No. 29 Honda: (Devlin DeFrancesco)
The only item left to complete Andretti’s lineup is the naming of Canada’s Devlin DeFrancesco to James Hinchcliffe’s former ride in a multi-year deal for the Indy Lights driver. Although it isn’t related to Andretti, I continue to hear Hinch’s opportunities in IMSA are strong, and if everything comes together in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, he’ll be busy with driving and broadcasting next year.
Dale Coyne Racing
No. 18 Honda: (David Malukas)
No. 51 Honda (Takuma Sato)
We’ll need to wait and find out how all the usual DCR co-entries play out, but as we’ve written before, Sato is expected to be confirmed, and with Malukas testing for the team at Barber, there’s no real question as to who will partner with the two-time Indy 500 winner.
How the DCR with Rick Ware Racing with Henry Malukas Drivers with Vasser Sullivan business deals work out, and whether all three co-entrants return, are the main items to answer. And if, by chance, HMD replaces VS, where does VS go? Would a Foyt or JHR be open to a new collaboration?
Meyer Shank Racing
No. 06 Honda: Helio Castroneves
No. 60 Honda: Simon Pagenaud
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
No. 15 Honda: Graham Rahal
No. 30 Honda: Christian Lundgaard
No. 45 Honda: Jack Harvey
No. 2 Chevy: Josef Newgarden
No. 3 Chevy: Scott McLaughlin
No. 12 Chevy: Will Power