Alexander Rossi and Pastor Maldonado have emerged as prime candidates to replace Gabby Chaves in the #98 Andretti Autosport-BHA entry in 2016.
Bryan Herta, whose team has merged with Andretti Autosport, says Chaves’ replacement could be a driver who had expected to be in F1 this year - and that the deal could come together very quickly.
While confirming that 2011 Indy 500 runner-up J.R. Hildebrand was on his wishlist, Herta told Motorsport.com: “We have a shortlist of people we've spoken to – and J.R. is one of them – but it also includes drivers who are no longer in Formula 1 this year, or thought they were going to have Formula 1 rides but now don’t.
“I’ve been involved with the discussions between Andretti and the potential drivers, and right now I’d say there are three or four guys on the shortlist, and two serious ones. And the next 24 to 36 hours will be critical as to which way it goes.”
Following confirmation that Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto have secured the Manor rides for 2016, American Rossi (backed by Alaska Coffee), Briton Will Stevens (who took a rumored $10m to Manor in 2015) and Spain’s Roberto Merhi are now on the market. However, Merhi’s chances are considered unlikely.
In response to the suggestion of Rossi, Herta said: “That would be a good guess.”
Honda USA is also known to be keen on Rossi, having tried and failed to find a ride for another 20-something American, Josef Newgarden, who remains at Chevrolet-powered Ed Carpenter Racing this season.
Asked about Maldonado, who recently lost his Lotus/Renault drive to Kevin Magnussen, Herta responded: “I didn’t say his name. I can’t say that’s right or wrong.” However, he acknowledged that they had had talks with the Venezuelan who won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.
Herta had kept abreast of the Lotus/Renault situation over the winter as he was in discussions with Kevin Magnussen. But they remained largely speculative as Herta understood the Dane’s desire to pursue his F1 opportunities – especially in light of the Lotus/Renault-Maldonado deal rumored to be on shaky ground.
PDVSA, the Venezuelan petroleum giant that backs Maldonado, has suffered from the global plunge in oil prices, but has had a relationship with Andretti Autosport in the past, when Michael’s team ran E.J. Viso in 2013.
The $6-$8m required to run a competitive entry in the Verizon IndyCar Series would be regarded as far more palatable than the estimated $25m per year Maldonado was expected to bring in F1.
No part-time deals
Herta ruled out Americans Matt Brabham, Spencer Pigot and Sage Karam, who have part-time deals at KVSH Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing respectively.
“We’d be looking at a full-time driver for the #98,” he said, “so we wouldn’t run anyone who's got a ride in any other IndyCar seat right now.”
Although he admitted any potential driver would need to bring some funding, Herta insisted: “It would not be nearly what you’d think. It would be a collaborative effort.”
Slow, then fast merger
Herta acknowledged that part of the reason his team was appealing to Andretti Autosport is that Michael Andretti’s squad had not earned IndyCar’s Leaders Circle money from its fourth entry last year. The annual “sweetener” of $1.25m is given only to entrants who finished in the top 21 in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the #25 Andretti car had entered only 11 of the 16 races, with its driving duties shared by Simona de Silvestro and the late Justin Wilson.
By contrast, Chaves had raced in all 16 rounds in the 2015 calendar, and so the BHA #98 entry had finished 15th in the championship, earning the Leaders Circle bonus.
Explaining the Chaves’ release, Herta said: “Gabby is a good driver, he deserves to be in the series and we tried everything we could to put the deal together with him… almost to the exclusion of all other things. And when we thought we had it and discovered we didn’t, it was really late and we were caught flat-footed.
“Luckily [the merger with Andretti] all came together very quickly and I think it’s a great solution. I didn’t want Bryan Herta Autosport to go away, I didn’t want my guys to be out of a job – all things that could have happened.
"We had to work out the nuts and bolts of the deal – how to assimilate our guys into the Andretti team, whose cars we’d be using, which trailers we’d be using, and so on. A million little things that needed to be gone through, but that’s done now.
“I’ve had a long relationship with Michael, we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together, we know each other well. And this deal is not them taking us over and us going away. This is a true merger.”