Friday, September 22, 2023

IndyCar Wrap-Up: A.J. Foyt Racing's 2023 Season

The second 2023 IndyCar Wrap-Up brings us to the team that normally goes first for being the worst team on the grid. It was marginal, but A.J. Foyt Racing got off the very bottom. Things were only slightly better for the Foyt organization in 2023, and one great day in May is really the only thing that saved it from being the first reviewed again. As has become the usual for A.J. Foyt Racing, the team had two new drivers, one of which with minimal Road to Indy success.

Santino Ferrucci
After spending the past two seasons as a part-time IndyCar competitor while dabbling in NASCAR, Ferrucci returned to full-time IndyCar participation in 2023. A driver remembered for his oval performances, Ferrucci again proved to have the touch at Indianapolis, and it nearly ended with one of the most stunning victories in the last decade. Results remained mostly uninspired on road and street courses. 

What objectively was his best race?
Ferrucci was third in the Indianapolis 500 from fourth on the grid. It was the best finish of Ferrucci's IndyCar career, and he spent 158 laps in the top five, 178 laps in the top ten, and his average running position was 5.72.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is clearly Indianapolis. This could have been a flash in the pan, A.J. Foyt Racing showing blistering pace in qualifying only for it to disappear in the race, but Ferrucci remained at the front. He led 11 laps and was genuinely in it through the closing laps. There was a near pit stop error that cost him, but the team had a practically flawless race.

What objectively was his worst race?
It came at another oval, as Ferrucci and the Foyt team struggled mightily at Iowa. In the first race, Ferrucci was classified in 26th, nine laps down, but part of that deficit was after being trapped in his pit box after his Foyt teammate Benajmin Pedersen had an unsafe release and hit Devlin DeFrancesco. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Ferrucci was caught in the opening lap accident at St. Petersburg and did not complete a lap in the season opener. That wasn't his fault, but it is not how anyone wants to start a season. Laguna Seca was probably the only race he made a bad error, running over Tom Blomqvist coming to a restart after Ferrucci was running in the top ten. The Iowa weekend was particularly tough, especially off the wave of Indianapolis momentum. They are two different ovals but to go from knocking on the door of victory to the worst team on the grid was startling. 

Santino Ferrucci's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 19th (214 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 11
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 20.588
Average Finish: 18.529

Benjamin Pedersen
After two seasons in Indy Lights, Pedersen made the move to IndyCar with little signs he was ready to take on the increased competition. The Dane had only one Indy Lights victory, and he had dropped from fourth to fifth in the Indy Lights championship from 2021 to 2022. His IndyCar results showed that multiple top five championship finishes in Indy Lights does not really mean a driver is ready for IndyCar.

What objectively was his best race?
In his oval debut, second IndyCar start, Pedersen qualified 13th and spent much of the race in the middle of the field at Texas. He did finish two laps down, but it earned him a 15th-place result.

What subjectively was his best race?
Pedersen was caught in an accident late in the Indianapolis 500, but he qualified 11th, as both Foyt cars made the Fast 12. During the race, Pedersen lost some positions, but was running respectively, and was holding onto the lead lap until that accident when Ed Carpenter got into Pedersen on the main straightaway, setting up the final red flag and the one-lap dash to decide the race..

What objectively was his worst race?
Pedersen was run over at the start of the Gateway race, and again Ed Carpenter had a lapse in judgment. This sent Pedersen into the wall in turn one and ending his day before he even completed a corner. He was classified 28th.

What subjectively was his worst race?
The Dane was 27th in three races this season: St. Petersburg and both Iowa races. Two of the three are particularly bad. Pedersen started last in St. Petersburg, but completely failed to slow down coming up on the opening lap accident and slammed into Devlin DeFrancesco, launching DeFrancesco into the air. It was a terrible first impression. 

In the second Iowa race, after being off the pace in the first one, Pedersen was black-flagged for being too slow 57 laps from the finish.

Being disqualified is bad, but the race everyone will remember from Pedersen's season is Mid-Ohio, where he finished 26th, and he was a lap down for a good portion of the race. Then got in everyone's way. He balked leader Álex Palou. He gave Scott McLaughlin fits. When the field reconvened at Toronto, Pedersen apologized for his driving. There aren't many bright spots from this rookie season but plenty of blemishes.

Benjamin Pedersen's 2023 Statistics
Championship Position: 27th (129 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 22.353
Average Finish: 23.294

An Early Look Ahead
On-track results do not give anyone a reason to be optimistic, but off the track, there is a major reason to be excited about A.J. Foyt Racing's 2024 season. 

Announced in August, A.J. Foyt Racing and Team Penske formed a technical alliance, which will see the Foyt cars have access to the Penske dampers as well as technical support. Team Penske crew members and engineering staff will be loaned to the Foyt organization through this partnership. 

Foyt hasn't been in the ballpark for the most part. The most basic help from Team Penske should make the team moderately more competitive, especially with a competent driver. That little bit of help could see Foyt at least competing for top ten finishes, something the team really has not done since pre-reunification. 

The team already found something at Indianapolis. Ferrucci was one of the best drivers at Indianapolis this year and the team showed staggering pace. Single-car pace is one thing, but Ferrucci showed the speed carried into the race. Pedersen did not quite have it, but he did not drop immediately to the bottom. 

IndyCar is greater than the Indianapolis 500 though, and other than Texas, which might not be on the schedule next ear, the Foyt cars were not close to being in the discussion at any other race. This partnership points to the team knowing it needs more than being in the conversation one race a year. However, Foyt has never been a top team when IndyCar has been at this level. The team's greatest success came when A.J. Foyt himself was driving and in the early days of the Indy Racing League. IndyCar is not going to fracture again and create a void that A.J. Foyt Racing can exploit. Success must come beating the best the series has to offer. 

Ferrucci has a seat based on his oval ability alone. He has been good on road and street courses, but never quite pushed into the top tier of drivers. Perhaps with better equipment he can make a leap forward, but he has yet to rub elbows with those top drivers, and it is tight at the top. 

Pedersen is not going to be the long-term future of A.J. Foyt Racing. Whether his money keeps being deposited in a Houston-area bank remains to be seen, but even with Penske dampers and technical support, it would not turn the Dane into a threat for the top fifteen in the championship. 

With the influx of improvement, the two Foyt cars could be a glorious opportunity for a driver to showcase his or her talent, a foot in the door most would relish, something Foyt has not been for quite sometime. It has already been theorized Foyt could become a talent pipeline for young drivers into IndyCar, especially those coming from Indy Lights. 

That might not be true in 2024, but it feels practical for 2025 onward. 

For all this excitement, it must be remembered this is A.J. Foyt Racing. A decade ago, the team had ABC Supply Co. funding a seat, which would soon expand to two fully-funded seats. It had Honda's favorite driver, Takuma Sato. Everyone talked about Foyt as a sleeping giant, and all it had to show for that hype was one victory at Long Beach and a second at São Paulo, both now over a decade in the rearview mirror. 

Foyt wasn't able to turn all the resources it had, more than other teams, into any regular success. Compared to Dale Coyne Racing, Foyt had the world and squandered it. 

There is a chance Foyt does it again with the Team Penske alliance. With Penske involved, it likely does not turn out that way, but we cannot rule it out. Perhaps it is best to remain cautiously optimistic, but things are pointing in the right direction for A.J. Foyt Racing.