Monday, November 29, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Where are We Now?

Unfortunately, the Kyalami 9 Hours has been postponed due to a new COVID variant. There were a few suspensions in the world of NASCAR. Formula One and MotoGP will remain in Barcelona through 2026. The Formula E grid is filling out. Some familiar faces will be at Race of Champions in February. Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist have plans for early January. A few more championships were decided. 

Sadly, Sir Frank Williams passed away on Sunday morning. Williams was 79 years old. Under Williams' stewardship, Williams F1 won seven World Drivers' Championships, nine World Constructors' Championships and the team won 114 grand prix. The team ranks second all-time in Constructors' Championships behind only Ferrari and fourth all-time in victories behind Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes.  

Where are We Now?
It was Thanksgiving and I am mailing it in. That might sound off-putting, but who doesn't like a run over of the 2022 IndyCar grid? People love talking about theoretical possibilities! 

It has been just over two months, 64 days to be specific, since the most recent IndyCar race and we are 90 days away from the 2022 season opener from St. Petersburg.

There has been plenty of movement already and there are a few moves that still need to be made. Drivers have been testing, some in legitimate auditions and others sampling for possible future IndyCar opportunities. The leftovers are in the fridge and shopping plans are about to be made. How does the IndyCar grid look ahead of December? 

Let's start with the champions!

Chip Ganassi Racing
Not much changes at Chip Ganassi Racing from the driver seat. Álex Palou is going to defend his title in the #10 Honda. Scott Dixon will return for his 22nd IndyCar season. Marcus Ericsson will return. 

The question is whether Jimmie Johnson is full-time or not. The team is going to run four cars and if it must keep the Johnson-Tony Kanaan partnership in the #48 Honda, it is prepared to do so. Ganassi has already committed to five cars for the Indianapolis 500. Johnson will either be full-time, all the road/street courses and the Indianapolis 500 or just road and street courses for a second season. 

Johnson started rookie orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500 in an October test. If he is doing Indianapolis, he mind as well do the entire schedule. He will have to hold his breath for Texas, but he shouldn't have many or any safety concerns for Iowa and Gateway. Both are quick tracks, but much slower than Texas and Indianapolis. Iowa and Gateway do not have an extensive history of serious driver injuries. 

If Johnson isn't full-time, Kanaan will fill in on the oval races. We should know shortly because Johnson will have to decide if he continues participation in the IMSA Endurance Cup entry with Action Express Racing. Texas and the 12 Hours of Sebring weekend clash. The Texas race is on Sunday, the day after Sebring, but I don't think Johnson is comfortable enough to split time with his first IndyCar oval weekend and one of the most physical endurance races. If he is doing the Endurance Cup then he is at least not doing Texas, which will seem weird to run 16 IndyCar races and only skip one, and I would bet it means his only oval start will be Indianapolis or he is not doing any ovals again in 2022. 

However, since he started rookie orientation, it feels like he will try Indianapolis. 

For Kanaan, he will at least have Indianapolis in the fifth car if Johnson is full-time.

Scoreboard: Four full-time entries plus one Indianapolis 500 entry.

Team Penske
Downsizing is the key word. Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin remain. The team will not fill the #22 Chevrolet and it sounds like the team will not run an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, as Penske prepares for its IMSA LMDh program with Porsche and the team is reportedly planning an FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 effort with two cars. 

Scoreboard: Seven full-time entries plus one Indianapolis 500 entry. 

Andretti Autosport
Four cars remain. Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi stay. Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco are in. 

We do not know if the team will run a fifth car for Indianapolis, but it likely will for Marco Andretti if Andretti wants it. If Andretti doesn't, it will still likely field five cars. It ran six cars last year with Stefan Wilson. I would say six is still possible, but we should feel good about five. 

Someone else could slide into one of Andretti's extra Indianapolis seats. James Hinchcliffe might have lost his full-time seat, but he could still be in the running for an Indianapolis 500 entry, as he occupied in 2020.

Scoreboard: 11 full-time entries plus two, but possibly three Indianapolis 500 entries.

Arrow McLaren SP
Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist will be back, but AMSP has been open to expanding to three cars. Expansion might wait a season, but AMSP could run out a third car at a few races. It will likely have a third car at Indianapolis, which it had last year for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya. 

It is unclear if Montoya remains the option. Nico Hülkenberg tested for AMSP at Barber Motorsports Park in October, but Hülkenberg later said he would not be pursuing a full-time IndyCar switch. 

Stoffel Vandoorne will test for the team on December 5 at Sebring. Vandoorne is committed to Mercedes' Formula E program in 2022, which season ends in the middle of August. Vandoorne was a McLaren development driver and drove for the Woking-based organization in two Formula One seasons, where he scored points on debut substituting for the injured Fernando Alonso in the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix, but he only scored 25 points in his next 40 starts.

Scoreboard: 13 full-time entries, plus likely three but possibly four Indianapolis 500 entries.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:
The team is expanding and shaking up the lineup. Graham Rahal continues to lead in the #15 Honda with Christian Lundgaard returning after a one-off debut in 2021 to drive the #30 Honda in 2022 and Jack Harvey joins the team in the #45 Honda. 

All three cars will be full-time. Lundgaard is bringing Alpine funding for the seat. However, I don't think RLLR will run an additional Indianapolis 500 entry now that it is full-time, will be taking on a full-time return to IMSA with BMW's M4 GT3 in addition to RLLR moving to LMDh in 2023. 

Scoreboard: 16 full-time entries, plus likely three but possibly four Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Ed Carpenter Racing:
Rinus VeeKay will return in the #21 Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter is still committed to running ovals in the #20 Chevrolet, but the road/street course portion of the #20 Chevrolet is a mystery, and it might not have one solution. 

The United States Air Force sponsorship is gone, which means Conor Daly is out unless he finds some other funding. Ryan Hunter-Reay tested at Barber for ECR in October. Hunter-Reay has announced no plans for 2022. The 2012 IndyCar champion was thought to be in contention for a full-time IMSA seat, but most of the 2022 teams have filled their full-time seats. 

I am not sure Hunter-Reay is ready for a demotion to road/street course driver. If he takes the demotion, he will likely have an Indianapolis 500 seat as well. I don't see ECR running VeeKay and Hunter-Reay full-time with Carpenter in a third car for all the ovals. I am not sure the team has the funding to do that now that the Air Force is gone, and I am not sure Hunter-Reay has the funding to run the 12 road and street course races plus Indianapolis. 

ECR might be the toughest nut to crack of the 2022 lineups. It needs funding but there are no clear drivers out there with money. There isn't an available Indy Lights driver worth taking a chance on. Linus Lundqvist was third in Indy Lights but kept losing ground to Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas as the season went along even though he won three races and had 11 podium finishes from 20 races. 

The team might have to look to Europe, which wouldn't be a bad thing. VeeKay won a race last year. The 2021 season didn't end great for the team, but maybe it could attract a Formula Two driver, although I am not sure ECR has the connections to land someone from Europe. It does come off as one of IndyCar's most insular teams, battling A.J. Foyt Racing for that dubious title. 

Scoreboard: Likely 18 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly five Indianapolis 500 entries.

Meyer Shank Racing:
This team is set with Simon Pagenaud taking over the #60 Honda and Hélio Castroneves returning to full-time competition in the #06 Honda. MSR keeps its technical alliance with Andretti Autosport for another season. 

It does not seem likely MSR would run an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, but never say never. Meyer Shank Racing will be testing reigning Formula E champion Nyck de Vries at Sebring on December 5. De Vries drives for Mercedes in Formula E, is contracted through 2022, and he has ties to the Formula One program. He was linked to the Williams Formula One opening before the team signed Alexander Albon to replace George Russell. 

Scoreboard: Likely 20 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly five Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Dale Coyne Racing
Nothing official has been announced yet, but everyone has been working under the assumption Takuma Sato and David Malukas will fill the team's two seats for a little over a month now. It is unclear if Vasser/Sullivan and Rick Ware Racing are still involved. Malukas' family team HMD Motorsports was believed to be interested in partnering with the team. That could still change. Keep this in pencil.

I think we can feel comfortable about this team running two cars, it is just a matter of who is partnering with Coyne to get these cars on the grid, if Coyne partners with anyone. 

As for additional Indianapolis 500 entries, the team didn't run one last year, but it could run one this year. 

Scoreboard: Likely 22 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly six Indianapolis 500 entries. 

A.J. Foyt Racing
Kyle Kirkwood will be in the #14 Chevrolet. Dalton Kellett is believed to be returning to the #4 Chevrolet. A third car is still a rumored possibility, especially with ROKiT Phones sponsorship. Tatiana Calderón tested for Foyt in July at Mid-Ohio. 

The team entered four cars for the Indianapolis 500 last year. It will have at least one car there in 2022 and two wouldn't surprise me either. 

Scoreboard: Likely 24 full-time entries, plus likely five but possibly seven Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Juncos Hollinger Racing/Carlin
These two teams are going to be married at the hip until they confirmed what they are doing. 

We know Juncos Hollinger Racing will attempt a full season with Callum Ilott. We do not know if Carlin will return with the #59 Chevrolet and Max Chilton on the road and street courses, plus Indianapolis and with another driver filling in at the other ovals. 

There have been talks of the teams merging and there have been talks about Carlin getting completely out of IndyCar. A Carlin truck was photographed at Juncos' shop. That could mean many things, but it doesn't mean nothing. 

If it is a merger or a partnership, then we could be looking at two cars. If Carlin is selling its equipment off, then I think JHR will still only be a one-car team and have plenty of spares. If it is a merger or partnership, I could see this group running an Indianapolis 500-only entry, but I do not think JHR will spread itself thin and run an extra car if it is a single-car full-time organization... unless someone is throwing a stupid amount of cash at them. 

Scoreboard: Likely 25 full-time entries, possibly 26 full-time entries, plus likely five but possibly seven Indianapolis 500 entries. 

What else do we need to know?
Even on the light end, we are at 30 Indianapolis 500 entries. I think 25 full-time entries is what we are going to get. As for Indianapolis 500 entries, give me extra from Ganassi, Andretti, AMSP, Coyne, ECR and Foyt. That gets us to 31 entries. 

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will likely be back. That has been a two-car operation, but I think it will stick to one. Paretta Autosport would like to return, and I think it will return. Top Gun Racing is another possibility. If those three one-off entries return then we are at 34 entries and then a possible sixth Andretti entry plus a possible fourth Foyt and we are easily at 36 entries again, with Honda carrying the weight 19 to 17. 

What about the drivers? 
We know Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe are out of rides and are currently not lined up for anything. 

Max Chilton could be done for good.

Conor Daly could be going to the NASCAR Truck Series full time with occasional IndyCar appearances. 

Sébastien Bourdais will be full-time in IMSA with Chip Ganassi Racing in the Daytona Prototype international class. Bourdais' IndyCar career could be over. 

Ed Jones' plans are unknown. 

Santino Ferrucci's plans are unknown, but it sounds like it could be some split of NASCAR/IndyCar like we saw this year. 

Oliver Askew has landed a Formula E seat with Andretti Autosport. Askew's 2022 season should be accounted for, but I guess there is a slim chance we could see him in a few IndyCar races next year. The month of May schedule would allow Askew to run the Indianapolis 500.

Sage Karam should still be in the Dreyer & Reinbold fold for Indianapolis, but he is also possibly going to run more NASCAR races and rallycross events.

Pietro Fittipaldi continues to waste his younger years as a reserve driver for a Formula One team that will never give him a full-time ride. 

Stefan Wilson is still trying to piece together a program for possibly more than the Indianapolis 500. 

Plenty of things will become clearer in the next month or so. With a late-February start, these unattended seats will be accounted for soon.

Champions From the Weekend

The #36 TGR Team au TOM'S Toyota Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi won the Super GT GT500 championship with victory in the Fuji season finale.

The #61 R&D Sport Subaru of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi clinched the Super GT GT300 championship with a third-place finish at Fuji. 

Yann Ehrlacher clinched his second consecutive World Touring Car Cup championship with a pair of sixth-place finishes in Sochi. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi, but did you know...

The #60 LM Corsa Toyota Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto and Shunsuke Kohno won in GT300 in the Super GT race from Fuji. 

Mikel Azcona and Rob Huff split the World Touring Car Cup races from Sochi.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Bathurst 1000
The inaugural Saudi Arabia Grand Prix.