Where does Stoffel Vandoorne feature in McLaren’s future?

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Amid all of the speculation about McLaren’s driver line-up for the 2015 Formula 1 season, Stoffel Vandoorne appears to be something of a forgotten man. The Belgian has quietly gone about his business during his rookie GP2 season, currently ranking third in the championship with two wins to his name, but where does he feature in the future of his parent team, McLaren?

The seats at Woking are currently coming under a great deal of scrutiny ahead of Honda’s return as an engine supplier in 2015. This new partnership is intended to take both brands back to their glory days of the late 1980s; a much needed change for McLaren after two disappointing seasons.

The phenomenon that is silly season has a tendency to circle around one team or driver. In 2012, it was Lewis Hamilton. 2013 saw Kimi Raikkonen take a turn as the center of attention. This time around, it’s McLaren and Fernando Alonso who share the honors: will they or won’t they join forces for 2015?

Alonso does have a firm contract with Ferrari for next season, but the Spaniard is rumored to have an out clause if the team finishes lower than third in the constructors’ championship. With Williams hot on the Italian marque’s heels, this could yet be triggered. Then again, other paddock speculation has suggested that he may be set for a huge pay rise to commit to the team. Luca di Montezemolo simultaneously denied both stories earlier this week.

It is common knowledge that both McLaren and Honda want a big name driver to spearhead their joint charge. What is unclear is whether or not both parties are willing to wait until 2016 to secure this. Next year may be a bit too soon to get Alonso or Sebastian Vettel – who has apparently been subject to an “outrageously high” offer – on board. There will be exclusivity, but there may also be the unavoidable teething problems that come with any new partnership.

The Alonso-to-McLaren rumor is one that I, like many, have been following closely for some time. Earlier this year, I confidently said that I was 95% sure that he wouldn’t race for the British team in 2015. I’m now a little less sure following conversations in the paddock, but if I had to put my money on a line-up at Woking for next year, it would still be for the same again: Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.

Beyond that? Who knows. However, Vandoorne will be hoping to make himself a firm part of the future of McLaren.

Like Magnussen, Stoffel is a McLaren junior that has been nurtured by the team for some time. The Belgian has impressed in every series that he has raced in, finishing second in last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship behind – of all people – Magnussen. For a rookie campaign, it was very impressive, but instead of gunning for glory in 2014, McLaren opted to move him across to GP2.

Vandoorne made a sensational start, winning on his debut in Bahrain, and has put in a number of impressive performances since then. When he claimed that win in Sakhir, many of the top figures at McLaren – Ron Dennis, Eric Boullier, Sam Michael – came down to the podium to congratulate him. Clearly, his stock within the team is high.

So surely the plan must be to replace Button with Vandoorne when the Briton opts to retire? It really does depend on how McLaren sees its future with Honda. Would it be worth spurning one of its proteges, either Magnussen or Vandoorne, for a few years with Alonso? Or a longer term deal with Vettel? Or perhaps even Valtteri Bottas? According to two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen, the Finn is also in McLaren’s sights.

It’s the issue of having ‘too much talent’ (if such a case exists). Last season, Sergio Perez was dumped by McLaren after just one season. Then-team principal Martin Whitmarsh tried to soften the blow by saying that if the team had three seats, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Checo has since gone on to Force India, and told us that the move was a ‘blessing in disguise’ earlier this year.

McLaren and Honda will need to sit down and decide the direction in which they want to take the team. Is it worth gambling on a big name to throw away a young and talented driver?

Whatever the team’s future, be sure to keep an eye on Stoffel Vandoorne. He has the makings of something very special.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.