Analysis: Carpenter, Fisher merger beneficial; also puts single-car teams on notice

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In a Verizon IndyCar Series world where several teams have acronyms – CGR, SPM, KVSH, BHA and RLL to name but a few – there’s been another new acronym added to the lexicon as of this weekend, with the announcement of CFH Racing for 2015.

C in this case is not for cookie, but for Ed Carpenter; the F for Sarah Fisher and the H for Fisher’s team co-owner Wink Hartman, who formalized their partnership going forward this weekend.

It means the end of the road for ECR (Ed Carpenter Racing) and SFHR (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) as separate entities after this season’s finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

The process of merging the teams makes a lot of sense on paper, and at first reaction should be a general positive for both organizations.

Fisher and Carpenter are throwbacks in a sense; they have ties to the previous all-oval era of the IndyCar series, and both grew up racing short track and dirt track ovals before they made their debuts in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

Since then, their driving commitments have scaled back. Fisher stepped out of the cockpit of her own team after 2010 to focus on family and business; Carpenter’s full-time driving career was temporarily halted in 2010 but then reborn, a bit, when he drove for Fisher’s team in 2011. Together, they won their first race at Kentucky Speedway, in a popular upset triumph over Dario Franchitti.

Carpenter branched out on his own to form ECR in 2012, with Fisher then bringing Hartman in as team co-owner that year, and the team signing Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden to a three-year deal.

Both teams stand at the crossroads in 2014, which is why the move makes sense now.

For Carpenter this year, he opted in the best interest of his team, thinking in a business sense, to bring in a road/street course ace in the form of Mike Conway. And Conway’s delivered with a pair of wins in Long Beach and Toronto; Carpenter, with a win of his own at Texas, has won on his own.

Fisher, meanwhile, has continuously struggled to garner and maintain a primary sponsor for each of Newgarden’s three seasons beyond a handful of one-off races. Hartman, who’s provided financial stability for the team for three years, can’t continue to do this forever on his own.

So, we’re partying like it’s 2011 all over again as these two come together. Newgarden, a free agent, has impressed this year and the potential of him being part of this at least two-car operation is a good one.

Here’s Carpenter and Fisher, in separate interviews with MotorSportsTalk, on how they plan to move forward from here, with Carpenter offering a bit more insight:

“I don’t know if we envisioned (a second car) it happening like this, but we’re excited. We have a lot of respect for one another. It was a group effort to bring us together,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter admitted this came together “relatively quickly” but was born of discussions they’d had for years.

“You have all sorts of discussions, but this happened relatively quickly,” Carpenter said. “Going back to the 2013 season even, it didn’t really make sense with where each team was, with certain contracts. I don’t think either of us were interested back then. The stars are aligning right now.”

Fisher added, “We’re only going to get stronger from here.”

Both spoke highly of Newgarden.

“Josef has been so great for us as an organization, and we’re still working to keep him. We’ve built a stellar team,” Fisher said.

Carpenter added, “I think Josef’s a really special talent. I’ve been so impressed with how he has developed on a single car team. I hope we can get a deal done with Josef. I think I can help him a lot on the ovals. Hopefully Mike or whoever can come through on the streets too. But all of that is just speculation right now.”

The things to iron out from here, of course, are personnel, engine manufacturers, sponsorship and moving shops. It promises to be a busy time period and in some respects, having a “longer” offseason should help.

If there is a cautionary tale in this story though, it’s that single-car teams in IndyCar may soon be on borrowed time.

With this merger, it leaves just three teams who have fielded a single car full-time in 2014: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Bryan Herta Autosport.

Both RLL (National Guard) and BHA (Integrity Energee Drink) will have lost their primary sponsor by the end of the season. Foyt, fortunately, has enjoyed a healthy, long-term relationship with ABC Supply Co., and frequently mentions the possibility of a second full-time car.

Still though, the merger reduces the number of full-time teams from 11 to 10, and it also combines two of the three newest teams in the sport. Fisher founded her own team in 2008 and Carpenter in 2012; Herta’s team made its IndyCar debut in 2010.

The long-term problem IndyCar faces, if not the existing teams gaining more cars, is that there don’t appear to be any new teams entering on the horizon. And from that standpoint, it creates a domino effect where fewer seats become available, and fewer drivers get chances. The ones who do, as ever, largely need to bring budget.

Newgarden is now the last Indy Lights champion with staying power. Tristan Vautier got only one season before his funding ran out and Sage Karam has had only one appearance, this year’s Indianapolis 500.

So in this offseason, the CFH Racing announcement should serve as a wakeup call to the business model of sustainability for smaller teams in IndyCar, but it appears to be a boon for the organization in most aspects.

Hamilton leads damp first USGP practice at COTA, Hartley debuts

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Lewis Hamilton continued his impressive Formula 1 record at the Circuit of The Americas by topping opening practice for the United States Grand Prix on Friday for Mercedes.

A four-time winner of the USGP at COTA, Hamilton set the pace in damp conditions in first practice after rain hit the Austin area in the lead-up to the start of the session.

After initially venturing out on intermediate tires, Hamilton made the switch to super-softs at the halfway point in FP1, ultimately posting a fastest time of 1:36.335.

Hamilton’s time saw him finish over half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who he could beat to the F1 drivers’ championship at COTA this weekend should results go his way.

Mercedes got two cars into the top three as Valtteri Bottas wound up third in the second W08 car, six-tenths back from Hamilton, while Max Verstappen ended FP1 fourth for Red Bull.

Felipe Massa led Williams into the top 10 with an impressive lap en route to fifth, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was left to lead McLaren’s charge after a hydraulic leak sidelined Fernando Alonso for much of the session, limiting the Spaniard to just four laps in total.

Force India managed to get both its drivers up into the top 10 as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished eighth and ninth respectively, edging out Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. who was P10 in his first appearance for the team.

Brendon Hartley enjoyed his first run-out in Toro Rosso’s STR12 car ahead of his grand prix debut on Sunday, taking P14 overall.

The New Zealander had not driven an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 2012, but put in a solid first display in practice, even though his race hopes are set to be hindered by a grid penalty.

Second practice for the United States Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET today.