IndyCar 2014 silly season update, round 2

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A few more pieces have fallen into place for IndyCar 2014, with the biggest remaining domino on the market, the fourth Chip Ganassi Racing seat, now filled today with Ryan Briscoe.

Here’s what we know since our last update immediately after Fontana:

CONFIRMED CARS (21)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (4 cars, Chevrolet): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball. Two former series champions and Indianapolis 500 winners, and four drivers with wins. A solid lineup, although Dixon’s the best of the lot.
  • Team Penske (3 cars, Chevrolet): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power. Montoya’s gotten several days testing in and is already up to speed. Meanwhile, Power is Vining and growing a mustache.
  • Andretti Autosport (4 cars, Honda): Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay. Munoz is confirmed although his number hasn’t been, but he’s worthy of the promotion from Indy Lights.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2 cars, Honda): Simon Pagenaud, Mikhail Aleshin. Team nomenclature changes depending on partners and Aleshin confirmed since last update, a potential surprise driver in 2014.
  • KVSH Racing (2 cars, Chevrolet): Sebastien Bourdais, TBD. No changes, second car up for grabs.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2 cars, Honda): Graham Rahal, TBD. Second car will require additional funding if the National Guard deal doesn’t come through, but may not if it does.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (1 car, Chevrolet): Mike Conway/Ed Carpenter. Ed does a great thing for the team with Conway addition; team a genuine contender on all circuits now.
  • Dale Coyne Racing (2 cars, Honda): Justin Wilson, TBD. His opportunity in a top-flight ride past for now yet again, so Wilson’s giant-killing display will have to occur once more. Francesco Dracone and Arie Luyendyk Jr. have tested the team’s second car, but neither appears a realistic full-season contender for that seat.
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (1 car, Honda): Josef Newgarden. Contract year for Josef and we’ll see how he develops.

ALL BUT OFFICIAL (1)

  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises: The Takuma Sato and Honda confirmations appear close to a formality at this point, even with Sato testing in Formula E.

LIKELY (1)

  • Barracuda Racing: Luca Filippi. Filippi seems to have the edge over JR Hildebrand at the moment, after we reported at Austin the Italian was close to a deal. But a signing does not seem imminent, as Hildebrand is still working on his own future. The team may need additional budget to close the gap for its first seat, and that could bring other drivers into the equation.

WILD CARDS (3)

  • Panther Racing: Will likely require a funded driver as team reorganizes over the offseason.
  • Dragon Racing: Per RACER.com, a likely Indianapolis-only entry for the month of May with the team’s full efforts focused on FIA Formula E.
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: Also per RACER.com, Dennis Reinbold’s team seeks a full-season return after a truncated 2013.

FREE AGENTS

  • 2013 full-timers: Simona de Silvestro and James Jakes have their pick of seats at the moment and backing to support their efforts. Tristan Vautier and Sebastian Saavedra, meanwhile, don’t seem likely to appear on the 2014 grid.
  • 2013 part-timers: Alex Tagliani’s best shot has closed at Ganassi and a move to sports cars full-time seems all but inevitable, although with what team and car remains to be seen. Oriol Servia, JR Hildebrand and the rest of the drivers through to P39 from 2013, who knows.
  • Potential rookies: Sage Karam would seem to figure into the equation, even with his available support, but windows are closing rapidly. His best chance went out the window when Schmidt signed Aleshin for the second seat. The same concern exists for Conor Daly, who’d be an invaluable addition to the field but might need to find further support to make that dream a reality. Other Indy Lights hopefuls – Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Stefan Wilson, Jack Hawksworth and on down the line – might need a Christmas miracle at this point. 

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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