Monday, December 12, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Turn to Sports Cars

Another week is here and there was a race in Sepang. Alexander Rossi got his face put on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Tony Stewart wore glasses and talked to Robin Miller. Romain Grosjean will go ice racing next week in the French Alps. This is the last Musings From the Weekend of 2016 but don't worry. In the final two weeks of the year there is plenty to come. Another set of predictions revisited, the For The Love of Indy Awards, a Christmas list, a trip back to 1966 and predictions for 2017. But until then, here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Turn to Sports Cars
We are just under two weeks until Christmas and most of the IndyCar grid is known. The only openings left are at the mess that is the will-they-won't-they KV-Carlin marriage and the road/street course portion of the season in the #20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Outside of that, unless a team like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing returns to full-time competition or Schmidt Peterson Motorsports expands to three cars, there are one-and-a-half seats remaining and a plethora of drivers circling as the music plays.

Who is still standing? Spencer Pigot, RC Enerson, Gabby Chaves, Dean Stoneman, Santiago Urrutia, Kyle Kaiser, Zach Veach, Luca Filippi, Matthew Brabham and Félix Serrallés just to name a few and who knows if anyone else is on the fringe hoping to jump throw from the periphery and steal a seat from those who have spent months battling.

It is tough to break into any single-seater series. There are two dozens seats if you are lucky and at most five open up in the offseason and the limited testing has made it difficult for young drivers to breakthrough as teams stick to the experienced veterans who know the cars, circuits and all the ins and outs. Not to mention that most seats come with a price tag that even the most successful young can't afford.

In the case for IndyCar, unless you win the Indy Lights championship or have $10 million in the bank that you are willing to split from, you likely aren't breaking into IndyCar. The openings where all a driver needs is a helmet like Conor Daly at Coyne or the Foyt seats are rare and they are even rarer for rookies. Either you need to be a once in a generation stud on track or be really likable by a team owner to invest in.

Knowing what it will take to make it to IndyCar, drivers that don't win the Indy Lights championship or have $10 million in the bank should look to sports cars and IndyCar teams should jump on the opportunity to facilitate these drivers switching careers. IndyCar teams should get involved because it could deepen their talent in the stable. Let's say an IndyCar driver is having a disappointing season and likely won't return the next year or needs to be replaced mid-year or has to miss a race due to illness or injury. If an IndyCar team owned a sports car team and had one or two drivers with Road to Indy experience or IndyCar experience it would allow for a natural replacement. Plus, tying up talent can be a strategic move by a team as it could keep a talented, young driver away from a rival for a period while a team could wait for an opening in its IndyCar program.

The good news for IndyCar teams is there are plenty of sports car options to choose from. A team could stay domestic and run in IMSA or Pirelli World Challenge. In IMSA, a team could run a DPi, GTLM or GTD. If a team goes the GT3 route, it could go to PWC and maybe field two cars. If a team wants to be a little more adventurous, it could attempt the FIA World Endurance Championship with either an LMP2 program or GTE program.

With that said, what could potential IndyCar-sports car teams with IndyCar wannabes look like? Andretti Autosport has a history of running a LMP2 program and a few drivers looking for work have history with Andretti Autosport. Dean Stoneman ran for Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights in 2016 and it doesn't appear he is likely return to Indy Lights in 2017. Matthew Brabham raced for Andretti Autosport in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. Brabham has been demoted to a silver driver rating for 2017 making him more precious than gold. Brabham can be slotted into a WEC LMP2 team or GTE-Am team and be just as quick as some of the professionals and give a team an upper hand compared to teams with an actual gentleman driver.

While it would be a stretch for Andretti Autosport to jump into WEC LMP2, maybe it could use Brabham's family relations to enter the world's stage. Matthew's uncle David Brabham successful crowdsourced the Project Brabham effort about two years ago to enter WEC LMP2 but the team has yet to make it to the grid. Perhaps the combination of resources could allow Stoneman, Matthew Brabham and David Brabham to compete full-time. An Andretti-Brabham partnership would be one of historic portions and most would love to see the marriage. Who knows? It could allow Mario another shot at Le Mans. He is a bronze after all.

Dale Coyne Racing doesn't have a history in sports car racing but the team has had a few respectable drivers in IndyCar the last few seasons who want to be full-time but can't breakthrough beyond a handful of races here and there. While Coyne wouldn't likely go compete on the world stage, IMSA makes sense for the team. Coyne found a gem in RC Enerson last year and he is one you don't want to let go. A DPi program could keep Enerson occupied until something opens up in IndyCar. Who could join Enerson? Why not Luca Filippi? The Italian has had some good runs and we have seen plenty of top GP2 drivers run well in sports cars plus he could become somewhat of a mentor to the young Enerson.

Spencer Pigot is coming off his rookie season in IndyCar and while he could return to run road and street courses in the #20 Chevrolet again that isn't a guarantee. Zach Veach just completed his third season in Indy Lights and finished fourth in the championship. Pigot can't go down and Veach is ready but there is no room for him to move up. Neither might be on the IndyCar grid in 2017 but maybe Ed Carpenter could expand his team's horizon. Instead of prototype though, perhaps ECR could look toward PWC and run a pair of GT3 cars for Pigot and Veach, plus it would allow Pigot and Veach to be at five IndyCar races as PWC runs on IndyCar weekends at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. ECR could find a silver-rated driver and run a car at the four North American Endurance Cup races in IMSA. Seeing as how GM's only GT3 car is Cadillac and there aren't customer Cadillacs, maybe ECR could run Audis or Porsches.

There is a lot of young talent on the fringes of IndyCar and if team owners are smart, they would make sure to lock it up before someone else gets there hands on them. Just thinking about how the likes of Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Conor Daly and J.R. Hildebrand have all been free agents in recent years with no rides, you can never have too many horses in the barn. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay have gone on to win championships. Daly is in a paying ride with AJ Foyt Racing as is Hildebrand. In five years, which driver who couldn't break into IndyCar in 2017 ends up being one of the contenders on the edge of major success? And how many team owners will be asking themselves why didn't they lock that driver down when he or she was unattached?

Champions From the Weekend
By winning the Sepang 12 Hours with Christopher Haase and Robin Frijns in the #15 Team Phoenix Audi R8 LMS, Laurens Vanthoor won the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge drivers' championship and Audi won the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge manufactures' championship.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the #15 Team Phoenix Audi but did you know...

The #26 B-Quik Racing Team Audi of Peter Kox, Henk Kiks and Daniel Bilinski won in the GTC class at the Sepang 12 Hours. The #69 Aylezo Ecotint Racing Ginetta of Zen Low, Dan Wells and Darrren Burke won in GT4. The #100 Toyota GT86 of Takashi Oi, Hitoshi Matsui, Takashi Ito and Kenny Lee won in the Touring class.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Gulf 12 Hours.