PRUETT: Let IndyCar's silly season begin

Richard Dole/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Let IndyCar's silly season begin

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Let IndyCar's silly season begin

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In a normal year, we’d get to the summer months before NTT IndyCar Series teams and pending free agents cranked up their annual negotiation dances. But no, not so in 2022.

The opening round at St. Petersburg in February featured the first indications of the silly season sparking to life as a few drivers spent time feeling out potential employers on their interests for 2023. And while it looked like 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi was going to be the surefire leader of the free agent pack, the rumors surrounding Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward and his emergence as a potential driver for hire has fundamentally altered the conversation.

So let’s start there, and for the sake of transparency, I’ll share as much as I can, but also know that some details need to be left out and other pieces of information come from those who are happy to share as long as they aren’t cited by name or title.

Pato O’Ward

The rumor that O’Ward could jump ship from AMSP to another team was heard a few times from quality sources at St. Pete and shortly after the event, rumors of Colton Herta signing a McLaren F1 testing deal also cropped up.

Of the two McLaren-related items, I chose to chase the Herta story first in the days after St. Pete, roped my RACER colleague Chris Medland in on the developing item and it was carried forward. McLaren was alerted to the story being ready to run, and after nearly a week of back and forth discussions, it went live last Saturday. Among those discussions, the mention of O’Ward’s future status with the team was raised and we were welcomed to ask him about his contract, which resulted in the story that was published on Tuesday.

With that bit of procedural catch-up behind us, the details of O’Ward’s potential availability — and that’s the correct way to phrase it — involves a right-to-match clause in his contract. RACER has confirmed O’Ward can be signed by a rival team if an offer is presented to the driver and McLaren refuses to match that offer. The top earners in the series are said to be north of $3 million per year, and with win and championship bonuses factored in, a few are estimated to take home $3.5 million or more on an annual basis.

RACER also understands that while O’Ward is under contract to McLaren for the foreseeable future and can leave if the right-to-match scenario plays out in his favor, the team covets the next-generation star and intends to match and keep O’Ward unless a truly significant sum is tendered.

It’s believed McLaren can keep O’Ward by matching something near 80 percent of whatever offers might come in. Simply put, if a team were to offer a three-year/$10 million deal, McLaren would only need to offer $8 million to keep him in the No. 5 Chevy. The right-to-match clause is not unfamiliar in stick-and-ball sports, but it isn’t all that common in racing. Depending on the desire of the rival team and the depth of its pockets, O’Ward could be on the verge of a giant payday and a new IndyCar home next year, or staying right where he is with McLaren.

Of the better teams with possible vacancies or additions to fill that might pursue an O’Ward, Chip Ganassi Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Meyer Shank Racing and Team Penske all come to mind, with some being more realistic landing spots than others.

The next few months will be intriguing to follow in IndyCar’s version of the Pato O’Ward Match Game.

Alexander Rossi

Will Rossi look to stay with Michael Andretti after his latest contract is completed, or will he be on the move to a new team next year. Within the paddock, I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me he’s gone baby gone. Alex told me he’s open to staying and Andretti told me he’s interested in having Rossi remain in the No. 27 Honda. So as my beatnik high school art teacher loved to say, ‘Is he is, or is he ain’t?’

In the biggest and most obvious overstatement of the day, Rossi’s future is his to make. There will be multiple offers made to secure his services for 2023 and beyond if he can resume his winning ways. And if he has another down year, his options to stay or leave could be limited.

I can’t fathom how the seven-time race winner who placed second in the 2018 championship and third in the 2019 standings would suffer through another bad season, so I’m holding firm to the belief that he’ll get back to business and will find himself picking and choosing between multiple deals before the season’s done.

If it isn’t an extension with Andretti, I would not be shocked to see Rossi land at a AMSP or CGR.

Rossi’s 2022 paint scheme looks like its trying to go in a couple of different directions at once, and the Californian’s career could also take a take turn depending on how things play out this season. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Felix Rosenqvist

Rossi and the feisty Swede are facing the same exact scenario with their contracts coming to an end and a big need for 2022 to go their way. There’s no question as to whether Rosenqvist and the team want to stay together for more years to come, and from all I’ve heard, it’s entirely up to the driver of the No. 7 AMSP Chevy to prove he’s worth keeping.

The opening race at St. Pete looked a little bit like last year when O’Ward was comfortably clear of Rosenqvist, but Felix has a new and acclaimed race engineer in Craig Hampson at his side, and despite AMSP being a little bit lost at the season opener, this combo should deliver some major results. And if, for whatever reason that I can’t envision, the No. 7 Chevy isn’t a winner and the lap time/race result gap to O’Ward isn’t erased, AMSP should have plenty of drivers who would love to join the program to call upon.

If he has a standout year, just as he delivered for CGR in 2019 as a rookie who finished sixth in the championship, look for Rosenqvist to be rewarded with a second AMSP contract. And if the year feels like a continuation of his unfortunate 2021 debut with the team, he could be scrambling to find any takers. Like Rossi, I expect Felix to have a breakout season, and by early summer, we’ll have enough race results to know where the contractual topic is headed.

Rinus VeeKay

It’s a good thing when you hear VeeKay mentioned as a driver who is firmly planted on the radar of the teams he’s trying to beat with the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Chevy. His return to form to start the season was nothing but a positive, and while it might require a few more races of VeeKay running at the sharp end of the field to convince the bigger teams that he’s stepped up his game, a few teams are quietly watching the Dutchman with interest.

A strong run for VeeKay in 2022 would bring serious competition for ECR to keep their young star, and he’s at that stage of his career where one of the Big 3 or Big 4 teams tend to swoop in and complicate the situation. Where some of the free agents are hoping to stay where they’re at but aren’t necessarily in control of whether it’s possible, the opposite will likely be the case for VeeKay. Does he stay with the team that brought him into IndyCar and try to deliver ECR’s first championship or, like former ECR driver Josef Newgarden in 2016, does he depart for one of the powerhouse organizations?

Assuming the rest of the year goes according to plan, VeeKay is speeding towards a crucial decision that will have a massive impact on his career.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 8 – WATKINS GLEN

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