INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to believe that we made it though an entire season already. The year of 2020 has seemed like a decade, but INDYCAR was able to fit 14 races in over the course of five months. Now that the 2020 season is behind us and the 2021 season doesn’t begin for another five months, what happens between?
5. Indy Lights Participants?
It’s fully INDYCAR related but it kind of is. How many INDYCAR teams will elect to field an Indy Lights program in 2021? We know Roger Penske is trying to strengthen the ladder series and is trying to incentivize current INDYCAR teams to get involved. Currently, only Andretti Autosport is in the series. Do any other INDYCAR teams join them next season?
4. 3rd OEM
INDYCAR delayed their new engine regulations until 2023 now. I don’t see a new OEM coming in before then. But, in order for 2023 to happen for a third OEM, a decision has to happen sooner rather than later in order to be well prepared to make this work.
INDYCAR has been close lately on securing one with Ferrari sounding like the main attraction. Is there any mutual feelings back?
A third OEM is what’s holding this series back from exploding and they’re close. I think this happens. Does it happen during the offseason?
3. Any Rule Changes?
We saw St. Pete as the season finale this year have just a single race worth of points. Will other than the Indy 500, all races go back to single points? Since 2015, double points have been used in select races, including the season finale every year between that span. This year, it wasn’t.
In the previous five years, we’ve had anywhere from 4-6 drivers still mathematically eligible for the championship for the season finale by virtue of double points. This year, we only had two. Does INDYCAR scrap double points for the season finale all together now, or leave it?
The drivers don’t want it and wish that all races would go back to normal. Alexander Rossi told me at Indy that he wishes we upped the points again for qualifying for the Indy 500 and take the double points out of the race.
Are there any other competition rules to be changed?
Penske has now been the head of INDYCAR for one full season. He’s not one to sit still. He puts people around him to make things “perfect.” Does he and his leadership teams elect to make any changes now?
The first season under a pandemic is behind us. There’s now a blueprint to go off of just in case this is needed again in the future. For the sake of us all, lets hope this is all behind us by time we get back going again in March on the streets of St. Pete. But, we also have to be realistic too. Do we realistically think that we will witness venues at full capacity again any time soon? 20k was the allotted amount allowed to attend the race in St. Pete this past weekend. Is anything really going to change in the next five months in order to think that we can get back up to the yearly record setting crowds again next year?
Yes, we can mask up and yes we can maybe have an early vaccine by then, but will anything alter the course of what we’ve seen so far.
We went from no fans and the status of the 2020 season on the verge of collapse at St. Pete in March to 20k fans in one setting at the same venue to where this all started in a span of seven months. So, there is a reason for hope that five months down the road that we can maybe even exceed 20k for the 2021 season opener.
But, how will it look though?
That remains to be seen. The second race of the season at Barber isn’t until April 11, so it’s really hard to predict where we’re going to be around Easter of next year then.
That’s why this COVID situation is still one to watch. I have no doubt in my mind that the protocols put in place this season can’t work for 2021. A season can be had now, but how will it look and how many fans can be there in person to witness it, if any?
Will we have the traditional race weekend’s back? Will fans be allowed in the paddock and pits again? Will zoom conference be the new norm instead of our typical weekend press conferences in person? Will the Indy 500 be back to full song or will there be limited attendance again?
How this situation plays out this offseason is one to watch.
Plus, you have the Super Bowl factor. It’s set to be played in Tampa on Feb. 7. We’ve seen the NFL have to alter schedules around already and if they need to add a week or two at the end of the year, it could push the Super Bowl back. There’s contingency plans in place that the big game could be moved back as many as 30 days. Well, move it back 30 days and you get INDYCAR race weekend in the same area.
That’s a lot of planning and logistics that could affect INDYCAR as well.
1. Silly Season
This is the main topic to watch for during this five month break.
Scott McLaughlin will drive a fourth Team Penske car full time. Jimmie Johnson will join him as part of the rookie class.
Takuma Sato is back with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. Pato O’Ward is back with Arrow McLaren SP too. So is Rinus VeeKay with Ed Carpenter Racing.
Oliver Askew is out. Felix Rosenqvist won’t be returning to Chip Ganassi Racing but rather replacing Askew with McLaren.
It’s started a domino effect to which could lead to a wild few months of Silly Season. So, what’s next?
As we head into the finale next weekend on the same St. Pete streets, I still count 9 rides that have openings between now and when we come back in five months.
Those rides that are open are as follows –
Chip Ganassi Racing: No. 8 and No. 10 Honda’s
Andretti Autosport: No. 26, No. 28 and No. 98 Honda’s
Dale Coyne Racing: No. 18 and No. 55 Honda’s
Ed Carpenter Racing: No. 20 (part-time)
AJ Foyt Racing: No. 4 Chevrolet
There’s also talks of expansions to these teams too. When asked if he’s thinking about an expansion to his IndyCar operation, Michael Shank said bluntly, “yes.”
“We are thinking about a small expansion, only if it’s the right timing, yes,” he continued. “We’re a team that eventually will be a two-car team. I don’t know when that will be, but I can guarantee you this, it won’t be until we’re ready. I made that promise to Jack a long time ago, to Jim Meyer, my wife, that are part of this ownership group. Someday, too, whenever that someday can be, it will be when everything aligns.
“If it happens at any time, we thought through all the pros and cons, ultimately does it help Jack, does it benefit the 60 car at all. Who can we bring in to add to the program overall, whether it’s the team and engineering or with Jack as driving. Who do we think is going to add to this group, with our set of personalities, the people we have here, which are very handpicked.
“Everyone says that, but I promise you I’ve spent 26 years building a business relying on people. I’ve got many people that have worked for me for 20 years, and Jack knows a lot of them.
“If we can afford it, yes. What does it do to the whole program, help or hurt. Does it give a greater potential for the whole group. Does the tide rise.”
That sounds like another Ohio team owner in Bobby Rahal. Here’s what he said about a possible addition of a third car again.
“I think we’d like to run a third car, but it really has to make sense,” Rahal said. “It really has to be someone who can contribute to the team. I’m not interested in running a third car just to say we’ve got a third car. We’ve kind of done that before. A lot of teams have done that. That second or third car doesn’t really contribute. It really becomes a drag on a team. We don’t want that. We work too hard to kind of create the situation that exists today.
“I think with our organization we still can be better, for sure. None of us in the team thinks we’re as good as we can be, so we’re going to continue to push, continue to try to bring good people in, build the foundation and the depth of the team from a mechanical standpoint, an engineering standpoint, you name it.
“First things first. Fortunately Graham’s sponsors are with us for several more years, so that’s a big plus for a team. As I say, I think Takuma wants to continue with us, we certainly want him to. That’s going to allow us to kind of see what’s out there. Again, it has to be contributory to the success of the team in the future. It can’t just be, as I say, running a car for the sake of running a car.”
Another expansion could be with Foyt too.
“Our goal is to grow,” Foyt said when announcing Sebastien Bourdais’ signing. “This is a big piece of that, a big part of that, to start that.”
“Not certain at the moment,” Foyt continued. “We’ll certainly be two cars. If the right opportunity came to grow to three, we would do it the right way, we would potentially look at that.
“We’re talking to all our current guys right now. It’s a bit open at the time. We’re just going to see where that shakes out. This was the first piece that we wanted to get in place, and now we’ll start working on the others.”
Chip Ganassi Racing once looked to be expanding but may just stay put at three cars. Is Jimmie Johnson’s 48 entry the old 10 car?
Ganassi said the 48 will be full time with someone else in the ovals. The favorite to split duties on the ovals with him is Tony Kanaan. The third car is likely heading towards Marcus Ericsson again so long as he can secure the same amount of funding.
“We’re still in talks,” said the second year driver to me at Indy a few weeks ago. “From my side and my management we want to keep going. From what I understand the team has been happy with me and my progress. I think it’s a common interest to continue and the 8 car program to continue. There’s a lot more things to fall into pieces before it’s done. The goal is to continue no question about that.”
Ericsson, has proven that if given another year to learn the tracks even further, he has a ton of potential. He’s not yet hit his ceiling.
“I’m starting to feel really comfortable on these tracks and this series,” he continued. “I think last year was a very steep learning curve for me. I thought I didn’t really show my potential. I’ve been really happy with that. I think people are noticing as well and are always there putting it in the mix. I’ve been happy with that and hopefully continue this for Year 3 and be with Ganassi again next year. I think that would really be interesting what we could do on another season.”
The third and potential fourth seats come down to the almighty dollar. Alex Palou has been in contact with them, but they’re short on money to get that seat.
Palou, told me in Indy that it’s not looking good on the contract front for 2021 now.
“It’s been tough,” Palou said of this season. “2020 has been tough for everybody not only for me. It’s been hard because we showed almost every weekend that we had speed. The speed was there. Even on ovals. But, we didn’t really get the results. If you look at the results, I think we’re 17th but if you look at the results on the races and qualifying and free practices, we’ve never been 17th except for now. It’s been tough but it is what it is. We have to take it. We have to learn from it.
“But, it’s tough to say to somebody when you’re like that far back as I am. It’s a good thing to have pace everywhere but it’s hard to go to a guy and say give me a chance when he may say ‘oh man I don’t know if I can give you a chance.’ Hopefully we can have another chance. That would be a dream. I don’t think that we did enough. We tried but I don’t think we have the results to deserve another year.
“It’s looking bad. It’s a bad year for everybody to commit. It’s hard to commit without the sponsors with the results that we’re having. It’s going to be tough but we’re still pushing.”
Right now, Ganassi has Dixon in the 9, likely Johnson/Kanaan in the 48, Ericsson as the favorite in the 8, but it’s a combo of Ericsson, Askew and Palou for the third and fourth seat.
Also, don’t fully count out an Helio Castroneves or Juan Pablo Montoya deal with Ganassi either. The thing is for them though, they would need to likely bring money.
ECR has Carpenter back on ovals and looking for a driver for 13 road/street courses.
Conor Daly would be the favorite but it all comes down to his funding. His future is all dependent on US Air Force.
“I hope so,” Daly said to me. “I don’t know. I’ve still yet to progress to where I’m a driver without a sponsor. I’m still just me with the Air Force. I want to continue to make that relationship a successful one. I think this year is a really hard to judge anything because they couldn’t use their on track activations. I’m hoping we basically get a redo and say that didn’t work and get to try it again next year. A full go and everything is back to normal then we can really make it work. I think a lot of stuff we did together was really cool. They see that and take that into account.
“Realistically, my entire life hinges on if the Air Force wasn’t to come back and be involved and we’re definitely trying to make that happen with ECR for sure because I’d like to be with these guys again and be at all the races. I want to go to Long Beach. I want to go to Detroit. I want to go to all of these races I didn’t get to go to this year.
“These government deals. They’re the only ones here. When it comes to November, we have to go in and say here’s what we want to do. I personally want to be back with ECR again and hopefully in a full time sense and not just the road and street courses. Hopefully now, seeing the schedule, there’s only three ovals. I hope we can just put it together with one car and one ride, one team. But, I’m still willing to do anything.”
Daly, could also take his funding back to Andretti and take over the 26 too. But, it sounds to me as if he’d like to just stay put at ECR.
If he doesn’t, Castroneves or Montoya may get a look. Team owner Ed Carpenter said back in August that he would absolutely take a look at Castroneves.
“I would never rule it out,” Carpenter said of Castroneves joining the team. “I think Helio is an amazing talent. I’m not going to knock a guy for his age, being old myself. We’re similar in age, although I think he’s a couple years older than me.
“I know that the passion is still there for him. It wasn’t his decision fully, I don’t think, to be a full-time sports car driver at this point. His heart has been in INDYCAR the whole time. I’ve had friendly discussions with him just as a friend over his time in sports cars.
“If there’s an opportunity, I would 100% be in interested in working with a guy like Helio. I know he wants to add his name to the list of four-time winners. He’s going to be motivated for that for a while.”
For Andretti, I don’t see Marco firing himself so as long as he wants to still be full time, I can see him back in the 98. Rossi and Herta are back in their rides. Gainbridge is back but will they stay on the 26 car or move to Herta’s 88 car? James Hinchcliffe is trying hard to come back to Andretti but nothing is set yet. The 26 car may not be in the cards for him but there’s another path too stay though. If DHL doesn’t return to the 28, then Ryan Hunter-Reay may be gone which paves a path for someone else. Some have said Santino Ferrucci, but that appears to be gone now.
“I’m pretty much set to be back,” Ferrucci told me on his contract status for 2021. “Obviously waiting on a couple more things and Dale. I want to be back. I want to be back with the same team, same crew, same engineering. I really think that we can do something big.”
If Ferrucci says, then they have one seat open with Alex Palou a free agent too. If Ferrucci bolts last minute, then DCR has two seats available.
But, back to Andretti. They’ll need funding from whomever but have Gainbridge there too. Montoya, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Oliver Askew, VeeKay or anyone else intriguing would be a good fit there.
Carlin and Foyt will likely be the last dominos but they can do so because look at the talent pool available. Not all of those drivers above will land somewhere and some may still have some funding left to take to Carlin or Foyt too.