After hectic July, 2018 IndyCar silly season kicks into high gear

What lies ahead for Kanaan, Hinchcliffe and more? Photo: Getty Images
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The first wave of Verizon IndyCar Series silly season chatter for 2018 has come over the last few races, and we’ll leave it to Mike Hull, Chip Ganassi Racing managing director, to give a primer on just how goofy it all is.

“I think it’s a little early to talk about it, but at Mid-Ohio, it seems everyone wants to talk about it! Everyone gathers around the silly season flag pole and starts talking about things.”

So rather than attempt to forecast who goes where, it might be easier to just outline the players and situations to follow in a silly season table-setter:

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #1 Team Penske Chevrolet and Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet drive during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LOCKS, OR NEAR LOCKS (9) 

Team Penske: Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Will Power

We know three of Roger Penske’s fearsome foursome will be back next year and despite Helio Castroneves driving as well as he ever has been, his future within IndyCar is questionable because of the incoming Penske Acura DPi IMSA program next year and the potential he could be shifted to that seat. Castroneves is working as hard as he can to postpone such a shift if possible, but it might be outside his control.

Chip Ganassi Racing: Scott Dixon

Dixon and Ganassi are joined at the hip and as the only one of Ganassi’s four drivers assured a return to the team at the moment, he’ll be leading the way.

Andretti Autosport: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti

Hunter-Reay and DHL signed long-term contract extensions at the end of last year and Andretti laughed off an erroneous report at Toronto suggesting he could be on the move, retorting to IndyCar Radio, “That’s the journalists doing as bad a job as I am doing on track.”

Dale Coyne Racing: Sebastien Bourdais

On a two-year contract, Bourdais will look for a refreshed full season in 2018 following his planned return to race competition at the tail end of this year.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter Racing: Ed Carpenter

Both have driven for teams that don’t bear their last name earlier in their careers. Not so much now.

THE REST OF THE DRIVERS CURRENTLY IN THE FIELD

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Castroneves’ future has become an unfortunate distraction and one wonders if he’ll be able to get back into it after successive tough finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio after his Iowa win.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, holds the keys to the driver market if he stays with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, where he’d continue as team leader, or seek to find a place elsewhere.

The last two Indianapolis 500 champions, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato’s status with Andretti Autosport is almost entirely (Rossi) and entirely (Sato) down to the team’s impending engine choice decision, whether it sticks with Honda or moves to Chevrolet. Sato’s longtime manager, Steve Fusek, told us this weekend they’re stuck in a holding pattern until they know where Andretti, the team, goes. An Andretti Autosport spokesperson told us this weekend they hope to have the engine decision made within the next couple weeks.

Ganassi’s remaining trio, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball all have varying degrees of budget which they could bring to a team, Ganassi or elsewhere. It would not be a surprise to see at least two of these three move on.

Mikhail Aleshin has endured a turbulent season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, even though the potential is there for him to succeed. It’s hard to see him returning next season, especially as Aleshin also has SMP Racing’s LMP1 development program to tend to.

Carpenter told us this weekend it’s a bit early to talk 2018, but he likes what Spencer Pigot has done; he just wishes his qualifying could be better. Pigot appears close at the moment to a full-season deal, with longtime supporter Art Wilmes of Rising Star Racing keen to make that goal a reality. JR Hildebrand has impressed on ovals but has struggled to recapture form on the road and street courses.

Pigot’s successor as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion, Ed Jones, is another intriguing prospect. The Dubai-based Brit has impressed all year at Dale Coyne Racing but like Pigot this year, won’t have the benefit of the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship at his disposal in 2018. That might make a return harder to forecast as he’ll have to find that additional budget. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez has spoken to several teams in recent weeks and figures to have the budget with which to bring somewhere.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises is another question mark with both its drivers, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz. Daly told us a couple weeks ago to look beyond the results and see the flashes of improvement as the drivers, engineers, engines and aero kits have all been new to the team – and those comments proved prescient after Daly’s best weekend to date this year at Mid-Ohio. Will it have come too late, though? Sponsor ABC Supply Co. is a big Daly fan but save for a few exceptions, neither his nor Munoz’s performances this year have blown the paddock away. Larry Foyt faces a tough call for how he moves forward; a change here would mean yet another reset.

NEW OR RETURNING KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Harding and Juncos seem the two likeliest to step up for more races in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

The combination of Juncos Racing, Harding Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Michael Shank Racing and Carlin give IndyCar five new realistic potential entrants – and with McLaren having dipped its toes back in the water for this year’s Indianapolis 500 – another Indy-only team at least.

That’s exciting news for a series down to eight full-time teams at the start of the year. But how many can really move into IndyCar for 2018?

With equipment at their disposal, Juncos, Harding and DRR have a leg up over the other two teams. Shank ran an Andretti chassis, but with the Shank crew, this year at Indianapolis while Carlin is yet to make its IndyCar debut.

Juncos and Kyle Kaiser would make sense to continue with a step up together as Kaiser has grown by leaps and bounds under the team’s tutelage. With the $1 million scholarship available if Kaiser wins the Indy Lights title, it’d aid a step-up for both parties in at least a partial season, and potentially full-season entry.

Harding has Gabby Chaves under contract for another year and has a second chassis at its disposal.

DRR and Sage Karam have been tied at the hip for three of four years, but would Karam leave a factory sports car seat with Lexus to make a return to IndyCar in a lower pressure atmosphere? DRR’s also got its GRC Lites program at the moment.

For Shank, getting a sports car program locked down is first priority, and for Carlin, the step up will only come if all the pieces are there. Carlin lacks equipment at the moment but could well make the step up given the free agent drivers available.

THE NEXT ROUND OF POTENTIAL DRIVERS

Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Looking within the IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy paddocks first, there’s several interesting candidates of note here.

Felix Rosenqvist is the most intriguing, but he may not be available. Until his Formula E future is decided – he impressed with Mahindra Racing this year en route to third in the championship – we don’t know yet if he can work within an IndyCar context. FE has released its 2017-2018 schedule while IndyCar is yet to release its.

Sebastian Saavedra hasn’t done his reputation any harm this year with two impressive drives for Juncos Racing (Indianapolis 500) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Toronto), in two different manufacturers and circuits. Still only 27 and more mature now, he could make yet another comeback if Gary Peterson of AFS Racing can find a suitable partner. Alternatively, they could look to a full-time IMSA program.

It was nice to see RC Enerson back in an IndyCar paddock at the track where he dazzled on debut last year with Dale Coyne Racing. Though his driving has been limited this year, Enerson is known to be on several team’s radars. At 20, he’s already known for a smooth driving style and good feedback.

Zach Veach could enter the full-time frame next year. The Ohio native has kept a lower profile since his Indianapolis 500 debut with Foyt, and after a successful fill-in role with Carpenter, which hints he may have something in the works.

Another of the Indy 500 rookies was Jack Harvey, who’s hoping to make at least one more start this year (Sonoma has been rumored) to parlay himself back into full-time seat consideration next year. Harvey’s been active within the paddock this year as a driver coach with Carlin.

Matthew Brabham’s name was mentioned earlier this year but he’s risking falling into the “out of sight, out of mind” territory. The talented Australian American has focused primarily on his Stadium SUPER Trucks season.

Of current Indy Lights drivers, it’s hard to see many of them ready for IndyCar next year. Santiago Urrutia is close after two seasons but would need budgetary help. Both Colton Herta and Matheus Leist look intriguing, but could do with a second year of seasoning in the series. Some of the other series veterans there, frankly, would be surprises.

There’s also the veterans with recent IndyCar experience – the James Davisons and Tristan Vautiers of the world – to consider. And then there’s the driver who could be very highly in demand, Oriol Servia, as he’s conducted testing in the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit for IndyCar.

Outside the paddock, recent sports car announcements could shift some of those drivers into frame, and look at coming over to America. It’s worth noting Pipo Derani and Robert Wickens have tested for SPM this year.

Oh, and Fernando Alonso? Until we know where his F1 future sits, and his decision comes around September, it’s not yet worth discussing – even though he’s expressed interest.

FOLLOW THE ENGINE NUMBERS

This year, Honda (13 cars) and Chevrolet (8) have been out of balance. Will that number tilt closer to an equal balance in 2018?

How the silly season plays out will in large part come down to math and available number of engine leases.

A reduction from any or all of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti – which run 4 cars apiece this year – open the options for other teams to expand, or for new teams to make their engine selection. An Andretti shift to Chevrolet would tilt the “bow tie” number there up, before any teams shift or adjust their numbers.

RLL is working toward a second car, so that’d be another Honda, while Juncos and Harding are both strongly linked to Chevrolet.

THERE’S STILL A LOT TO PLAY OUT

Whether it’s gossip, excitement or speculation all in the works, the silly season in IndyCar is underway. The question is whether it will supersede the on-track activity the final couple months of 2017, as the series heads into the final four races before crowning a champion.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”