Wednesday, January 16, 2019

2019 IndyCar Silly Season Catch-Up

We are in the middle of the first month of the year. The reviews and previews are behind us. A few races have come and gone but we have yet to really get into the season. Most are still bunkered down under blankets waiting for warmer days trackside to return.

It has been awhile since we took a look at IndyCar heading into the new season and now is the best time to assess where we are at two months out from the season opener.

The IndyCar offseason starts with a mad dash for seats, a long holiday lull and ends with an even paced game of musical chairs from preseason testing to the season opener at St. Petersburg. The game has become more calculated with at most a pair of full-time openings available and a dozen opponents continuing to circle the water. Others see the writing on the wall and know while they might not be well positioned in this game they start to lean out of one fight and prepare to dart to the security of an Indianapolis 500 one-off. If you can't run full-time at least make sure you will be at Indianapolis.

The truth is most of you already know the lay of the land. You know the Penske drivers, the Andretti drivers, what Coyne is doing; who is staying put and who is moving on.

It is best to break it down like this:

Where Are the Open Seats of Substance?

That's it for the most part. The team has been awfully quiet about its sophomore season. Neither Max Chilton nor Charlie Kimball have been confirmed as returning but neither have been dismissed from the team.

The only thing swirling around this team are rumors.

Some think Chilton will run a reduced scheduled, something similar to Ed Jones with all the road course races. Kimball isn't out of the discussion but when the season ended it seemed word on the street was Kimball's sponsorship would not be enough for a full season in 2019 but it would take care of a good chunk of the season.

The only other name linked to the team is RC Enerson, who tested with the team last year at Circuit of the Americas and the team was not vocal about that at all. Enerson has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the sidelines. The Floridian made three IndyCar starts in 2016 for Dale Coyne Racing with his best result being ninth at Watkins Glen. Enerson ran in U.S. F2000 in 2013 and 2014 with him taking vice-champion honors in the second season. He was fourth in the 2015 Indy Lights championship with a victory at Mid-Ohio and his 2016 Indy Lights season ended prematurely after eight races to focus his attention and save his money for an IndyCar opportunity.

So That's Pretty Much It For Full-Time Seats?
Yeah, pretty much. Every other full-time seat is accounted for two months before the season opener.

On the Honda side, Chip Ganassi Racing retains Scott Dixon and partners him with Felix Rosenqvist.

No changes to the Andretti Autosport lineup with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach returning and the same is true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with both Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato staying put.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing each see one change. At SPM, Marcus Ericsson joins the team alongside James Hinchcliffe. Coyne keeps Bourdais and has added Santino Ferrucci.

Honda has added a new team with Harding Steinbrenner Racing switching over from Chevrolet. Patricio O'Ward and Colton Herta will be the team's two drivers.

Team Penske will continue to lead Chevrolet with Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. A.J. Foyt Racing continues at the rear and it has kept Matheus Leist and Tony Kanaan onboard. Ed Carpenter Racing keeps Spencer Pigot full-time while Carpenter will share the #20 Chevrolet with Ed Jones this season. And then there are the two unannounced Carlin entries and that is it when it comes to full-time entries.

We are looking at 14 Honda entries and nine Chevrolet entries, just shy of two-dozen with 23 full-time entries on the books.

What About Part-Time Teams? Are Any Of Those Expanding?

Meyer Shank Racing will be back with Jack Harvey and it appears the team is set to run more in 2019. Last year, MSR ran six races, St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Sonoma. Ten races has been the stated goal for the 2019 season but those races have not been announced yet.

Juncos Racing made 12 appearances in 2018 with three different drivers and the team has yet to announce anything for 2019. The team has expanded its operations into IMSA's DPi class with a Cadillac entry. Marshall Pruett said on his podcast last week that the team plans on running two cars for the Indianapolis 500.

There will be a new team on the grid in 2019. DragonSpeed will run five races with Ben Hanley. Hanley has driven for the team the last few seasons in the European Le Mans Series and FIA World Endurance Championship with DragonSpeed. The team will contest at St. Petersburg, Barber, Indianapolis, Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team will use Chevrolet engines.

And then there is McLaren, which will field a Chevrolet-powered car for Fernando Alonso in the Indianapolis 500.

Should We Be Worried About Juncos Racing?

Growth is not a straight line. It is not as easy as going from one race to 12 races to all the races. There are peaks and valleys and it takes time.

If the team is having more success putting together a sports car entry then that is fine. It is how the world works. There is demand for drivers looking for sports car opportunities and Juncos is meeting that demand. Good for Ricardo Juncos and his team.

And if the team never blossoms into a full-time IndyCar entry, do not panic, do not think there is something wrong with the system or IndyCar has to do more to drive down costs. For some teams it will work and for others it will not.

You are going to win some and you are going to lose some. I would love for Juncos Racing to field full-time entries in each IMSA and IndyCar but I would be just as happy if Juncos kept its doors open, kept up its successful Road to Indy program and was in a series that made financial sense for the team.

Indianapolis 500 Entries: Where Are We Now?
In a good spot.

We listed 23 full-time entries. Add Shank, Juncos' possible two, DragonSpeed, McLaren, Ed Jones running a third Ed Carpenter Racing entry in partnership with Scuderia Corsa, Jordan King has been confirmed in a third Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry and Hélio Castroneves will be back in the #3 Chevrolet for Team Penske and we are at 31 entries and two away from the promised land.

Andretti Autosport always runs at least one additional car. A.J. Foyt Racing runs an additional car even in years when Foyt himself says the team isn't running an additional car. Coyne has run an additional car frequently. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will likely field a car and last year the team fielded two. I wouldn't count out D&R doing the same in 2019. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has a history running an additional entry.

If all the entries in the paragraph above materialize, we are looking at 37 entries; two more than last year and that seems a tad high.

Some have speculated that we could see 38-40 entries with thoughts that McLaren could run two cars, Ganassi fielding an extra entry for someone of the likes of Kurt Busch and another team, such as Carlin, fielding an additional entry for Indianapolis.

I think we are going to see bumping this year and I think we are going to see more cars bumped than in 2018 but I have a hard time thinking Honda and Chevrolet are going to pony up enough engine leases to get over three-dozen entries.

Consider that of the 31 entries will have on paper the split is currently 16 to Honda and 15 to Chevrolet. If we are talking about 40 entries then in all likelihood it will have to be a 20-20 split and while that seems within touching distance at the current moment, those four and five extra entries are difficult to get to.

Last year, Honda topped Chevrolet in terms of entries at 19-16. If we take the proposed 37 entries from a few paragraphs above the split would be 19 Honda entries and 17 Chevrolet entries. Honda is maxed out. Pretty much every Honda team runs an additional entry. The only place to expand is with a third Ganassi entry and I am not sure that happens. Chevrolet is where there is room for expansion but event that is limited. Every full-time Chevrolet team but Carlin has plans to field an extra car then you have three more Chevrolet teams coming in for Indianapolis, two of which could run two entries. It is hard to see any more than 36-37 entries.

The crazy thing is we are hemming and hawing over the possible 37th, 38th, 39th and 40th entries for the Indianapolis 500 and it was not that long ago we were stretching just hoping to get to 34. Forget a good spot, the Indianapolis 500 is in a great position in January!

What Should We Expect?
In these final two months we should expect testing and possibly another few names entering the fold and those could be names that many in IndyCar circles are not familiar with.

Jordan King was announced as the road/street course driver for the #20 Chevrolet on January 4th last year. René Binder was confirmed for four races, which eventually expanded to six, with Juncos Racing the next day. Pietro Fittipaldi's part-time schedule with Dale Coyne Racing wasn't announced until February 6th. None of those three were really on the radar when the 2017 season ended.

We aren't entirely sure what the Carlin lineup will look like, whether Chilton will be full-time and the second car will be split or whether both cars will be split amongst four or five drivers but let's expect a few drivers to be slipping in out of seats in the coming tests, whether those be at Sebring, Laguna Seca or Austin.