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Hartley’s continued F1 bow throws quick curveball to Indy silly season

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Yesterday’s confirmation that Brendon Hartley would be in the second Scuderia Toro Rosso race seat for at least the next Formula 1 race in Mexico this weekend does build the case that his eventual switch into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 isn’t yet solidified.

Although no one from Chip Ganassi Racing has confirmed it publicly, there’s been enough chatter among IndyCar insiders within the paddock that Hartley is destined for that team’s second seat next season alongside four-time champion Scott Dixon, in what would be an all-Kiwi lineup to counter Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ all-Canadian pairing and Andretti Autosport’s all-American quartet.

However, such a confirmation appears delayed because of the now greater possibility that Hartley’s F1 career could continue past this brief 2017 cameo.

If it did, there would be ripple effects to come, and suddenly a guy who hasn’t made his IndyCar debut is the domino that triggers what’s left of IndyCar silly season.

Essentially there’s two scenarios at play, so let’s forecast them here:

HARTLEY COMES TO INDYCAR, AND DOESN’T GET F1 SEAT

If Hartley is confirmed at Ganassi, it lessens the likelihood of significant movement in the other remaining seats. Beyond the No. 10 Honda, there are three “official” seats and anywhere from two to three “unofficial” seats still standing for 2018.

Those remaining “official” seats are the three cars that raced in 2017 but whose 2018 plans aren’t solidified: the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, No. 4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet and No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet for road and street courses. The two or three “unofficial” seats would be one or two at Carlin, provided Trevor Carlin’s team makes a step up from Indy Lights (although they weren’t present at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and perhaps a second seat at Harding Racing, which has been rumored in recent weeks.

Incumbents Ed Jones and Conor Daly are rumored to be favorites at the Coyne and Foyt seats at this juncture, while Carpenter’s road and street course seat is a wild card. Carlos Munoz has said he’s out of Foyt, leaving the team in a Daly-or-bust situation if it’s to retain one of its two 2017 drivers.

Among others, RC Enerson is believed to be exploring his options to make a comeback into the series after his impressive three-race cameo the end of 2016.

Carlin is earmarked for Max Chilton in at least one seat but whether Charlie Kimball would come along with him seems a question mark based on what NBC Sports is hearing about the amount of potential budget he could bring to a program.

Or…

IF HARTLEY GETS 2018 F1 SEAT, SUDDENLY IT ALL CHANGES

Hartley signs for fans in Austin. Photo: Getty Images

So beyond Mexico there’s two more Formula 1 races – and for that matter two more FIA World Endurance Championship races – for Hartley to complete this year.

After Mexico, he’ll go to China for the FIA WEC penultimate round of the season on November 5, and then in succession if he got the F1 slot for the final two races he’d come back to the Americas with the Brazilian Grand Prix on November 12, then complete a Middle East double dip with the Bahrain FIA WEC finale on November 18, and then the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix November 26.

It’d be a grueling stretch but one Toro Rosso may well opt for him to do so as to stop its rotating driver lineup, with Daniil Kvyat all but dismissed again following this past weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s management will have a greater sample size to judge Hartley’s potential on with at least two Grands Prix, if not four, by this stage of the season. And after Mexico this week, they’ll have their first look at a direct head-to-head matchup between Hartley and Pierre Gasly, two young drivers with a combined 3 Grand Prix starts between them entering the weekend, but two young drivers who are more in the mold of what you’d expect a Toro Rosso lineup to be.

Provided Hartley can be extricated from his potential IndyCar bow at Ganassi, if such an arrangement has already been agreed upon between the two parties, it opens up a couple intriguing possibilities with both this seat and others in the series.

One such option sees Coyne moving back to its status of “TBA” despite it wanting to keep both Jones and Sebastien Bourdais for another season.

Both Coyne and Jones said at Sonoma they hoped to reach a deal within “a couple weeks” of the Sonoma season finale but as we near the end of October, that hasn’t been done – and Coyne’s team is back to having one standing TBA driver in its lineup.

Could Jones and/or Enerson be in the frame for the Ganassi seat if it becomes available? And what then would follow at Coyne, in terms of who could line up alongside Bourdais if Jones isn’t there for a second successive season? Enerson would be a natural choice and his former Indy Lights teammate, Santiago Urrutia, is also believed to have sniffed around that team’s situation.

THE WAITING GAME

IndyCar silly season has stalled out of late, with expected confirmations coming at Schmidt Peterson and Foyt – but not at Ganassi or Carlin – in the last few weeks since the season ended at Sonoma.

The delay now sees IndyCar waiting on an F1 driver’s fate, over what is a crazy travel stretch of racing over several countries and continents.

It goes back to our pre-United States Grand Prix look at Hartley’s stunning 2017 rise, in that a guy who’s never as much even sat in IndyCar before suddenly holds the keys to the remainder of IndyCar’s 2017-2018 silly season.

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”