With far more drivers than seats left available, David Malsher checks out the best of those on the subs bench.
The silly season in IndyCar was almost over by mid-December when, at the PRI Show, Dale Coyne was able to confirm Conor Daly in one of his cars for 2016. Admittedly, since then, there has been little progress in filling the remaining rides – one full-time, one part-time. However there are some other vague possibilities of opportunities through the field, even aside from the Indy 500 one-offs.
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series lineup as it currently stands is this:
Juan Pablo Montoya
|Chip Ganassi Racing-Chevrolet||
|Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda||
Spencer Pigot (part-time)
|Schmidt Peterson Motorsport-Honda||
Matt Brabham (part-time)
|AJ Foyt Racing-Honda||
|Dale Coyne Racing-Honda||Conor Daly|
Ed Carpenter (part-time)
|Bryan Herta Autosport-Honda||Gabby Chaves|
That makes 19 full-time entries so far, and three part-timers.
RLLR is hoping to run Spencer Pigot for more than just the Indy Lights champion’s three prize-winning drives, so if Bobby’s sponsor-fetchers find funds, that’s who will get the nod. For anyone else to use that second car in other races (Pigot is so far entered for GP of St. Petersburg, GP of Indy and of course the Indy 500) will require a serious wedge of cash. After all, given Graham Rahal’s superb 2015 season as a single-car entry, he’s proven he doesn’t need a full-time teammate.
Penske is at capacity with four cars, as are Schmidt Peterson and AJ Foyt Racing with two cars and – barring Bryan Herta winning the lottery – BHA with one.
Chip Ganassi – already kind of busy with the Ford GT project on both sides of the Atlantic – says his team will run a fourth car if an opportunity (i.e. talented driver with big sponsor) emerges. The same is doubtless true of Andretti Autosport. KVSH has reduced to a one-car effort for 2016, as we predicted months ago, but with Matt Brabham running an extra Australian-backed entry at the Indy 500 and GP of Indy.
That would suggest KVSH – like Ganassi, RLLR, and Andretti – could promptly add an extra car should the chance arise. However, the simple fact is that the likelihood of finding the next Parnelli Jones with a $6m sponsor is remote. Ganassi, Andretti and Schmidt will surely look for opportunities to join KVSH in running extra cars at the “500,” but the berths available for drivers interested in longer term deals are few and far between.
In fact, they come down to a full-time seat with Dale Coyne Racing alongside Conor Daly, and the No. 20 CFH Racing car partnering Josef Newgarden for the road and street courses. But even that latter ride is somewhat up in the air.
Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter told Motorsport.com: “Our best-case scenario is to run the 20 car in a full time manner with a shared seat like we’ve done the past two years.
“At this point, we don’t have the budget in place to confirm the 20 car is full-time, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still trying to make that a reality. We do know that Josef will be full time [in the No. 67] and that I will be in the 20 car at the oval events.”
Anyone who saw how often Newgarden ran at or near the front last season knows that’s a quality ride on offer, even if it’s only part-time.
So who are the best candidates for the one-and-two-third IndyCar rides that are still open? Here they are in no particular order.
Oriol Servia – The 41-year-old Catalan is a known quantity, but is also known quality. He doesn’t buy rides so it’s always been a struggle for him to find a seat in this branch of the sport’s impoverished era; that’s why he hasn’t been full-time since 2012. Servia told Motorsport.com that he’s run out of options on the full-time side – Servia and Coyne do not constitute a mutual admiration society – but he’s now looking at Indy 500 one-offs and hoping these might lead to further opportunities.
Simona De Silvestro – The ever-popular SDS has admitted she would be interested in V8 Supercars but only after she’s run out of open-wheel options. Right now, the best of these – as in, a funded drive – is the ride she has in Michael Andretti’s Formula E team. Although she’d be a great fit at DCR or CFHR, Simona admits her best chance of an IndyCar return is a fourth Andretti Autosport car at the Indy 500.
Luca Filippi – Showed promise in his partial seasons for Bryan Herta Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and most recently, CFH Racing. He’s another Giorgio Pantano – very capable without being a potential superstar. We still don’t know how good Luca might be on ovals, but that won’t matter if he re-signs with CFH and share’s Ed’s No. 20 car.
J.R. Hildebrand – Is he destined to join the ranks of fine American racers who fell through the cracks in open-wheel racing’s landscape? You’ve got to hope not, but JRH isn’t going to put food on the table with Indy-only – or even oval-only – drives. Sooner or later he’s going to quit his IndyCar dream and go down the sports car route. At which point, people will wonder again how this smart and quick Californian didn’t get the chances he deserved in IndyCar.
Sage Karam – The 2013 Indy Lights champion ran three-quarters of the ’15 IndyCar season with Chip Ganassi Racing, and whether or not you think he was worthy of retaining such a high-profile ride in ’16, the fact is that Chip couldn’t find the money to make it happen and thus released him. However, 20-year-old Sage was making progress throughout 2015, and that’s enough to suggest he deserves a full season with someone. Could Honda help fund him at Coyne?
Tristan Vautier – He may have become overwrought and expensive in his rookie season back in 2013, but boy, Tristan has improved immensely since then and he’s now matched his natural pace with composure. His part time deal with Coyne last season gave him the chance to demonstrate the same promise he showed on his way to the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles. An asset to any team he joins.
Sebastian Saavedra – Although a best result of 10th from his five races with Ganassi in 2015 might not appear to be credentials for a full-time ride, Saavedra probably impressed more last year than in his full campaigns with Conquest, Dragon and KV Racing over the previous four seasons. Despite minimal seat time, he qualified 10th at Sonoma – ahead of teammate Tony Kanaan – and was never less than competent.
Stefano Coletti – For the cheery Monegasque, the IndyCar learning process was an expensive one in terms of equipment. Initially he looked very fast, but whether he was attempting to rein in that pace and halt the incidents, or he was simply failing to make progress, the rookie appeared to lose ground to KVSH teammate Bourdais through 2015.
James Jakes – Thoroughly competent, a safe pair of hands to bring in as sub for another driver, and occasionally turns in an eye-catching performance. Will he ever be better than that? Probably not, but this very stability could actually be a selling point for teams like CFHR and DCR, as he will provide a good baseline gauge for their teammates.
Jack Harvey – He’s done enough now – championship runner-up in two very different types of Indy Lights cars – to graduate with confidence. Like Pigot and Gabby Chaves, the two drivers who edged him for the Lights titles in 2015 and ’14 respectively, Harvey would adapt well. In fact, he proved that with his pace in last summer’s test at Sonoma, when Lights drivers got seat time in the big cars.
Ryan Briscoe – His Ganassi Ford GT commitments will preclude him from a full-time role, but he’s a blindingly obvious candidate for all the non-clashing dates, should Chip find the money for a fourth IndyCar. The Indy 500 is an obvious outlet, as Ryan has always been quick at IMS (2012 polesitter), but he could be a strong performer at any track on the schedule.
Carlos Huertas – By some trick of the light, the weather, the fuel tank and the strategy, Grumpy Cat is an IndyCar race winner (Houston 2014). In truth, he hasn’t been a liability in an IndyCar, but he appeared to have a distaste for ovals, and there were some money issues. Coyne is unlikely to go in this direction again.
Rodolfo Gonzalez – A charming guy who turned in a reasonable performance for Dale at Sonoma last year. But if he had no money and was chosen over, say, a Karam or Vautier, then it would be the eighth sign of the Apocalypse.
Bruno Junqueira – If this seems slightly unlikely, that's because it is. However, Bruno has been racing well in IMSA's Prototype Challenge cars, and as he has pointed out, the guys running at the front in IndyCar are the same ones he could race with and match in CART.