Pato O’Ward had the free agent market in his hands at the start of the season and ultimately decided to extend his stay with Arrow McLaren SP. But that doesn’t mean the silly season has slowed since O’Ward’s news came to light. In fact, it’s actually picked up momentum as more of the marquee names on the list have committed to or been signed to new teams.
Before we get to some of the known or expected moves, let’s welcome Rinus VeeKay to the top of the free agent list. The Barber Motorsports Park polesitter and podium finisher signed with GP Sports Management coming into the final year of his contract with Ed Carpenter Racing, and with Adrian Sussman in charge of negotiations, VeeKay has one of the best in the business handling his negotiations with ECR and a few other teams who’ve expressed interest in retaining his services for 2023 and beyond.
VeeKay’s taken the lead in the silly season as a result of some addition by subtraction. In the exact scenario we presented three months ago in our first silly season update of the year, multiple sources have told RACER that A.J. Foyt Racing’s Kyle Kirkwood — the 2021 Indy Lights champion driving for Andretti Autosport — is headed back to Andretti to back-fill the No. 27 Honda currently driven by Alexander Rossi.
In the weeks following the recent Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, it had been suggested that Kirkwood was set on taking a slow and easy approach to determining where he’d drive next year, but something clearly changed on approach to Round 4 in Alabama as the move that’s felt inevitable was mentioned as a fact by the end of the weekend.
From a point of practicality, as Andretti’s Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco are all on multi-year deals that will keep them in place through at least 2023, and with no known plans to expand to five cars, the logical trigger point for fast-tracking Kirkwood’s re-acquisition would be the internal confirmation of a vacancy.
The hot rumor circulating at Barber involved Rossi and the timing of his confirmation at Arrow McLaren SP. While it’s unclear on when and where he’d sign the contract, the scuttlebutt positioned June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, home of General Motors’ global headquarters, as the location for announcing the Indy 500 winner’s move to the Chevy-powered AMSP team once the season is over.
Collectively — beyond offering non-answers and platitudes — Rossi, Kirkwood, McLaren and Andretti aren’t talking.
With O’Ward, Rossi and Kirkwood having graduated the silly season — as all await formal confirmations by their respective current or future teams — and VeeKay sitting in a prime position to steer the ship, the biggest takeaway is how narrow the market has become in their absence.
Behind VeeKay, Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott is known to have drawn interest from a few midfield teams but coming off a breakout weekend for the F2 runner-up and the modest one-car team, JHR might have given Ilott a solid reason to stay and continue improving JHR’s competitive stature in the series.
Beyond Ilott, a few drivers from Europe — all whom tested for IndyCar teams — would be next on the list of potential solutions. Ex-McLaren Formula 1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne is completing his final season with the Mercedes EQ Formula E team and is rumored to be staying in the series with a different team, and if that’s the case, another name is off the table.
His teammate, 2021 Formula E champion Nyck de Vries, is said to be headed for a full-time role with the Toyota Gazoo FIA World Endurance Championship team where he’s served as its test and reserve driver since 2020, which would be another significant loss for IndyCar teams in need of explosive talent. Jack Aitken is the last of the high-level open-wheel drivers to test for IndyCar teams during the offseason, and he’s been keeping busy racing LMP2s in the European Le Mans Series and preparing to contest his first 24 Hours of Le Mans while holding out hope to get a shot in America.
For teams like A.J. Foyt Racing with its No. 14 Chevy, maybe Ed Carpenter Racing and its No. 21 Chevy, and a few others, the pool of front-running options is dwindling at a rapid rate.
On the domestic front, we’re a long way from knowing who will emerge as the top driver in Indy Lights. After two of 14 rounds, Linus Lundqvist leads the drivers’ standings and, based on his form as a rookie in 2021, should be among the one or two hot properties for IndyCar teams to pursue.
There are a few more questions to explore in our next silly season installment, namely whether Helio Castroneves will have another year added to his stay in the No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda; the same scenario exists for Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Oliver Askew is busy driving for Michael Andretti in Formula E, but he’s also been mentioned as a candidate for one or two IndyCar seats if he opts to return home. And will someone give Santino Ferrucci another shot in the series?
One thing is for sure: Teams facing the possibility of losing a driver to a rival, or having a driver retire or shift to a part-time schedule, can’t afford to wait and see who’s available to hire later in the year. With the silly season having kicked off in February, most of the best options are likely to be committed and gone before the start of summer.