SONOMA, Calif. – The rumors are starting to turn into releases about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series grid, as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
With the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming to teams and with teams going to be testing over the fall, following the completion of INDYCAR-run testing at Sebring on Sept. 26, it’s become significantly more important for teams to finalize their programs earlier than ever.
Here’s a look at how the grid is shaping up, in a Sonoma update (post-Mid-Ohio update here):
- Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
- Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
- Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Graham Rahal
- Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
- Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
- Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
New here in the last few weeks or so have been the quartet of young Americans, with Rossi (just before Watkins Glen), Pigot and Veach (just before Sonoma) all locked up. That means of the 13 officially confirmed driver/team combinations, nine of them are American drivers. Another new inclusion is Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who will also have at least three races in IndyCar thanks to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at $1 million.
Additionally, both Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have re-upped with Honda for multi-year agreements. The Andretti new contract with Honda put a stop to any potential other engine movement dominos.
On Friday at Sonoma, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr confirmed as much when he said all five of its teams from 2017 are under contract for 2018. Contracts are staggered, he said, that all five teams will not be up for renewal simultaneously.
PROGRESSING, CLOSE, OR ALL BUT OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED
- Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
- Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (1, Honda): James Hinchcliffe
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Takuma Sato
- A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet), Tony Kanaan
- Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Ed Jones
- Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet), Gabby Chaves
Based on reports primarily from RACER and Motorsport.com as well as our own investigating over the last few weeks since our post-Mid-Ohio update, these entries seem close-ish if not outright official yet.
The plan has appeared to shift for Castroneves from his potential sports car shift for Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPi program to a fourth Team Penske IndyCar after all (first reported from Motorsport.com here). While no formal announcement about his future will be made until after this weekend, Castroneves in a Penske IndyCar now seems a more viable possibility than it did for most of the summer – and may mean this won’t be his final bow as a full-time driver after all.
Hinchcliffe’s options to move away from SPM have seemed to close in recent weeks, and he realistically has nowhere else at a similar caliber top team he can go. As of mid-week no contract had yet been signed, but all signs point to a return here.
Meanwhile Sato will be jumping ship from Andretti to RLL – even though neither party can confirm it until after Sonoma – and Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi ends so he is set to become the veteran with Foyt, after their year with a pair of young guns.
Jones appears close to a renewal with Dale Coyne Racing and Coyne told NBC Sports in the paddock today that he is hoping to finalize the second car “within a couple weeks.” The Dubai-based Brit is known to have some funding, but will need to find enough to offset the loss of the Indy Lights championship scholarship, valued at $1 million from Mazda, he brought this year.
While Chaves and Harding are all-but-a-lock, there’s always a tinge of doubt with new programs. The team could theoretically add a second driver with budget as the team has two cars.
- Chip Ganassi Racing (seats 2 and/or 3)
- Carlin (seats 1 and/or 2)
- Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (seat 2)
- A.J. Foyt Enterprises (seat 2)
- Ed Carpenter Racing (seat 2, road/street courses)
- Juncos Racing (seat 1)
Ganassi’s non-Dixon trio of Max Chilton, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball has been anticipated to leave over the last couple months. While RACER linked Porsche LMP1 driver Brendon Hartley to Ganassi’s second seat, eRacing365 reported on the same day that Hartley said he was looking at a Formula E seat. If the latter scenario developed, it’d leave Hartley in the same spot as Felix Rosenqvist, locked into a Formula E contract.
Chilton is expected to head to Carlin, the Trevor Carlin-run team which is owned by Chilton’s father Grahame. The identity of his teammate, provided Carlin enters into the series with two cars, is less clear. Kimball makes sense although his degree of budget with longtime partner Novo Nordisk could be reduced. Carlin could be in the frame for an Indianapolis shop if it steps up; the team’s Indy Lights operation is based in Delray Beach, Fla. And with Ed Carpenter Racing confirming it will be moving shops at year’s end, this provides a potential entry point for Carlin into Speedway if a deal is struck.
SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt has told multiple outlets a “short list” of some “28 drivers” are under consideration for his second seat. All the while, the team delivered a rather random third car announcement for next year’s Indianapolis 500, for French sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy with the Calmels Sport team. Drivers ranging from sports car veterans to Hinchcliffe’s Canadian countryman Robert Wickens to SPM’s 2016 Indy Lights driver, Santiago Urrutia, are among the contenders for the highly coveted seat.
Foyt is known to be evaluating both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz for the second seat there, alongside at least one or two other young guns with recent IndyCar experience.
Quite who lands in Carpenter’s second seat for road and street course races is less clear. A reflective JR Hildebrand won’t be a candidate following Pigot’s promotion into the full-time No. 21 car.
Ricardo Juncos is set for anywhere from three to five races at the least as he steps up further beyond his pair of MRTI programs. Graduating with Kaiser would be a natural, but that’s not to say Kaiser might not be looking elsewhere – he is here at Sonoma and making the rounds this weekend.
DRIVERS LOOKING TO FIND A SEAT
The list of 2017 drivers without a ride confirmed yet includes those already mentioned in the first few categories: Hildebrand, Daly, Munoz, Chilton, Kimball, and Jones.
Jack Harvey joined Veach in the “Indy Lights graduates making limited 2017 starts” club and worked to push through some issues that hampered his weekends. He’s known to be looking at a couple different team situations.
Then there’s Esteban Gutierrez and Sebastian Saavedra to consider. Gutierrez’s budget amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to, but if the series adds a Mexico City round, Gutierrez is a must-have for the field, certainly for that race and preferably the full season. Talk though that he might be with one of the top teams has cooled, and with Michael Andretti now unlikely to run a fifth car full-season beyond the Indianapolis 500, he may not wind up there as was possible. Saavedra was his usual serviceable self in a handful of races with Juncos and SPM that put his name back on the map.
Recent veteran drivers that raced once or twice in 2017 include Oriol Servia, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier and James Davison, but none seems to be on the real radar of a full-time seat. Servia’s development savvy – particularly given his work on the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit – and guidance to a young gun is once again being overlooked.
We ran through the Indy Lights contenders a week or so ago, with Urrutia and Zachary Claman DeMelo both making the most noise about their desire to graduate. Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in RLL Racing’s second car and wants to step up in 2018, although wouldn’t rule out an Indy Lights return. Meanwhile Urrutia and Matheus Leist are among the young guns here this weekend in a visiting role.
RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham have had the unfortunate distinction of impressing in limited 2016 starts but failing to secure a follow-up opportunity this year, although both have made sporadic appearances at races throughout the year, including Enerson here at Sonoma this weekend.