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Even without racing, IndyCar has a busy 2017-’18 offseason ahead

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So, there’s been a full week now complete since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended at Sonoma Raceway. The offseason is now underway.

Almost all the first round of pieces have been written or filmed in the wake of Josef Newgarden’s popular first championship, achieved in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Meanwhile official news has been sparse, but figures to intensify in the coming weeks as teams need to fill seats.

And with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit now set for its final test in INDYCAR’s hands on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway’s short course – the closest thing IndyCar has to a street course simulation – testing the new car will be a major topic over the months ahead.

Here’s what’s on tap for IndyCar’s offseason ahead:

TESTING, TESTING, 1…2…3…

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

As noted above, tomorrow marks the final day INDYCAR will run the testing program of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit at Sebring’s short course, before the new kits and cars are delivered to manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet for the next couple months of testing.

Team Penske (Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda, Oriol Servia) have operated the cars but with INDYCAR itself dictating the testing program through the first three tests done in July and August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (super speedway), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) and Iowa Speedway (short oval).

From here, Chevrolet and Honda have six tests each with the car through mid-November, before team testing begins in January, 2018. Teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet) will be those running the cars as part of the manufacturer testing program.

Part of the reason Spencer Pigot was confirmed by ECR as early as he was for 2018 was so that he could be part of this degree of manufacturer testing, and that’s good news for him in his development process. Pigot has already excelled driving one new car when it was introduced – the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in its first season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – and will now have his first full offseason to do IndyCar testing of its new car. Pigot has also helped to develop sports cars for Mazda in its prototype program the last couple years. Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, will have a key role to play for Chevrolet’s testing in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday at Sebring.

Ganassi has only formally confirmed Scott Dixon as part of its 2018 lineup so any new driver would be testing later, once confirmed. Ganassi managing director Mike Hull outlined the testing process over the coming months below.

2018 SCHEDULE RELEASE IMMINENT

The good news for Verizon IndyCar Series fans is that most of the 2018 IndyCar calendar is known already, via dates released either from tracks themselves or other series set to compete at said tracks.

The lone hold-up for the full release, which was expected out this week but NBC Sports now understands will be held a bit further, is whether Mexico will be added as an 18th race along with the 17 races set to return next year.

Given that country’s situation with its massive 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 and its associated aftershocks, it’s not a shock that the country has slightly bigger issues to press on with at the moment.

And the good news we’ve discovered in our talks with INDYCAR officials is that we’re heading into a schedule release without a large number of lingering questions. The schedule stability and date equity assembled over the last couple years has been a welcome contrast to the fluidity in years previous.

Along with the 2018 schedule, movement on IndyCar’s future TV direction and entitlement sponsorship are likely to be big items behind-the-scenes at the INDYCAR offices. The current TV contract with NBCSN and ABC ends after 2018, as does Verizon’s tenure as title sponsor.

OFFICIAL CONFIRMATIONS AT/OF CERTAIN TEAMS

Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series field is set for 2018 (silly season update one, post-Mid-Ohio and two, during Sonoma). There are 13 driver/team combinations made official thus far:

  • 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 (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 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 Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Beyond that, there are a wealth of “all but official” scenarios including:

  • James Hinchcliffe all but set to stay with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Tony Kanaan set to move to Foyt
  • Ed Jones planning to re-up with Coyne
  • Max Chilton, Carlin announcing a likely step-up
  • Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing locking down its program
  • Brendon Hartley moving from sports cars into Ganassi
  • Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirming his team choice

What that means on Sept. 25 is that realistically there’s only three or four rides for 2018 yet to be determined if all those “all but official” scenarios become official in the coming weeks. Those would be the second seats at SPM and Foyt, the likely second seat at Carlin and the road/street course seat at Carpenter.

Like Harding and Carlin, Juncos Racing is also poised to run at least some IndyCar races, but whether it’s a full-season remains to be seen. And like Carlin and Juncos, there’s a wealth of Indy Lights drivers keen to make their way into IndyCar.

As it is, the fact most of the IndyCar grid is known or almost set before October 1 – even if many programs haven’t been officially announced – is both rare and awesome to see at the same time. Teams need as much time to test their drivers with the new kits in the offseason, and so there’s been a mad rush to get next year locked down ASAP.

It seems hard to believe, but the days of “TBA” appearing on an IndyCar entry list days before St. Petersburg may be at an end.

HELIO’S OFFICIALLY UNOFFICIAL SWAN SONG

What a couple weeks it’s been for Helio Castroneves. Despite yet another top-five finish in the championship, Castroneves’ Sonoma race felt like a goodbye to full-time competition in IndyCar, especially as he thanked members of the media in the race’s aftermath.

Still, reports emerged heading into the weekend a fourth car full-time with Team Penske was still on the table. And partners Hitachi and Pennzoil also tweeted about Castroneves and his excellent season, which Castroneves re-tweeted.

Castroneves has tested Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 sports car last week (video below) and his departure from full-time driving in IndyCar seems all but inevitable at this point.

Despite Castroneves’ best efforts, it appears as though he’s had his swan song. He’ll be an asset to the Penske Acura program provided he winds up there, but IndyCar would feel his loss on the full-time grid. He’s been someone to appreciate for 20 years, the last 18 at Team Penske.

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OTHER INDYCAR DRIVERS IN SPORTS CARS

With Motul Petit Le Mans set for October 7, at least three IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay – will be in action at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Road Atlanta. Dixon and Bourdais will be third drivers in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Hunter-Reay will be third driver in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, with the Taylor brothers.

Petit Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona always offer up a bevy of IndyCar drivers making guest appearances in sports car land. The latter event, with Team Penske premiering the aforementioned Acura ARX-05 there, figures to have a wealth of IndyCar interest – and quite likely IndyCar drivers – split among its two cars.

WHAT OFFSEASON FUN, ANTICS ARE IN STORE?

Last year, IndyCar had James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” to carry it through the offseason.

Some of the other items IndyCar has released in recent years included Damien Power’s offbeat “Exclusive: Behind the Scenes” interview series with drivers in 2015 and “The Offseason” digital shorts as modeled after NBC’s “The Office.”

There’s usually some degree of entertainment, fun and games that emerges from the IndyCar offices over the offseason and what the creative minds there come up with will be interesting to see.

Or, there’s always more Visor Cam, which was utilized in-race this year starting at the Indianapolis 500 through to the Sonoma finale. Thanks to IMS Productions, this was one of racing’s coolest innovations in years. Considering how much testing is scheduled, some more Visor Cam would easily satisfy the appetite of the IndyCar fan base heading into the five or six-month period without IndyCar racing.

MRTI’S OFFSEASON PLANS

We’ll have more on this separately, but the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires also has a bit to look forward to this offseason. The two key items are the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, the traditional event that takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course October 20-22, and the delivery and debut for teams with the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series. Some teams have taken delivery of those now in anticipation of running next month.

Driver movement will also be afoot there as the next generation of IndyCar drivers seek to position themselves for 2019 and beyond.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500