Wednesday, October 13, 2021

IndyCar Wrap-Up: A.J. Foyt Racing's 2021 Season

A few weeks have passed since the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded on the streets of Long Beach and this is our chance to go through each IndyCar team and review the season for each organization. Our first IndyCar Wrap-Up begins at the very back of the grid and A.J. Foyt Racing. The team brought in a former champion and promoted a part-time driver to full-time for 2021. The team ended 2020 on a good note and hoped to carry that momentum into a new season. 

A great turnaround did not come for Foyt with Sébastien Bourdais

Sébastien Bourdais
After running only the final three races of 2020, Bourdais returned to full-time competition in the famed #14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. Much hope was put in the four-time champion to lift IndyCar's historic doormat. It began pleasantly but immediately fell apart in Foyt's backyard. There were a few more bright spots, but not nearly as many as were first thought as possible. 

What objectively was his best race?
Twice did Bourdais finish in fifth-place, first at Barber and then at Gateway.

What subjectively was his best race?
I have to say it is Barber because Bourdais switched to a three-stop strategy and ran hard for the final 79 laps. It lifted him from outside the top fifteen into the top ten and it got him into the top five. For a moment, it looked like he might have a shot at a podium spot. 

Gateway was a good night, but he got to the front going off-strategy and having a timely caution late shuffle him into the top five. Gateway was likely going to be a top ten result aided through some good fortune and it was boosted with one caution. 

Lond Beach deserves a mention because he stalled at the end of lap one to bring out a caution and then fought his way from 28th to eighth at the end of the race.

What objectively was his worst race?
Nashville, where Bourdais was infamously run over from behind. Marcus Ericsson knocked Bourdais out of the race after only five laps and finished 27th. Ericsson went on to win the race.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Bourdais was run over three times this season, both Texas races and Nashville. I will say the first Texas race is the worst because that happened right before his first pit stop and he was in the top ten before Josef Newgarden got into Bourdais. 

Before that race, Bourdais had finished in the top ten of the first two races. That contact would start a ten-race drought without a top ten finish. He was run out the next day at the start! If that contact with Newgarden doesn't happen, we cannot say for certain Bourdais' season would be much better, but he would have finished better than 24th in the first Texas race, possibly gotten a top ten, but let's just say 13th. That moves him up a few more spots on the grid for race two and he could have avoided the start crash and had another good day. Momentum would have been on his side and his summer would not have been as difficult. 

Sébastien Bourdais' 2021 Statistics
Championship Position: 16th (258 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 4
Laps Led: 22
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 5 
Average Start: 15.5
Average Finish: 15.25

Dalton Kellett was regular fighting from behind in 2021

Dalton Kellett
Kellett was part-time last year in Foyt's #14 Chevrolet and this year he took over the #4 Chevrolet full-time. For a driver who never won in 128 Road to Indy starts and only had eight podium finishes in those 128 starts, Kellett's first full IndyCar season went exactly as expected.

What objectively was his best race?
Kellett ended up 12th at Gateway, race where he spent a good portion in the top ten before falling out of the top ten late.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is Gateway. Kellett benefitted from a rash of cautions at the start that took out many of the front-runners, but he had to earn that top ten spot for most of the night. A few teams were not as good as him on this night. Kellett did make a questionable chop on Romain Grosjean into turn three. No contact was made, but Kellett's wonderful night nearly was snuffed out at his own inability.

What objectively was his worst race?
He was 26th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, four laps down. It was so bad he finished behind Cody Ware. Kellett was also 26th at Portland after a mechanical issue stopped him on track.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is hard to look at a four-lap down performance behind a dismal NASCAR Cup Series driver cosplaying as an IndyCar driver because his father has a perplexing amount of money that he burns on multiple different forms of motorsports and find any positives. 

Dalton Kellett's 2021 Statistics
Championship Position: 23rd (148 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 24.429
Average Finish: 21.313

An Early Look Ahead
Another offseason is upon us, and A.J. Foyt Racing is again forced to shake things up. 

Bourdais will not be back full-time, but one thought is he could run a significant number of the races. The word is Bourdais will be full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing's sports car program and there are five direct IMSA/IndyCar conflicts. Sebring and Texas are the same weekend and if Bourdais isn't full-time, I don't think he is going to waste his time flying to Texas when it will not be his full-time job. 

Laguna Seca and Barber are the same day. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis is the day before the IMSA race at Mid-Ohio. IMSA is at Mosport the same day IndyCar is at Mid-Ohio. IMSA will be at Road America the same day IndyCar races on the streets of Nashville. 

Not only does it sound like Bourdais will be part-time but 2022 could be his final year in an IndyCar. 

Who would fill-in for the five or six races Bourdais could miss? Super Formula and sports car driver Tatiana Calderón tested for Foyt this summer at Mid-Ohio and Calderón is a RoKIT-sponsored driver. This season was RoKIT's first in IndyCar. 

Calderón did run in Star Mazda with Juncos Racing in 2010 and 2011, finishing tenth and sixth in the championship in those respective seasons. She had podium finishes at Barber and Mosport along with a fifth at Iowa. She scored points in Formula Three and has had a few good races in Super Formula, but I don't think she is ready for an IndyCar. She should really spend a year in Indy Lights.

To put Foyt in a more precarious position, Bourdais could be done with IndyCar already and not return in 2022. If that is the case, the team will either bite the bullet and run Calderón full-time or find another driver to pair with her. 

Foyt is in greater limbo than it ever has been before and with all signs pointing to Kellett remaining a full-time driver, I think it is borderline irresponsible to put Calderón in a car. If Bourdais was going to be Calderón's full-time teammate then I would feel more comfortable, but pairing Kellett and Calderón is combining an unexperienced IndyCar driver with the least talented IndyCar driver. That is not a recipe for success. 

The team doesn't really have a choice now. Since ABC Supply Co. left as the team's sponsor after the 2019 season, it must keep the lights on and take what it can get. Unfortunately, the team has been abysmal for years and respectable drivers with money will skip over Foyt knowing they are better off lighting a couple million dollars on fire than driving for the team. 

Think about some of Foyt's recent drivers:

Jack Hawksworth lost his ride after 2016 and went to sports cars. He has not been in an IndyCar since. 

Carlos Muñoz lost his ride after 2017, made three more IndyCar starts the following year and hasn't been seen since.

Conor Daly lost his ride after 2017 and he was not full-time again until last year. 

Matheus Leist lost his ride after 2019 and no one else in IndyCar touched him.

Charlie Kimball lost his ride after 2020 and then appeared in three race weekends for the team in 2021.

Takuma Sato might have moved onto to something better and Tony Kanaan might have become the oval driver in Chip Ganassi Racing's #48 Honda this year, but history suggests A.J. Foyt Racing is not a launching pad for an IndyCar career. It is a grave.

This is how we get Kellett, a driver whose best Road to Indy championship finishes were seventh in Indy Lights seasons that had seven full-time cars and eight full-time cars. Kellett had the worst average finish among series regulars and the worst average starting position among series regulars in 2021.

Foyt has tried so many different things and nothing has worked. It wasted ABC Supply Co. title sponsorship for over a decade while other competitive teams struggled for funding. It switched engine manufactures and in five seasons with Chevrolet it has one podium finish and six top five finishes. In the last ten seasons, only twice has Foyt had a driver finish in the top fifteen in the championship and regularly during that time IndyCar had fewer than 24 full-time drivers. 

We all want Foyt to be better and just be remotely competitive. I don't see how it gets better in 2022. I don't see how this round of changes will be the answer.