Thursday, September 8, 2016

Scripting 2016-17 IndyCar Silly Season

The IndyCar season is winding down and with one round remaining, it is perfect timing to start looking toward the 2017 season. The schedule is already out. We know Gateway is back and we know the IndyCar offseason will be 174 days from Sonoma this year to St. Petersburg on March 12, 2017. What we don't know is who will be driving where come the 2017 season. Some IndyCar offseasons provide surprises but sometimes it is a lot of hype for very little action. Many it should be scripted.

There are some drivers that aren't moving anywhere. Will Power is safe at Penske, as is Simon Pagenaud. Despite losing Target sponsorship, Scott Dixon should be fine at Ganassi. Andretti Autosport would be crazy to let Ryan Hunter-Reay walk away. Other seats, such as both AJ Foyt Racing entries, appear to be up in the air. How should the offseason play out?

Let's just start with AJ Foyt Racing. That team has been stuck in an IndyCar purgatory since AJ Foyt retired. It had some success at the start of the IRL and with Kenny Bräck but you would think a team that has been around this long would start getting some good results but after four years with Takuma Sato and one mythical run at the start of the 2013 season where Sato won at Long Beach, finished second at São Paulo and ended up leading the championship entering the Indianapolis 500, it has been more of the same disappointed for AJ Foyt Racing. I can't see how Sato can stay. He can be quick but he is never consistently up front. He needs to go. Jack Hawksworth has had a rough two seasons with the team despite having an impressive rookie season with Bryan Herta Autosport. I think Hawksworth should get one more year with the team because there is no way someone is that consistently quick in Friday practices not to have race pace but he needs another wingman in the #14 Honda. The #14 Honda needs a veteran and just because I would love to see it happen I want Juan Pablo Montoya with AJ Foyt Racing. I think he could help Hawksworth out, he would revive a legendary team after decades of mediocrity and I think him and AJ Foyt would have interesting conversations.

Andretti Autosport is the one team that I think would be better off keeping all its pieces in place. Ryan Hunter-Reay is the leader and is under contract for another season. Carlos Muñoz has come on strong this season and all circuits and while many peg him as the driver that could be out of the Andretti Autosport fold, I think there are only a handful of drivers the team could bring in that would be an upgrade over Muñoz. Alexander Rossi has had a respectable rookie season and that isn't even taking the Indianapolis 500 victory into consideration. Marco Andretti has had a dismal season but he has consistently been on the fringe of the top ten with six finishes of 12th or 13th this season.

Moving on to Chip Ganassi Racing. Target is gone but it appears Scott Dixon will stay. Where else would he go? Tony Kanaan isn't getting any younger but he has had a really impressive season. Charlie Kimball is having a spectacular 2016 season. Max Chilton has struggled as he still lacks experience on the tracks and is still learning the DW12 chassis. However, after seeing Team Penske dominate 2016 like they have, Chip Ganassi Racing needs a splash. They need to bolster the arsenal for 2017. Ganassi could do that is a straight swap of Chilton to KV Racing for Sébastien Bourdais. Chilton gets to keep his IndyCar career going with a decent team and Bourdais finally gets back to a top-tier IndyCar seat.

Chilton can't be alone at KV Racing though. He is going to need a partner. Someone who can help him develop and learn the cars and show him the ropes. He is going to need a grizzled veteran with an ocean of experience. Oriol Servià checks both boxes and he has turned less than spectacular rides into top ten championship finishes.

While we are talking about Chevrolet teams, two remain: Ed Carpenter Racing and Team Penske. Ed Carpenter has a golden goose. Roger Penske buys golden geese and has an open seat should Montoya depart. Penske can't wait any longer. He needs to get his hands on Josef Newgarden now before Newgarden thinks he is better off staying with the little guys. This opens the door for J.R. Hildebrand to return to full-time competition. The second Ed Carpenter Racing entry should be full-time to Spencer Pigot. He has done well considering his lack of track time and I think a full offseason of testing will only make him better. Where does this leave Ed Carpenter? I think he could expand his operation but with some help. If Ed Jones wins the Indy Lights title, he will need somewhere to drive in IndyCar and Carlin is interested in expanding to IndyCar in the near future. Carpenter and Carlin could partner to run a third car for Carpenter on the ovals and Jones for the three race scholarship he would get as Indy Lights champion. It keeps Carpenter on the grid and gets Jones and Carlin IndyCar experience before potentially expanding to competing full-time in 2018.

As for Penske, other than bringing in Newgarden to fill the opening left by Montoya, there is no reason why the team wouldn't bring Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Hélio Castroneves back but Castroneves might have to look out come the end of 2017.

With all the Chevrolet teams out of the way and two Honda teams complete, we have three teams left to shuffle.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports seems keen on keeping James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin and it should be. Hinchcliffe has a couple of podiums and has arguably been the best Honda driver in road and street course qualifying this season. Aleshin's return to full-time IndyCar competition has given us plenty of breathtaking moments. While Aleshin might need to hone it in a bit, that is a better problem than needing him to find more than a half-second at every race. However, Aleshin can't be tearing up too much equipment, otherwise he will become another Takuma Sato: a driver with all the pace in the world but unable to keep it out of the barriers.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing needs to expand. The team has shown they have made a comeback to being a team that can fight with the big boys and Graham Rahal is driving at his best and won't turn thirty until 2019. While the team made clear in 2014 they didn't want to run a second car if it meant robbing Peter to pay Paul, it needs a second car if anything to increase data coming in and possibly find that extra bit to be a championship winning team. Who could RLLR bring in? Preferably, someone who can add to the engineering conversation. The problem is there aren't many of the veterans that would fit what RLLR would be looking for. Alex Tagliani is well past his prime. Ryan Briscoe fits it but he has a great paying gig with Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing. Jenson Button will be available but I don't know if RLLR knows the right people. They might. Bobby Rahal did work in Formula One when Jenson Button started his career at Williams but Button might be too big to field a call from Rahal. Gabby Chaves fits what RLLR is looking far. He isn't oozing experience but in his short time in IndyCar, he has been quick and clean.

That leaves Dale Coyne Racing. Of course we would leave Dale Coyne Racing for last. They are likely to be the last team to confirm its drivers anyway. While Conor Daly deserves a promotion, I can't see him getting it just yet. He had an impressive rookie season with Dale Coyne Racing but he has to do it a second time before the bigger fish bite. Plus, I don't think Foyt or KV are enough of a step up to leave Coyne considering Daly has a podium and five top-six finishes. RC Enerson has everyone's attention after two races with Coyne. It is a small sample size and Coyne is the best strategist in IndyCar but the kid deserves a full-time shot. It might been too much too soon but let's see what Enerson can do.

The above would bring the IndyCar grid up to 24 full-time entires, a dozen for each manufacture, with an additional Chevrolet for the Carpenter/Carlin at some races. Despite the proposed growth in the IndyCar grid, still absent would be Sage Karam, Takuma Sato, Matthew Brabham, Dean Stoneman, Zach Veach, Santiago Urrutia and a handful of other young drivers putting out feelers to IndyCar that we don't even know about. Having a few left standing when the music stops is a good problem for IndyCar to have but it is a frustrating problem. We want to see Karam, Brabham, Stoneman and more getting an opportunity to show their talent at a top level. IndyCar needs a few more teams and hopefully Carlin can expand its operation as well as Juncos Racing and maybe even a GP2 team or two will take a dip into IndyCar.

With that said, IndyCar is still in a great situation. There are plenty of talented drivers. While Penske dominated 2016, seven teams won this season and eight different drivers have stood on the top step of the podium and there is still one race to go to add to both categories. Not much needs to change for 2017 but small changes could yield an entirely different narrative.