Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Right When IndyCar Silly Season Settled Down It Turned On Its Ear

In the middle of summer it appeared IndyCar was set for a noticeable shift with familiar faces potentially on the way out and a few outsiders from the IndyCar and Road to Indy scene coming into the series. Weeks and races fell away and the silly season storylines began to settle in and we had plenty of time to wrap our heads around what was to occur this autumn and winter in lead up to the 2018 season.

Then the bottom fell out and we are back to the uncertain silly season we had thought we had already endured. Faces we expected to enter have passed by and the faces we expected to stay may have been kicked out the door.

Some pieces have expectedly fallen in place. Hélio Castroneves is moving on. Takuma Sato moves from Andretti Autosport to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Zach Veach replaces Sato at Andretti Autosport. Spencer Pigot becomes Ed Carpenter Racing's full-time driver while J.R. Hildebrand returns to unemployment. Tony Kanaan signed with A.J. Foyt Racing. Robert Wickens announced his switch from Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters to IndyCar with Wickens joining his fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

After that, the puzzle has not been as easy to complete as it once appeared. Brendon Hartley was signed with Chip Ganassi Racing but the Porsche LMP1 star had to wait for the deal to be announced. In the interim, the New Zealander ended up getting a call from Scuderia Toro Rosso and one attempt in the United States Grand Prix turned into another and now he will finish the 2017 Formula One season with Toro Rosso in what appears to be an audition for the 2018 season.

With Hartley following the Formula One path, Ganassi did not waste a second and signed Ed Jones from Dale Coyne Racing and another set of dominos are starting to fall that we didn't see set up behind us.

Dale Coyne Racing had hoped to keep Jones paired with Sébastien Bourdais for another season. The team started out strong with Bourdais winning the season opener and leading the championship until Phoenix and Jones had a respectable start to the season with two top ten finishes in the first two races. After Bourdais' injury, Jones finished third in the Indianapolis 500 but he started to struggle in the second half of the season as he vaulted from role of rookie to team leader at Belle Isle with Esteban Gutiérrez joining the team with no IndyCar testing to his name.

It appeared Dale Coyne Racing was ready to build on the foundation laid in 2017. The team was ready to potentially make a run at the front of the grid on a regular basis with a healthy Bourdais and a more experienced Jones. Now the team has to look for a new partner for the Frenchman.

While Coyne is looking for a new driver, a pair of teammates is looking for new teams. Conor Daly came out and publicly said his days with A.J. Foyt Racing are done after a season. Meanwhile, Carlos Muñoz has said he is looking for an Indianapolis 500 one-off and a full-time IMSA prototype seat for the 2018 season and he will not sign for a new team entering IndyCar. Larry Foyt came out and neither confirmed nor denied the team would not keep Daly or Muñoz to team with Kanaan but all indications the team is moving on and an Indy Lights driver has become the clubhouse leader for the #4 Chevrolet.

Matheus Leist has been linked to join his fellow Brazilian Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing. Leist finished fourth in the Indy Lights championship last year driving for Carlin, his first season in the series after he won the BRDC Formula Three Championship in 2016. The 20-year-old Leist won the Freedom 100, the first race from Road America and at Iowa last year. Brazilian television money is reportedly backing Leist's rise to IndyCar.

We have reached the end of October and the bad news for the likes of Daly, Muñoz and any other aspiring IndyCar driver is the selection of full-time seats for 2018 has dwindled to slim pickings. Penske has confirmed three seats with Foyt sticking to two and Ed Carpenter Racing only needs a driver for road and street course races, a demotion for any driver that was full-time. On the Honda side, Andretti Autosport is set at four; Ganassi is set at two as is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Besides the second Foyt seat, the other full-time seat open from last year is the #19 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and the question will be what does Coyne want to do with that seat? Does Coyne want to continue with the plan of having a teammate who can work hand-in-hand with Bourdais or does the loss of Jones shake everything up and lead Coyne to return to his old ways of taking the drivers with the biggest check?

If that is the case then it appears Daly and Muñoz will both lose out on the #19 Honda. Esteban Gutiérrez drove for DCR last year and he brought some money last year and the anticipated IndyCar race in Mexico City only helps his chances of getting on the IndyCar grid. Besides Gutiérrez, Daniil Kvyat will be moving on from Formula One and he has reportedly been interested in IndyCar. Russian drivers find money and I don't think Kvyat would be any different.

Full-time rides are getting harder to come by. The eight teams returning from last year appear to be committed to field 19 full-time cars, down from 21 cars in 2017. Harding Racing has said it plans to be full-time in 2018 and Gabby Chaves is the lead candidate to drive for that team but a formal announcement has not been made. Juncos Racing has announced it will contest Kyle Kaiser in four races next season and has not ruled out a full-time season and that team could potentially have two cars. Carlin has been quiet about its IndyCar plans in the early stages of this offseason. If Carlin were to come into IndyCar Max Chilton has been linked as its driver and it is unclear whether the team would run a second car. Charlie Kimball was originally linked to a second Carlin seat back in the late summer.

Outside of new teams it is hard to see more full-time opportunities coming from teams already on the grid. Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are tapped out. I can't see Coyne going to three cars; that goes for Foyt and ECR as well. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports running three full-time cars has been a rumor before. Maybe the addition of Sato could bring enough Honda funding to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to make three cars possible but that seems to be a stretch.

We have reached an odd point in the silly season. Most pieces are in place but it isn't clear what will happen next and the next pieces are crucial. Surefire lineups have been torn apart and the grid size could be in some fluctuation with perhaps fewer full-time teams than 2017 if the likes of Harding, Juncos and Carlin don't enter the series. Then there is Jack Harvey who says he has the funding for six races next season. I have a feeling Harvey's landing place may have to wait until the full-time seats are figured out.

The IndyCar offseason has only been going on for six weeks and there are still 19 weeks until St. Petersburg. There is too much down time left for it feeling this urgent.