How does a 28-car NTT IndyCar Series grid sound for 2024? Or 29?
If the 27 full-timers we have this year weren’t enough, there’s talk of two IndyCar teams adding more entries next year and a brand-new one being created, and with all the other potential movements among current teams and drivers in mind, we’re on the verge of a magnificently hectic silly season.
The first piece in play is Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, who’s in the last year of his contract with Andretti Autosport but isn’t expected to hit the market after Michael Andretti told us they’re headed towards signing him to an extension. So far, Grosjean is but one of many drivers who are untethered until a new contract is presented or a new team comes calling.
Before we run through the leading free agents, let’s peer inside the teams that will or won’t factor in the hiring sprees.
Among the high-level teams, only one is locked in with their drivers for the coming years as Team Penske are fully sorted through at least 2024 with Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin as its title-contending trio.
The story of year-to-year driver consistency among top teams starts and ends there; the majority of Penske’s key rivals will go through at least one significant driver change heading into next season.
Chip Ganassi Racing tops the list of teams that could look radically different by the end of the year: Of its full-time drivers, only Scott Dixon is under a long-term contract. Both sides are keeping calm with the Alex Palou situation, but everyone knows he’s headed to Arrow McLaren at the end of the season. That means a coveted and paying seat could be open. More on that in a moment.
Marcus Ericsson is in the last year of his current deal and if he leaves, that’s a prime seat in need of a funded driver. It’s unclear if the rideshare in the fourth car between Takuma Sato and Marcus Armstrong is meant to last more than one year, but there are hopes that Armstrong will stay and possibly expand his program to include all the races. Like Ericsson, he brings funding to the car, but that sum would need to increase by a decent amount to add the ovals, unless CGR finds sponsors of its own to cover the tab.
Sato, I’m told, after working hard throughout the offseason to find sponsorship to do the ovals with Ganassi, is unsure what next season might look like. I won’t be surprised if it’s something closer to an Indy-only role unless someone offers him a paid opportunity to return as a full-timer.
And then there’s CGR development driver Kyffin Simpson, who is on the IndyCar horizon. The teenager is in his second year of Indy NXT and has a packed schedule arranged by Ganassi that includes racing in a few sports car series to expedite his learning curve in preparation for a future move to IndyCar. There’s no timetable for the Barbadian’s graduation to the big team, but if he does well this year, I understand he could be stepping up next season, and if all four of its existing cars are full, there’s a chance a fifth IndyCar could be entered to accommodate Simpson.
At Arrow McLaren, Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi have long-term deals in place, but Felix Rosenqvist does not. The team will welcome Palou alongside O’Ward and Rossi once we close the season in Monterey, and the early season rumor of looking at running four cars next year was recently confirmed by McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. Whether that’s a 2024 thing or 2025 is unclear, if it happens at all, but the fact that it’s being discussed internally at this stage of the season is encouraging.
If you look at its three current cars, there’s no room left to sell, and if greater prosperity can be engineered through expansion, McLaren will have its pick of IndyCar free agents and recent F1 talent to draw from for that car.
Within Andretti Autosport’s quartet, Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood are under multi-year deals and they are expected to be joined by Grosjean in that regard. It’s Andretti’s fourth car for Devlin DeFrancesco, who is in the last year of his deal, where change is anticipated.
At Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Christian Lundgaard is secured, but Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey are in the final year of their contracts. Harvey is one of a few drivers who needs a big showing to convince his team owners that he’s still the right one for the job. If last year’s debut for RLL was a disappointment that produced 22nd in the championship, Harvey’s current fortunes are no better; he’s 23rd.
The same is true of Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud at Meyer Shank Racing, both of whom are in the final year of their current deals. A 50-percent turnover seems inevitable, and if the worst start to any season of Pagenaud’s IndyCar career continues, a 100-percent changeover isn’t out of the question. If the rumors are true, one seat could already be committed.
In recent weeks, Tom Blomqvist, MSR’s 29-year-old rocket-fast IMSA prototype champion, has been repeatedly mentioned as being headed to one of the team’s IndyCar seats in 2024. With his vast experience in all forms of racing, including Formula E and the new hybrid GTP cars, Blomqvist might be the perfect person to lead an open-wheel reboot for the team as IndyCar goes hybrid. And if, by chance, RLL moves on from Harvey, would he be welcomed back at MSR where he was on the verge of winning his first race?
Throw in other potential driver changes at Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Juncos Hollinger Racing, and the IndyCar driver market is looking like it will be busier than we’ve seen in many years.
Long Beach has become a popular event for teams, drivers, and their managers to meet and engage in initial talks about interest and future availability, and as such, quite a few breakfasts, coffees and dinners were shared between interested parties. A larger number of private meals and conversations are already scheduled to take place throughout the month of May at Indianapolis, and by the time we get to June, we should have a better feel for who’s going where during the offseason.
To get the pulse of the market, I’ve asked several drivers, managers, team owners, and team principals to name their top free agents, and with the group speaking under the condition of anonymity, it was interesting to hear a consensus form on the leading candidates.
It’s worth noting that the list below doesn’t encompass every free agent, but rather, the top picks by those I spoke with, in order of frontline drivers for the upcoming silly season, starting with:
Mentioned first by the paddock more than any other driver, Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Ilott is the proverbial belle of the ball. According to the group, he’s on the radars of Andretti, Ganassi, McLaren, MSR and RLL, and was rumored to be of interest to Team Penske before Will Power signed his new extension.
What’s unclear is whether the Briton is truly free to leave JHR, if there’s a buyout or exit clause that could be used, or if JHR would hold onto him at all costs.
Like Ganassi hiring Scott Dixon from PacWest and Team Penske signing Josef Newgarden from CFH Racing, standout drivers in small teams eventually move upward and this seems like an inevitability for Ilott. Imagining an Andretti lineup of Grosjean, Herta, Kirkwood and Ilott is easy. Picturing Ilott alongside Dixon and other Ganassi stars isn’t hard. If McLaren goes to four cars, an O’Ward-Palou-Rossi-Ilott quartet would be a nightmare. Ilott with Blomqvist or whomever would be big for MSR, and RLL with a Rahal-Lundgaard-Ilott trio has the same big level of potential.
Whatever the scenario and timing might be, one thing is clear, and it’s that Ilott is coveted by more big teams than any other driver on the market, but only by a small margin.
Next on the list is Ganassi’s Ericsson, who was nearly tied with Ilott with first mentions.
The reigning Indy 500 winner is the most interesting free agent in the series for reasons that are wholly unique to Ericsson. Most of his career has been funded by a benevolent backer — Finn Rausing, owner of the Sauber/Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team — who then opened the door to IndyCar for the Swede after F1.
Within the paddock, person after person cited a strong understanding that Ericsson and his backer are done with bringing sponsorship after the season is over. Most of the teams linked to having an interest in Ilott are mirrored with Ericsson: Andretti, MSR, and RLL are understood to want Ganassi’s front-runner in their camps.
Having won two races and finished sixth in the 2021 championship for Ganassi, won the Indy 500 and finished sixth again in 2022, and won the opening race of the new season, it’s fair to say Ericsson has shed the idea of being a driver who needs to bring sponsorship to drive Indy cars.
What you’d hear from those I spoke with is Ericsson wants to be treated like the other top drivers in the series by being hired to deliver those wins and consistent championship results.
It’s here where Ericsson’s situation is unlike any other because at his current team, which has expected funding to be provided each season, the idea of keeping him in 2024 and beyond would reportedly require CGR to convert Ericsson from a paying driver to someone who is signed to drive without bringing a budget just as they do with the entries for Scott Dixon and Alex Palou.
If Ericsson’s backer is indeed done with writing checks, CGR would need to find sponsors to keep Ericsson and the No. 8 Honda on track, or move him to Palou’s No. 10 Honda, which is believed to be funded for next season, and backfill the No. 8 with another paying driver. Just as some high-powered teams want to get their hands on Ilott, Ericsson’s drawing interest from Ganassi’s rivals for the same reason, and one more: Destabilizing one of IndyCar’s perennial title contenders.
First, almost nobody believes Ganassi will let Ericsson go because he’s become such an important part of the team’s success. Second, what’s emerged as an added point of attraction is a bit more sinister.
If any of those rivals can sign Ericsson away and add his annual wins and top fives to their squad, it would be great, but in their quest to displace Ganassi as one of the top two teams in the series, Ericsson’s been spoken of with equal interest to take those wins and top fives away from Ganassi and weaken their program. Nobody said racing is all hugs and kisses.