Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Auditing IndyCar Seats: January 2017

We are just under two months until the IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg and testing has already resumed for the new season. Despite the large amount of time still remaining until the first race of the season, the IndyCar grid is pretty much a complete puzzle, although there was a minor  event on the Richter Scale Monday.

Chip Ganassi Racing returns to Honda and retains Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton from 2017.

Andretti Autosport marks another four-car team for Honda with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti all returning with Takuma Sato moving to his fourth IndyCar team in what will be his eighth season in the series.

Dale Coyne Racing of all teams had its driver line-up set prior to Thanksgiving with Sébastien Bourdais returning to the fold to be accompanied by 2016 Indy Lights champion Ed Jones.

Graham Rahal returns with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and while a second full-time might happen, the team appears to have an extra Indianapolis 500 entry already lined up but more on that in a moment.

All signs pointed to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports retaining James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin for a second consecutive season but that now appears to be in doubt as Aleshin has hit an issue with sponsorship. We are in the 10th hour of the offseason, plenty of time for Aleshin to salvage the deal or SPM to find another driver for the #7 Honda. SPM was reportedly looking at the possibility of a third car earlier in the offseason. I wouldn't rule out the #7 Honda being on the grid even if Aleshin is not the driver.

Should SPM run two cars, it would be 13 Honda entries on the 2017 IndyCar grid. What about Chevrolet?

Simon Pagenaud leads the way for Team Penske after winning the Astor Cup in September at Sonoma. Will Power and Hélio Castroneves made it a clean sweep of the top three for Team Penske and both drivers return for 2017. The lone change is Josef Newgarden replacing Juan Pablo Montoya as a full-time driver with Montoya at least running the Indianapolis 500.

Ed Carpenter Racing has recruited J.R. Hildebrand to replace the exiting Newgarden. Ed Carpenter will run the six oval races in the #20 Chevrolet with Spencer Pigot returning as the road/street course driver in that car.

A.J. Foyt Racing spent the first five seasons of the DW12-era with Honda but with Ganassi moving to Honda, A.J. Foyt Racing will be moving to Chevrolet and the team confirmed the switch yesterday. The American manufacture will take on eight full-time rides. Along with a new manufacture, Foyt has two new drivers with Carlos Muñoz moving from Andretti and Conor Daly moving from Coyne.

The one M.I.A from 2016 is KV Racing. All has gone quiet from the 2012 Indianapolis 500 winning team. Over autumn, the team reportedly was moving its operation to Florida and was working to form a partnership with the defending Indy Lights teams' champions Carlin, which bases its U.S. operation out of Florida. There is still some time for KV to restart its program but the 11th hour is approaching. News has come out today that former Formula One driver Pastor Maldonado is talking to KV about running at least the road/street courses with the team and leaving the six oval races open for another driver. Should the team make it to the grid, we would be looking at 22 full-time teams with Honda holding the edge on entries with 13-9 but right now it appears it will more likely be 13 Hondas and 8 Chevrolets.

With us knowing that 21 or 22 cars will be full-time, let's get into Indianapolis 500 entries because what else do we have to do besides pull out our eyelashes over trying to figure out how 33 cars will enter the race come May?

We know about Montoya entering in a fifth Penske entry. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would like to enter Oriol Servià in a second full-time entry but even if that doesn't occur, the team appears highly likely to bring the Catalan driver back for the month of May and Servià could make his 200th IndyCar start in the 101st Indianapolis 500. He and Montoya bring the entry list up to at least 23 entries.

Just focusing on the Honda teams for a moment, Andretti frequently enters an extra car for the month of May. Coyne has entered Pippa Mann at Indianapolis the last four years and partnered with Jonathan Byrd's Racing to run Bryan Clauson last year. Like Coyne, SPM has entered an additional entry for the Indianapolis 500 the last four seasons. Ganassi did not run an extra car last year at Indianapolis as the team focused on the Ford GT program but the team does have the resources if it wished to run an extra car.

Let's say Ganassi does not enter an extra car but Andretti, Coyne and SPM all do, the entry list would be up to 26 entries.

ECR has entered three cars each of the last two years at Indianapolis and with Carpenter lined up to be the oval driver in the #20 Chevrolet, it would make sense for the team to run an extra for Spencer Pigot, who finished 25th last year driving for RLLR after running out of fuel on one stint. Counting on ECR to run a third car, that brings the entry list up to 27 entries.

This is where it gets a bit hairy. As it currently stands, the Indianapolis 500 entry list would feature 17 Hondas and 10 Chevrolets. Since IndyCar went back to two engine manufactures in 2013, only once has a manufacture entered 18 cars or more for the Indianapolis 500 and that was Honda entering 18 in 2014.

A.J. Foyt Racing has been known for running extra entries even when the team has said it won't be running additional entries and with all likelihood that team is Chevrolet, a third Foyt entries seems inevitable and that would be a 11 Chevrolets and 28 entries.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Lazier Burns Racing have been the two consistent Indianapolis-only teams the last few seasons and both have been Chevrolet entries every year. D&R likely will be there. Lazier's team is another story but he has been able to make the call every year. Both returning would bring the entry list up to 30 entries with three to go and Chevrolet up to 13 entries.

If KV can't get to the grid, the hope would be the team could at least be pumped up to field an Indianapolis 500 entry. The team field two cars last year, the second being a partnership with Pirtek Team Murray and Matthew Brabham. Two one-offs from KV are unlikely but one car, whether it be by itself of in a partnership with Carlin or another team can only benefit IndyCar and it would likely be a Chevrolet. Hopefully that would be 31 entries.

While Honda is already at 17 entries, perhaps an 18th isn't out of the realm of possibility. Michael Shank Racing has been trying and trying to attempt the Indianapolis 500 the last five years only. He has the Acura NSX program. He got to run Le Mans last year and check that off his wish list. He can't be anymore in bed with Honda and with the investment Honda has spent on IndyCar this year with bringing back Ganassi and bringing Bourdais to Coyne I think Honda makes sure Shank has a car entered this year. That would be 32 entries.

Where does the 33rd entry come from? Does Honda keep spending and try to get a 19th car entered and increase its power in numbers over Chevrolet? Does Dreyer & Reinbold Racing field a second one-off? Could ECR run another entry? Could an Indy Lights team, whether it is Juncos or Belardi, run a one-off? Could some team come out of nowhere and field a one-off?

We always end up with 33 cars but it just seems to be getting more and more difficult and it shouldn't be and in fact with the amount of interest there is from drivers in running the Indianapolis 500 there should be at least 36-38 entries each May and actual bumping. Bumping is a dramatic spectacle that provides the bittersweet sight of success coming at the expense of others but that is for another post and I am sure as we move closer to St. Petersburg the picture will become clearer for the month of May.