INDIANAPOLIS — One driver has 31 Road to Indy victories. The other has two. One driver won all three championships in as many seasons coming through the ladder. The other has none. So, how did the driver who won the 2021 Indy Lights championship with $1.3-million in scholarship money not land a ride with the same team that he and the other driver drove for this past season?
That’s the question of the day but Michael Andretti states that the plan for Devlin DeFrancesco was for him going to a seat with their NTT IndyCar Series team all along.
“It was a long-range plan. It wasn’t something that we just came up with overnight,” Andretti said of why DeFrancesco and why now. “We’ve had this planned out a few years ago. It was more basically just following the plan.”
Andretti, also said that in the tests that DeFrancesco has done for them, that this car is going to suit his style so he can be competitive even if he wasn’t as much in Indy Lights in comparison to Kirkwood.
“He’s a very aggressive style, which I think in Indy Lights probably was not as good for his driving style, but I think INDYCAR you have to be very aggressive, and he is, and I think that’s why if you saw, he was actually quicker than Kyle Kirkwood in the last test on the same day,” he continued. “That says something because everybody rates Kyle.
“For him to go out and go quicker than Kyle I thought was really great there at a very tough track, too. Barber is not an easy racetrack.
“I’m very excited about this, and I think Dev is going to turn a lot of heads this year.”
Also, part of the other plan was maybe for Kirkwood to be in the No. 26 Honda anyways. See, Andretti was after an F1 team and talks were down the line of that happening. If it did in fact occur for 2022, then Colton Herta was going to be his lead driver and Kirkwood would have shifted into Herta’s seat as a result.
“Yeah, that was the plan,” said Andretti.
“Well, obviously if we do ever get a team, he would lead the way for us in terms of wanting to bring an American driver,” said Andretti of Herta in the F1 talks. “He’d be the perfect guy to do it. Yeah, I mean, we definitely were going to try to get him into the seat because I believe he could be a competitive driver in Europe. I really do. There’s no reason why he wouldn’t.”
So, that leads back to the elephant in the room on why the deal didn’t happen?
“It had nothing to do with financials or anything like that,” he said. “It was more having to do with control issues, and unfortunately at the 11th hour, control issues changed, and it was a deal that we had to step away from because we couldn’t accept it. I always said that we’re only going to do it if it’s right for us, and in the end it wasn’t right for us.
“Yeah, I mean, I think I’d just like to put an end to some of these rumors that the deal fell through because of financial reasons. That couldn’t be further from the truth. That had nothing to do with that. It basically came down to control issues in the final hours of the negotiations. That’s what killed the deal.
“I’ve always said if the deal is not right, we’re not going to do it, and in the end it wasn’t right. So we continue to look for other opportunities.”
As far as those control issues, it came down to controlling the team. He would be buying the team as a majority owner but not making any owner decisions. Why do that? So he didn’t which led to Herta saying, Alexander Rossi being under contract for 2022, Romain Grosjean replacing Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 Honda and DeFrancesco’s plan staying the same all along.
So, what do they do about Kirkwood then. Andretti held an option for him until Midnight on Nov. 1. Once Halloween officially ended, Kirkwood was free to look elsewhere. He left the door open with wanting to return to Andretti still, but Andretti admits that it’s not likely going to happen.
“Probably not next year,” he said. “Definitely we’re going to be watching him for the future. Unfortunately the way things ended, there wasn’t room for him, but I can assure you that he’s a star of the future, and we’re definitely going to be watching him. Hopefully down the road there could be an opportunity to get him back in the family.”
Some may say, why not run a fifth car then?
Well, we’re basically capped at 36 cars/engine packages. In 2021, each manufacturer had 18 engines provided. With new regulations coming out in 2023, I don’t see either planning to spend the amount of money that it’s going to take to expand on that to 19-20 or even more engines available.
So, while the intention is out there for several teams, I just don’t see how it will work to grow this past 36 total cars next year on the engine front. Then you have the demand for people too. There’s just not enough good crew members, engineers, etc to hire. The good ones are already on teams and the ones who aren’t will soon be.
In terms of the Honda front, Andretti has four now (Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean, Devlin DeFrancesco). Chip Ganassi Racing is at four at the moment (Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson, Tony Kanaan/Jimmie Johnson) but is after a fifth which will obviously happen should Johnson want to run the Indy 500 and all signs are pointing to that happening. RLL is now a three car effort (Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard), Meyer Shank Racing is a two car outfit (Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud) and Dale Coyne Racing has the other three.
That’s 17 engines spoken for. With one left. Andretti could get that fifth, but they need money and Kirkwood doesn’t have enough of it.
Andretti ran six cars last year but due to Honda needing an engine to go to Ganassi for Johnson, they have to scale back to five. They also have Marco Andretti wanting to run the Indy 500 but don’t have a car or funding at the right moment to make it happen if they have Kirkwood or anybody else run it. How do you make this all work?
So, that pushes Kirkwood unfortunately out which is why this is a tough call for Andretti because you are letting a guy of Kirkwood’s caliber get away and he may find a destination and never come back. You had guys like Pato O’Ward, Oliver Askew and Kirkwood in house and now there could be a path where all three come back to haunt you.
They’re not in the wrong for going after Grosjean for one seat, keeping Herta and Rossi and staying on plan for DeFrancesco. I mean, why not? With what Grosjean didwith DCR this past year, who’s to say he can’t be like Alex Palou and have a championship type season in 2022? They desperately need that. Grosjean, Herta and Alexander Rossi is a great lineup with DeFrancesco potentially being a star. The thing is, what happens if DeFrancesco doesn’t pan out and Grosjean is only there a couple of years? Now what?
This is a situation that reminds me of what Hendrick Motorsports went through a little over a decade ago. HMS could have rolled out a driver lineup in 2010 of Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Instead, the cut ties with Busch, didn’t have room for Keselowski and had Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in those cars.
At the time, I get those moves. Busch was a hot tempered driver that many feared his attitude would get in the way of his talent. He and HMS just didn’t jive. Martin, was a good replacement. Then you get someone like Earnhardt Jr. for 2008. Why would you immediately replace him with his protégé of Keselowski? You’re not dropping Gordon or Johnson and you had just signed Martin and Earnhardt Jr. That meant Keselowski was squeezed out and ended up falling into the lap of Team Penske.
The Martin move initially panned out. He won five times in 2009. The problem is, he and Earnhardt’s stats declined as the years went on. Martin, went winless in the No. 5 Chevrolet 2010 and 2011. He retired before the 2012 season. Earnhardt Jr. won in 2008 but didn’t win again until 2012.
Johnson and Gordon kept things afloat, but with the signing of Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt not really ever being a championship front runner, HMS found themselves in trouble.
Gordon retired. Then did Earnhardt. Kahne didn’t pan out. Johnson’s stats started falling off. Chevrolet as a whole was struggling and HMS had an identity crisis. It was time to get younger but in doing so, you’re going to compromise results.
That’s exactly what happened. But, it also led them also to where they are today with a record breaking season for them a two cars in the Championship 4.
Andretti has had a similar path. They had Pato O’Ward, Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood under their umbrella in Indy Lights. When we show up to the grid at St. Pete next February, there’s a very real chance that all three are competing against them in INDYCAR.
O’Ward is already a championship favorite with Arrow McLaren SP. He was in the hunt to win the championship in each of the last two years heading to the season finale. He started off in the second Harding car but the funding never materialized and off he went to Carlin, then overseas and now back with AMSP.
Askew went to AMSP last year because AA had no room for him either.
Situations have played out to lead Andretti to where they are which is very similar to where HMS was a decade ago.
DeFrancesco could have a lot of talent. The team seems to think so. I’m not a racing scout so I can’t tell you one way or the other. I don’t primarily cover much of the Indy Pro 2000 and I don’t think it’s fair to judge him off of just one year in Indy Lights, so I can’t give you facts on what I’ve seen of him.
AA can’t afford to punt on too many years of trying to figure this out. What if the F1 deal come around next year and Herta bolts that direction? What if Rossi says enough is enough and leaves after next year is done for a new team? What if Grosjean doesn’t go past 2023 or 2024? What if DeFrancesco doesn’t pan out?
There’s a chance that if those scenarios happen, then Andretti could have wasted the last few years and then going against Rossi, O’Ward, and Kirkwood at the very least for a championship with an open house.
For now, they hope that’s not the case.
“Huge relief. It’s actually — we’re basically on multiyear deals, as well, which is the first time in the history of the team that we’ve had that,” Andretti said on having his lineup shored up this early. “Normally at this time we don’t even have four cars wrapped up, but to have it multiyear is very exciting and I think really good for the team, to have that security so we can focus on different things and making our team better, not just trying to make sure we are race cars on the racetrack.”