Monday, October 24, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Auditing IndyCar Seats

Lewis Hamilton remains the king of Austin after he picked up his fourth career victory at Circuit of the Americas. He trails Nico Rosberg by 26 points with three races to go and the German could clinch his first World Drivers' Championship in Mexico City with a victory and Hamilton failing to score points. The undecided championships in the European Le Mans Series were turned upside down at the finale at Estoril. Two drivers saw their championship hopes end with engine failures in NASCAR. Marc Márquez pulled away and fell at Phillip Island. Red Bull Racing Australia rebounded after having its Bathurst appeal thrown out. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Auditing IndyCar Seats
Some times when confused getting out your fingers and toes is the best way to solve a problem. With all the movement in IndyCar in the past three weeks, don't feel bad if you had trouble keeping up with how many Chevrolet teams there are and how many are lined up to drive Hondas in 2017. This should clear everything up.

Let's start with the defending manufactures' champions Chevrolet and let's just assume everyone, Chevrolet and Honda teams, holds serve in terms of car count for 2017.

Penske has Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Hélio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden under contract. That is four.

Ed Carpenter Racing appears will run two cars again. The driver of the #21 Chevrolet is unknown and Ed Carpenter's partner in the #20 Chevrolet is another mystery. That is six.

KV's future is the blurriest of all the IndyCar teams but it seems to be a safe bet that one car would be on the grid from this entity regardless if the team initials are KV or something else. That is seven.

AJ Foyt Racing is moving over to Chevrolet after five seasons with Honda in the DW12-era. All signs point to the team retaining two cars in the #14 and #41 with the drivers to be determined but one appears close to be signed. That is nine.

Now onto Honda.

Andretti Autosport with its partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport has Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti on the books and all signs point to a fourth car with that team. That would be four for Honda.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has Graham Rahal, the top Honda driver in the championship the last two seasons, returning for 2017. That is five.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports appears set to return and two cars is the minimum the team will run full-time. James Hinchcliffe is secure. Mikhail Aleshin's future isn't as clear but the feeling is the Russian will return to SPM in 2017. That is seven.

Dale Coyne Racing always has two cars. Sébastien Bourdais is set. The second car likely won't be set until March 10th. That is nine.

Chip Ganassi Racing switches back to Honda after two seasons with Chevrolet. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball are all going to return. The fourth seat is in question but it seems likely to return. That would be 13 Hondas and 22 cars total.

Thirteen is a lot of cars to support full-time but it isn't improbable. Any more than 13 full-time Hondas are hard to fathom. Maybe a 14th could be pulled together if the money is there but no more than that. On the Chevrolet side of things, there is the KV-Carlin marriage that could happen but that is a little hazier than it appears. It might be Kevin Kalkhoven leaving Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan and the Australian pairing with Trevor Carlin's operation. If that happens, could there be the Kalkhoven-Carlin team and the emergence of a team run by Vasser and Sullivan? I am not sure that is the best thing but if KV remains united and partners with Carlin and the team can expand back to two full-time entries that would be a big gain for the series but just keeping the #11 Chevrolet going is all we are asking for right now.

Here is where it gets tricky and this was something I was asking myself last week: where are the additional Indianapolis 500 teams going to come from? To get as balanced of a 33-car field as you can, one manufacture needs to power 17 entries and the other needs to run 16. Honda is very close to 17 entries. Taking the 13 entries we are sure about we can likely add a fifth Andretti entry, a second RLLR, a third SPM, a third Coyne and it wouldn't be entirely crazy to see Ganassi run an additional entry, although Ganassi is the least likely of the Honda teams to expand come May. Even if Ganassi doesn't run a one-off, Honda getting to 17 entries is easy.

Chevrolet would need to come up with seven additional entries across its four teams to get to 16 entries. We know Ed Carpenter Racing has run a third car the last few seasons for JR Hildebrand at Indianapolis and even if Hildebrand moves on, I would count on a third ECR come May. Foyt runs third cars at Indianapolis even when he says he won't run additional entries so put him down for one. The KV team has run as many as two extra cars at Indianapolis in recent years. If the team were still at only one full-time team, I wouldn't rule out two additional entries, especially if one is a partnership with another team.

Penske said he made an offer for Juan Pablo Montoya that included a one-off at Indianapolis and in sports cars. If Montoya declines the offer, is the fifth Penske entry for Indianapolis still on the table or that a special Roger-opening-up-his-wallet entry that is reserved to top echelon drivers and those who won an Indianapolis 500 for The Captain?

If ECR, Foyt and KV all run one additional car, we are at 12 Chevrolets and 29 total entries. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has run Chevrolet the last few seasons as a one-off and I don't see that changing and maybe Buddy Lazier can scrape the pieces together for another month of May. That would get Chevrolet up to 14 entries and the total count to 31.

Where could those two entries come from? We still haven't listed the Jonathan Byrd's Racing entry. That was pretty much a fourth Coyne car last year. I wouldn't rule out Coyne running it again and running four cars again but anymore than 18 Honda entries would be surprising. Byrd-Coyne would be the 32nd entry with one to go. Maybe Penske runs that fifth car. Dreyer & Reinbold talked about running a second entry last year and maybe that happens in 2017. Maybe KV runs a third additional entry. Maybe Michael Shank Racing finally gets to enter the Indianapolis 500 five years after initially planning to expand to run an IndyCar full-time. After all, he has the connections as he is running the Acura NSX program in IMSA next year. All would get the entry list up to 33 cars. Getting to 33 is tough but we will have 33 cars. We always find a way to get 33 cars. Hopefully, soon we reach a day where 33 is easily reached and surpassed and we have 37-40 cars attempting to qualify come May.

Champions From the Weekend
The #38 G-Drive Racing Gibson-Nissan of Harry Tincknell, Giedo van der Garde and Simon Dolan won the European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship after winning the 4 Hours of Estoril.

The #99 Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Alex MacDowall and Andrew Howard won the European Le Mans Series GTE championship after winning at Estoril.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton and what happened in Estoril but did you know...

Cal Crutchlow won the MotoGP Australian Grand Prix. Thomas Lüthi won his second consecutive Moto2 race and beat Franco Morbidelli by 0.010 seconds. Brad Binder won in Moto3 for the sixth time this season.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega. Grant Entfinger won the Truck race, his first career victory.

The #18 M.Racing - YMR Ligier-Nissan of Yann Ehrlacher, Thomas Laurent and Alexandre Cougnaud won in LMP3 at the 4 Hours of Estoril.

Shane Van Gisbergen and Alexandre Prémat won the first race of Supercars' Gold Coast 600. Jamie Whincup and Paul Dumbrell made it a sweep of the Gold Coast 600 for Red Bull Racing Australia.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One goes south to Mexico City.
NASCAR goes north to Martinsville
MotoGP wraps up its Asia-Pacific trip in Malaysia.
Super Formula crowns a champion at Suzuka and Stoffel Vandoorne finishes his semester abroad.
World Superbike crowns a champion in Qatar.
The World Rally Championship contests Wales Rally GB.
The Asian Le Mans Series starts the 2016-17 season at Zhuhai.